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Asian Carp: Can't Beat Them? Eat Them

Silver Asian carp are giant, skittish fish. This one lept out of the water in the wake of a fishing boat traveling up the Illinois River near Henry, Ill.
David Schaper, NPR
Silver Asian carp are giant, skittish fish. This one lept out of the water in the wake of a fishing boat traveling up the Illinois River near Henry, Ill.
Commercial fisherman Jeremy Fisher yanks a bighead Asian carp out of a tangled mess of nets before it joins the rest of the day's catch in the bottom of the boat.
David Schaper, NPR /
Commercial fisherman Jeremy Fisher yanks a bighead Asian carp out of a tangled mess of nets before it joins the rest of the day's catch in the bottom of the boat.
Eric Leis of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service takes a tissue sample from a bighead carp. Government scientists want to learn more about the voracious, invasive species, including whether they carry bacteria or viruses harmful to native species.
David Schaper, NPR /
Eric Leis of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service takes a tissue sample from a bighead carp. Government scientists want to learn more about the voracious, invasive species, including whether they carry bacteria or viruses harmful to native species.

In the Midwest, Asian carp are making their way up the Mississippi River and its tributaries. The foreign invaders can grow to be 80 to 100 pounds. They're ravenous eaters, consuming up to 40 percent of their own body weight in plankton each day. And they're bullies, pushing out weaker, native species.

The good news: An electric barrier has kept bighead and silver carp — the two most aggressive types — from advancing beyond a lock and dam on the Illinois River, about 50 miles southwest of Chicago. For now, they have yet to enter Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes ecosystem.

But downriver, bighead and silver carp are rapidly taking over parts of the Illinois. And one way to control the population can be phrased this way: "If you can't beat 'em, eat 'em."

Let Loose in the Mississippi

Asian carp were introduced to the United States in the early '70s to control algae in catfish farms in the South. Floods washed them into the Mississippi River in the 1980s. They've worked their way upriver ever since.

The carp thrive in the Illinois River, a tributary of the Mississippi. For the past five years, Eric Leis has been part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service "carp corral" teams. They net fish in various locations on the Illinois to determine how far upstream Asian carp have moved and how fast their population is growing. Leis says this year, there are more Asian carp than ever before.

Biologists with the Illinois Natural History Survey see initial signs that Asian carp may be starting to crowd out two native species of fish — gizzard shad and largemouth buffalo. Commercial fishermen agree.

From Ruin to Riches

"We used to fish for Buffalo and stuff, and we'd catch these [carp] accidentally," says commercial fisherman Orion Briney. He says bighead Asian carp began filling his nets several years ago and quickly cut into his ability to make a living.

So the third-generation fisherman changed course. And now the carp are Briney's bread and butter: He focuses his fishing on Asian carp.

The fish weigh at least 15-to-25 pounds each, and some are much larger. They fetch about 14 cents a pound. That's not a lot, but Briney says the huge volume of carp he catches more than makes up for the low price-per-pound. Since he started fishing for carp, Briney says he's doubled his income.

Briney used to think carp were ugly. "But now, I think they look pretty good," he says, laughing, noting that they bring "about $4 a fish."

A Growing Market

On a recent day, Briney and his stepson, Jeremy Fisher, took in about 10,000 to 12,000 pounds of Asian carp from the Illinois River. Their catch ended up at Schafer Fisheries, a processing plant in Thomson, Ill.

Plant owner Mike Schafer has spent the last seven years developing a market for Asian carp. He says his company sells more than 2 million pounds each year — mostly in Asian-American communities in California, New York and Chicago.

The carp now account for 20-30 percent of Schafer's business. He hopes that a new flash freezer he invested in will help him start selling to China and other Asian markets.

Illinois State Senator Mike Jacobs also wants to expand the market for Asian carp. For one thing, he'd like to see it on the menu in state prisons.

"Some people say that smoked, it's better than salmon," Jacobs says of Asian carp's taste. But the name "carp" is likely putting non-ethnic Americans off trying the fish, he says.

"Chilean Sea Bass wasn't always known as Chilean Sea Bass," Jacobs notes. "There was a time it was known as a Patagonian Toothfish, and people wouldn't eat it."

His suggested name-change? "I'm from Rock Island, so I'm thinking of 'Rock Island Sole,'" Jacobs muses. "Schafer Fisheries is near Savanna, [Ill.,] so Savanna Sole might work, too."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.

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