What do you do with a bony, ugly, jumpy, fat, fugitive fish that's taken over the Mississippi and Illinois rivers and threatens the ecology of the Great Lakes?
Grind them into fish sticks and feed them to the poor.
That's the latest strategy from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources in its tussle with the Asian carp. The department plans to process tons of the fish and donate it to food banks, including the St. Louis Area Food Bank.
"We'll filet them and pull the bones out and turn them into fish sticks, or the equivalent of canned tuna," says Tom Main, acting deputy director at the DNR. "The fish actually taste pretty good."
Main has a lot of dead fish on his hands. The state pays commercial fishermen to pull Asian carp out of the northern Illinois River. It's in effort to keep them out of the canal and rivers that connect to Lake Michigan, which is, so far, nearly Asian-carp-free.
"We've pulled out 150 tons just this year," he says.
Great Lakes states fear that the carp may wreak havoc on the lakes' fishing industry, as its already done on rivers farther south.
In the lower Illinois and Mississippi, a dwindling industry of commercial fishermen is vexed by an Asian carp infestation that's driving out the more valuable catfish and buffalo fish. They drop their nets hoping for buffalo and drag up tons of carp instead.
"You might have to handle 3,000 carp for every 1,000 buffalo," says John Ahrling of Godfrey, vice president of the Illinois Commercial Fishing Association. They often throw the carp back.
In 2008, Asian carp made up 82 percent of the commercial catch on the Illinois River and 30 percent on the Mississippi, according to the Illinois DNR.
Not only are Asian carp invasive, they're assaultive. The silver variety jump out of the water, sometimes 8 feet high, and knock fishermen from their boats. They can weigh 50 pounds and more.
To the DNR, the solution is obvious: Get Americans to eat them.
Lots of people already do, but they're in China. Big River Fish Corp. in Pearl, Ill., has a contract to supply 30 million pounds of carp to the Chinese. The fish are gutted and flash frozen in Pearl, about 70 miles north of St. Louis, then sent by rail to ships on the West Coast. The company also processes carp for use as gefilte fish for Jews in the U.S.
Rick Smith, Big River's president, says he also has had feelers from prison officials about feeding carp to prisoners. But beyond that, the carp haven't tempted the American palate. So lots of surplus carp are ground up as animal feed.
Main plans a roundabout marketing effort to get Americans to love bony fish. "It's not sustainable for the government to finance this forever," he says.
That's where food pantries come in. If the state can present carp in a way that poor people like, word may spread. Then maybe the state can get supermarkets to bite.
The DNR is working with Feeding Illinois, an association of food pantries. Carp is a good source of protein, says Tracy Smith, Feeding Illinois' director, and other sources are getting expensive. The price of a truckload of tuna has risen from $45,000 to $75,000.
"I really like the way the DNR is handling this," she said.
Frank Finnegan, director of the St. Louis Area Food Bank, remains noncommittal. He's worried that his clients may not like the taste and that the food bank may have to pay for shipping and storage.
Selling supermarkets on carp may be tougher. "Carp is a four-letter word," says Kevin Irons, aquaculture and aquatic nuisance manager for the Illinois DNR. People confuse Asian carp, a plankton-eater, with the American variety, which are bottom feeders and taste worse.
"The reason it's so popular in Asia is that it's like tofu. It absorbs the flavor of sauces and spices," said Tracy Smith of the food bank association.
Supplying carp is no problem at all. Last fall, Big River got an emergency call from a customer in Iowa who found himself short 38,000 pounds of carp for gefilte fish. "Bring your truck down here," Smith suggested.
Smith called the commercial fishermen who supply his plant. The next day, 38,000 pounds of Asian carp were waiting for the truck.
Illinois' professional fishermen like Main's idea. As it is, Big River Fish pays 50 cents a pound for catfish but only 15 cents per pound for Asian carp. And that's up from only 8 cents before the Chinese market developed.
Last Sunday morning, as temperatures pushed into the 80s, Jeff Squier pulled a Dodge Ram pickup into Big River's lot. It was towing a 22-foot boat, its center filled with 3,233 pounds of carp, some of them still squirming. Big River would pay $485 for the entire haul.
With Squier was his 19-year-old son, Tyler, and friend Tucker Baalman, 20. They woke up at 4 a.m. to hit the river by 5. They spent the morning pulling up the hoop nets they had set in the river two days before.
"Everybody thinks it's easy to catch fish. It's not," said Todd Squier.
Jeff Squier is an insurance man by day, running an agency in Hardin. His son and his friend are students at Lewis and Clark Community College in Godfrey.
They're fairly typical of Illinois commercial fishermen these days. The decline of catfish, buffalo and other valuable species has made it harder to make a living. So, lots of fishermen hold other jobs.
Of the 1,200 licensed commercial fishermen in Illinois, only 300 are fairly active and only 120 depend on it for their livelihood. Ahrling, of the fishing association, says only a handful specialize in catching carp. "Until there's a market established for Asian carp," he says, "you'd be foolish to do it."
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