Illinois company selling millions of pounds of Asian carp to China
The State Journal-Register
It’s a question of supply and demand. In this case, supply is not the problem.
For years, invasive silver and bighead carp have choked the Illinois River and its tributaries, becoming so numerous they outweigh all other fish in the river combined.
Asian carp have been reproducing exponentially ever since they escaped from fish-rearing ponds in the southern United States and began their invasion of the Mississippi River and then the Illinois. Asian carp are prolific breeders that filter microscopic plants and animals out of the water. All fish rely on these tiny organisms — known as plankton — at some time during their life cycle. Scientists are afraid that Asian carp could at some point out-compete native fish for food.
Getting rid of them seems impossible. No one knows how to stop them, and electric fish barriers can only slow them down.
Recently, a west-central Illinois fish processing company found a way to turn an intractable problem into a business opportunity.
It’s sounds simple, really: catch them and eat them.
In reality, developing a market for Asian carp took several years, but the effort is starting to pay off.
Big River Fish Corporation in Pearl, located along the Illinois River in southeastern Pike County about 70 miles southwest of Springfield, has secured a $2 million federal grant to expand its operation after signing a contract to send 30 million pounds of Asian carp to China — ironically, the very place the invasive fish came from.
Big River Fish will move the bulk of its operation to the former purple martin birdhouse factory in Griggsville sometime in early 2011.
It’s a loaves and fishes story with a modern marketing twist.
Big River Fish has its contract with Beijing Zhuochen Animal Husbandry Co., Ltd.
The fish will be a high-end product and will be marketed as “wild Mississippi River fish,” much like cattle farmers market products such as “black Angus beef.”
Ross Harano, Big River Fish’s director of international marketing, says a representative of the Chinese company paid a visit and was served Asian carp.
The company rep liked the fish he was served and signed a memo of understanding on the spot. He returned with the company head to sign the contract with Gov. Pat Quinn in attendance last July.
“The only way this works is for us to be able to sell it as a ‘black Angus beef, wild Mississippi river fish that has so much energy it dances off the water,’” Harano says.
Asian silver carp have become famous (or infamous) for their ability to jump out of the water when startled.
“The bottom line is the Chinese like the fish, and they can’t get fish that taste this good,” Harano says.
It will take more than a slick marketing campaign to reduce the number of Asian carp.
It will take lots of hard work.
At Big River Fish, a refrigerated semi-truck is being loaded with 37,000 pounds of fresh fish on ice.
At the same time, 21-year-old John Beasley pulls up with his aluminum boat — its floor covered with gasping Asian carp pulled from the river that morning.
Beasley and Kyle Fenstermaker had been on the water before dawn, pulling up hoop nets and removing fish that can average 15 to 20 pounds each.
Asian carp can get big, although Beasley says he’s not exactly sure how much the biggest one he’s caught weighs.
“Eighty pounds at least,” he says. “I don’t know; we usually don’t weigh them one at a time.”
That morning the boat held just less than 4,000 pounds of Asian carp.
“And that was a really bad day,” Beasley says. “Normally, we would be raising half as many nets and getting twice as much.”
It takes a lot of fish to make a commercial fisherman a decent living. Common carp net seven cents a pound. Bigmouth buffalo pay better, from 25 to 30 cents. Catfish is a premium, paying 40-50 cents.
Asian carp brings 12 to 15 cents a pound, up from the going rate for the past few years of 10 cents.
“Sometimes, you don’t make a penny, and sometimes you do pretty good,” Beasley says.
Rick Smith, owner of Big River Fish, says it depends upon the buyer.
“If I get a little more, I give the fishermen a little more,” he says.
“Anytime you can get more money for it, that’s great,” Beasley says.
But higher prices could attract fishermen with dollar signs in their eyes and little practical experience.
“It could hurt the catch if a lot of inexperienced fishermen head out there and start messing things up.”
And, it’s hard, physical work.
Beasley, whose family runs a fish market in Grafton, and Fenstermaker unload the boat by hand, tossing fish into large plastic totes with ice.
Two guys and 4,000 pounds divides up to a ton of fish each.
In the bed of Beasley’s pickup truck are smaller totes full of catfish that will be chopped up and smoked for ethnic food markets.
Beasley grabs the totes and unloads them by himself, carrying the last one inside the plant.
That one weighed 128 pounds.
“It’s a back breaker,” Beasley says of his job as a commercial fisherman.
“It’s a very physical job,” says Mike Houston of Big River Fish. “It’s hard work from A to Z.”
Add to the physical demands, the expense of boats, motors, nets and fuel. Asian carp are big, but they are hard on equipment.
“You destroy nets doing it,” Beasley says. “You pretty much have to figure that as an expense.”
‘Asian carp capital’
At its current 12,000 square foot facility in Pearl, Big River Fish can process enough fish to fill a semi-truck every few days. Smith hopes to fill a truck a day or even two or three once the new plant is up and running, probably in February.
He says Pike County has agreed to accept and administer a $2 million Community Development Assistance Program grant. Big River Fish will combine $1.5 million of its own capital with the $2 million grant to buy the factory from the estate of J.L. Wade, the entrepreneur who sold purple martin houses and fine art prints. The factory will also be renovated for fish processing.
Eventually, plans call for hiring 61 employees.
Walking around the site, Smith points out where freezers will go and a processing line will be set up.
“Fish will be gutted, washed and put on individual racks. Then, they go into a blast freezer where they are flash-frozen for shipment,” Harano says.
Packages of 1,000 pounds each are loaded onto an ocean-going freezer container, and then “off to China.”
Fishermen will be able to pull their boats inside to unload — a big plus in cold weather when lots of fish are caught and sold.
Waste and entrails from the process will be converted to liquid fertilizer. Smith says a company that specializes in creating liquid organic fertilizer likely will partner with Big River Fish to handle that side of the operation.
Normally, fish entrails would be buried instead of being made into fertilizer.
“We’re going to use everything but the oink,” Harano says.
He says the fermentation process is contained in stainless steel tanks, and the odor is minimal.
“We don’t anticipate any problems because there is not going to be anything rancid,” he says. “It ferments in a tank and comes out looking like chocolate milk.”
A public hearing on the conversion of the purple martin house factory to a fish processing plant attracted a supportive, standing-room only crowd in Griggsville, Smith says.
“It is going to be a tremendous opportunity for the area,” Harano says. “We know that Pike County is the deer capital of Illinois, and now it is going to be the Asian carp capital of Illinois and the world.”
Matter of taste
The main hurdle is overcoming the stigma attached to carp. It is considered a “rough fish,” that is not particularly good to eat.
Carp also have a lot of bones, and even when filleted, still have bones to be removed.
Houston, who was packing fish in ice for shipping, says eating Asian carp requires a change in thinking.
“I didn’t believe it myself,” he says. “Until a buddy of mine scored some out for us. It’s good, sweet, white meat. They think it’s the best buffalo they’ve had.”
Harano says taking millions of pounds of Asian carp out of the river can help slow the spread of the invasive fish.
“It just makes sense if we take 20 (million) to 30 million pounds a year, it will take the pressure off the northward migration,” he says.
Meanwhile, states are busy suing each other over who is responsible for keeping Asian out of Lake Michigan.
“It’s going to happen gradually,” Harano says. “But we can help get the invasion under control.”
Chris Young can be reached at 788-1528.