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Luciano: Turn Asian carp into cash

June 15, 2012 at 10:46 AM

Peoria Journal-Star

PEORIA — Before the Illinois River becomes a solid 273-mile-long school of Asian carp, Peoria County wants a shot at beating back the beasties.

Spurred by stories in the Journal Star about the skyward-leaping slimebags, the county’s Economic Development Department is pulling together experts to find funding and solutions to turn the invasive species into a profitable enterprise. Rural Economic Director John Hamann believes that as food or fertilizer, the fish can be transformed from a bane to a benefit.

“Is there a way to do it? Dunno,” Hamann says. “Is it cost-effective? That’s what we’re trying to find out.”

Mind you, don’t expect to see the county sheriff or County Board with nets, scooping the gooey fish out of the river.

“The county doesn’t want to get into the fishing business ourselves,” Hamann says. ” ... We just want to get the players together.”

This isn’t a new idea. About two years ago, the county talked about bandying ways to battle the carp. But the notion simply fizzled, and the problem continued to worsen.

Nowadays, Asian carp constitute 60 percent of fish in the river. Their breeding and eating grows exponentially. And though they get as big as 40 pounds around Peoria, elsewhere they’ve been known to balloon to 100 pounds.

But the county has rejuvenated its interest in the carp, because of stories recently here. Sunday, I did a column about a new charter company that facilitates bowfishing of the carp. And last month, business reporter Steve Tarter wrote a couple of stories about the difficulty in catching the carp in big enough numbers to turn a profit.

One company near the river’s mouth, Big River Fish, is harvesting the fish and sending them as food to China. But, with no other fisheries on the Illinois, there are at least 10 million pounds of Asian carp available downriver alone, with more upriver. In other words, there are plenty more problems or potential, depending on how you look at it.

Hamann sees the glass half full, of carp. His reading and contacts about the fish indicate Peoria - as a central point on the river and with a hefty population of carp - might be a prime place to launch a new venture.

“They feel Peoria is ground zero where something can be done,” Hamann says.

So, Wednesday, he is bringing together botanists, ichthyologists, legislative aides, business experts and others to chat about the potential to turn carp into cash. He thinks there are plenty of state and federal dollars viable to get an initiative going, if the brainstormers can mingle a battle plan with a business plan.

That all sounds good. However, as I asked Hamann, if big money can be made on the fish, wouldn’t investors be doing so already? In fact, such a venture - Heartland Processing - was poised to open in Havana in 2010. The idea was to grind the fish into protein supplements for livestock and Omega-3 oil for the pharmaceutical world.

But it remains pretty much dormant. John Holden, a Rockford doctor and endocrinologist who spearheaded the company, says that the state promised funding that didn’t come, because of the budget downturn.

“It’s been ready to go for three years,” he says.

Holden, who says he has invested $1 million of his own money, says the venture could be jump-started with an infusion of $2 million, from private or public sources.

As I talked to him, he expressed interest in meeting with Hamann - who, in turn, eyes Holden’s site eagerly.

“Maybe there’s something there,” Hamann says. “We’ll have to talk about that.”

The meeting is at 10 a.m. Wednesday at the County Board room at the courthouse. Because of limited space, it’s not a public meeting, but reporters can come.

So, if you have any ideas, send them here. Asian carp recipes are especially appreciated. Or just drop off prepared carp casseroles. Whatever works.

PHIL LUCIANO is a columnist with the Journal Star. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address),, 686-3155 or (800) 225-5757, Ext. 3155. Follow him on Twitter @LucianoPhil.

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