Startup Company Forks Over Asian Carp

Originally published on November 24, 2010 3:10 am

This week an Illinois fish processor is sending 44,000 pounds of Asian carp back to Asia as food. A small startup in Pearl, Ill., the Big River Fish Company is just one group that sees Asian carp not as a voracious, invasive species, but as a business opportunity.

Asian carp can be huge -- up to 100 pounds -- and they have been feasting on native fish in the Mississippi and Illinois rivers for years. Originally introduced to the United States in the 1970s to eat algae, the carp now threaten the Great Lakes.

But those attempting to market the fish say the tasty white meat is destined for culinary greatness, and some fishermen see the carp as the next frontier in commercial fish production.

An Unattractive Reputation

The invasive and bony Asian carp has earned a reputation that is less than appetizing, not to mention a few cringes at its unattractive appearance. Some may even call the fish ugly, but University of Illinois biologist Michael Lemke puts it more delicately.

"It's an unusual-looking fish," Lemke says. "With the eye lower than we are used to seeing them on the head, that's unusual. The carp in general might not be thought of as the prettiest fish."

For Ross Harano, though, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. As the international marketing director for Big River Fish Co., he had the idea to try to sell the fish back to Asia. But first a makeover was called for.

"We want to make this a marketing product in terms of it being wild [and nonpolluted]," Harano says. "It has so much energy it 'dances' on the water. And as a result of that we are able to market the fish to high-end restaurants."

Fishing The Chinese Market

"Nonpolluted" is a relative term used when compared with Chinese waters. To seal the deal with an interested company in China, the fish had to get past a taste test by the owner.

"We cooked all this Asian carp according to [the Chinese owner's] recipes, and I ate a lot of it, too," Harano says. "And what came out it was that he said, 'You know, this is the best carp [I've had] since [I] was a kid.' "

Harano says Asian carp has "very solid meat" that takes on the taste of sauces easily when cooked, just like white fish meat.

Big River Fish Co. freezes the fish whole to ship to China. The company operates out of a meager 12,000-square-foot plant. With no time to waste, the orders have started going out, and Big River is shipping what it can, when it can. The company received $2 million in federal funding to expand its processing plant after securing a contract with the company in China for 30 million pounds of carp meat. That expansion is expected be completed in the spring of 2011.

Rebranding By Fishermen

Big River Fish Co. works with about 100 independent fishermen to help fill its orders. An average fish weighs 30 pounds at current prices -- about $8 each to wholesalers. Abundance is not an issue, but not everyone wants China to reclaim all of this potential cash crop.

In Grafton, Ill., where the Mississippi River meets the Illinois River, fishermen can just rev the motor a bit, and hundreds of the carp fling themselves into the air.

Resident Gray Magee has tasted the carp and sees a bright future here for the fish domestically. This was once a big fishing area, known for catfish and bass. But fishermen have been leaving town since the majority of their catch now is Asian carp.

Magee insists more would stick around if they had a place to process the fish. He wants to rebrand the fish and sell it as "silverfin" carp.

"Money's part of it obviously or we couldn't do it," Magee says. "But the big part that excites us is that we can leave something here that's going to be good for not only the state of Illinois but [also] other states all the way on the inland rivers."

The Threat Remains

These new marketing strategies for the Asian carp are a way to address what environmentalists call a serious threat.

Federal and state officials are studying plans to prevent the invasive species from making it to the Great Lakes, where they could threaten a sport-fishing industry that brings in $7 billion annually.

Meanwhile the carp continue to spawn. So while they may be big, and they may be ugly, these entrepreneurs hope they may soon be what's for dinner.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now we have two stories of fish making a comeback. In the Midwest, a type of Asian carp has spawned so fast, its threatening the Great Lakes. And a fish processor in Illinois hopes to make a business opportunity out of it. The company will ship 44,000 pounds of the invasive carp back to Asia to be used on dinner tables. Jenna Dooley of member station WUIS in Springfield, Illinois, reports.

JENNA DOOLEY: Asian carp can be huge, up to 100 pounds and theyve been feasting on native fish in the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers for years. And they now threaten the Great Lakes. Hard to believe they were once invited guests, introduced in the 1970s to eat algae. And then they spawned, and spawned, and well, the rest is a history of environmental chaos.

Asian carp are ugly. University of Illinois biologist Michael Lemke puts it more delicately.

Mr. MICHAEL LEMKE (Biologist, University of Illinois): Its an unusual looking fish. We see so many different kinds of biological things its hard to call something ugly or not. But with the eye lower than we are used to seeing them on the head, thats unusual. The carp, in general, might not be thought of as the prettiest fish.

DOOLEY: For Ross Harano though, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Hes the international marketing director for Big River Fish Company in Pearl, Illinois. He had the idea to try to sell the fish back to Asia, but first a makeover was called for.

Mr. ROSS HARANO (International marketing director, Big River Fish Company): We want to make this a marketing product in terms of it being wild, it being non-polluted; it has so much energy it dances on the water. And as a result of that, we're able to market this fish to high-end restaurants.

DOOLEY: Non-polluted is a relative term, used when compared to Chinese waters. In order to seal the deal, the fish had to get past a taste test from the owner of the Chinese company interested in buying the fish. So Harano got cooking.

Mr. HARANO: Its a nice meat, its very solid meat and - plus it takes on the taste of the sauce, just like when you would order white fish at a restaurant. And we cooked all this Asian Carp according to his recipes, and I ate a lot of it too. And what came out it was that he said, you know, this is the best carp hes has since he was a kid.

DOOLEY: Big River freezes the fish whole to ship to China. The company operates out of a meager 12,000 square foot plant. With no time to waste, the orders have started going out and Big River is shipping what it can, when it can. The company got $2 million in federal dollars to expand its processing plant after securing a 30 million pound contract with China. That expansion will be complete next spring.

Big River works with about a 100 independent fishermen to help fill its orders. An average fish weighs 30 pounds. At current prices, thats worth about eight dollars to wholesalers. Luckily, abundance is not an issue, but not everyone wants China to reclaim all of this potential cash crop. In Grafton, Illinois where the Mississippi River meets the Illinois River, all you have to do is rev the motor a bit...

(Soundbite of motor up and full)

DOOLEY: ...and hundreds of the carp fling themselves into the air. Resident Gray Magee has tasted the carp and sees a bright future here, for the fish domestically. This was once a big fishing area known for catfish and bass. Fishermen have been leaving town since the majority of their catch now is Asian Carp. Magee insists more would stick around if they had a place to process them. He wants to re-brand the fish and sell it as silver fin carp.

Mr. GRAY MAGEE (Resident): Its not a money thing. Moneys part of it, obviously, or we couldnt do it. But the big part that excites us is that we can leave something here thats going to be good for, not only for the state of Illinois, but other states all the way on the inland rivers.

DOOLEY: The measures are one way to address what environmentalists call a serious threat. Federal and state officials are studying plans to prevent the carp from making it to the Great Lakes. Their presence there would threaten the Lakes $7 billion a year sport-fishing industry.

Meanwhile the carp continue to spawn. So while they may be big, and they may be ugly, these entrepreneurs hope they may soon be whats for dinner.

For NPR News, Im Jenna Dooley in Springfield, Illinois. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.