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Carp introduced to help Mid-South catfish farms plague Mississippi River tributaries
By Scott Shepard
M
emphis Business Journal
Published April 7, 2006

Fish first brought to the Mid-South to serve as janitors in catfish ponds have become a scourge of Southern waterways -- and perhaps a new industry for the Midwest.

Three species of carp with voracious appetites for algae were imported to the U.S. to help clean catfish ponds in Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama, but after major flooding in 1993 they were flushed into tributaries of the Mississippi River. Another species, the black carp, was imported because it eats snails, which harbor flukes that kill catfish. In 1994 it was found in the Osage River in Missouri.

Today the carp have taken over much of the Mississippi River, displacing native fish by devouring the algae and insect larvae that most fish depend on. The infestation is worse in the Mid-South, but people in Illinois are taking the first steps to control the carp. In parts of the upper river system, exotic carp account for 75% of fish populations, and sport fishermen complain about 60-pound carp that won't take a hook, but as is their habit will leap out of the water with body slams.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife is now working with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to stem the spread of the fish in a series of rivers and canals the Mississippi connects to Lake Michigan at Chicago. The great fear is that the carp may spread into the Great Lakes and wreak havoc on the ecosystem.

Amidst all this anxiety, an Illinois legislator sees the carp as a business opportunity everyone has missed.

"I'm taking the approach that if we can't do anything else with the fish, then let's eat them," says state Sen. Mike Jacobs, D-Moline.

He's asking the Illinois Legislature for $750,000 to jump-start a commercial processing plant that can turn the pestilent carp into fish sticks. The first likely markets would be institutional users like public schools, prisons and food relief programs in the U.S. and overseas.

What can't be used for food can be converted into cattle feed or garden fertilizer. ADM/Alliance Nutrition in Quincy, Ill., already processes fish waste into high-protein cattle feed.

Jacobs has an evolving plan, but so far has gotten mostly snickers from his peers in the state capitol at the very idea of eating a carp.

40 miles upstream from Jacobs' district, Schafer Fisheries has already found some demand for Asian carp, mostly by freezing the heads. Carp head soup is a Chinese delicacy. Unlike domestic carp, owner Michael Schafer says Asian carp is a top feeder and yields a mild flavored meat akin to pollack. Carp are too bony for filets, but make good fish patties.

River fish may seem unappealing to Memphians, who drink artesian well water and only dump their waste in the river, but that's not the case in the North.

"A lot of people have the wrong impression of the river," Schafer says. "The water quality is better now than ever, and most municipalities along this river actually draw their drinking water from it."

Jacobs is surprised that nobody else so far has recognized the commercial potential of Asian carp, essentially 110-pound lumps of meat waiting to be netted. The carp are over-fished in China, creating a potential export market. One project now is to find a better name so consumers won't be creeped out by eating carp sticks.

Chilean sea bass is neither from Chile nor is it a bass. It only became popular when its name was changed from Antarctic toothfish.

sshepard@bizjournals.com | 259-1724

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