Carp(e) Diem: Kentucky Sends Invasive Fish To China

Mar 24, 2014
Originally published on March 24, 2014 7:47 pm

The invasive Asian carp has now been found in 12 states and in the Great Lakes watershed, gobbling up native fish, jumping aggressively into boats and reproducing like crazy. Researchers have tried various ways to slow the spread of the fish as it prowls other waterways.

And, so far, efforts to introduce the big, bony fish to American diners haven't caught on. So now a processing plant in Kentucky is trying the latest method of Asian carp disposal: sending them to China.

At Two Rivers Fisheries in far western Kentucky, Manager Jeff Smith heaves open the large door of the plant's freezer. Inside there are hundreds of rock-hard Asian carp. They're several feet long and hang in tight rows. Before they get here, several employees gut the fish and hang them in the plant's closed-in processing area.

But they won't stay in this facility long. Plant owner Angie Wu ships them to her native country — China — where they are a prized food. "There are a lot [of carp] in China but most of them are farmed ... not very clean as here," she says.

Wu has shipped more than a half-million pounds of processed carp to China.

Other plants have found markets for Asian carp. In Mississippi, one company uses the fish for pet food and fertilizer. In Illinois, Mike Schafer at Schafer Fisheries distributes the carp to Chinese communities in the U.S. and Canada, where it is valued as a cheap and plentiful source of protein.

"Even Cuba raises the silver carp to feed their people," he says.

Asian carp hasn't caught on in U.S. restaurants, but that hasn't stopped Kentucky from trying to teach people how to prepare it.

At a fishing tournament at Kentucky Lake in Gilbertsville, a man shows the crowd how to carve up and debone the fish. The state has also hosted tastings to show people that when you fry Asian carp in cornmeal, it's not that different from catfish.

While some people say it tastes like cod or scallops, our Sandwich Monday pals recently tried Asian carp sliders, courtesy of the city of Chicago, and the verdict was pretty negative.

Still, Kentucky officials are aggressively trying to get rid of the fish. They're concerned about its voracious appetite. They're worried about the region's $1.2 billion tourism industry.

The carp has even changed the business model for one longtime fishermen and distributor, Ronnie Hopkins. The outgoing message on his voice mail now says: "If you're calling about someone to get your Asian carp, you've got the right person. So leave a short message and we will call you back."

Hopkins says it is possible to make a living on Asian carp, but it's not easy. He says native fish sell for about 60 cents a pound — the abundant carp go for just 10 cents a pound ... and that's if he can find a local buyer.

"I wish the state would get more involved and maybe use it as product in our schools. We're buying from other countries and other states right now when we've got an abundance of fish we could use," says Hopkins.

Almost all federal funding for Asian carp management goes to the Great Lakes, where the concern is reaching crisis proportions, as we've previously reported. Meanwhile, officials in Kentucky are looking for their own solutions — including adding another processing plant.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

An update now on Asian carp. The invasive fish is found in 12 states and in the Great Lakes. Researchers have tried various ways to slow the fish as it invades other waterways. Now a processing plant in Kentucky is taking a new approach: Catching the Asian carp and sending it to China.

Whitney Jones of the member station WKMS reports.

WHITNEY JONES, BYLINE: At Two Rivers Fisheries in far western Kentucky, manager Jeff Smith heaves open the large door of the plant's freezer. Inside there are hundreds of rock-hard Asian carp. They're several feet long and hang in tight rows. Before they get here, several employees gut the fish and hang them in the plant's closed-in processing area.

They won't stay in this facility long. Plant owner Angie Wu ships them to her native country, China, where she says most people prefer fresh fish. But Kentucky's carp have one advantage.

ANGIE WU: There are a lot in China, but most of them are farmed. Not very clean as here, kind of polluted. So our wild fish compared with the farmed ones are better taste and more healthy.

JONES: Wu has shipped more than a half-million pounds of processed carp to China. Other plants have found markets for Asian carp, too. In Mississippi, one company uses the fish for pet food and fertilizer. In Illinois, Mike Schafer at Schafer Fisheries distributes it to ethnic communities in the U.S. and also exports the fish to third world countries.

MIKE SCHAFER: Especially the silver carp is used worldwide as food source to feed mass people, you know, with a cheap protein source. Even Cuba raises silver carp to feed their people.

JONES: Asian carp hasn't caught on in U.S. restaurants. The fish are bony. But that hasn't stopped Kentucky from trying to teach people how to prepare the carp.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And then what you do is you start turning your knife and filleting away from those bones.

JONES: At this fishing tournament at Kentucky Lake in Gilbertsville, a man shows the crowd how to carve up and debone the fish. The state has also hosted tastings to show people that when you fry Asian carp in cornmeal, it's not that different from catfish.

Kentucky officials are aggressively targeting the Asian carp. They're concerned about its voracious appetite, gobbling up food faster than native fish. They're worried about the region's $1.2 billion tourism industry. The fish have even changed the business model for one longtime fisherman and distributor. Just listen to Ronnie Hopkins' voicemail.

(SOUNDBITE OF VOICEMAIL)

JONES: Hopkins says it's possible to make a living on Asian carp, but it's not easy. He says native fish sell for about 60 cents a pound. The abundant carp go for just 10 cents a pound, and that's if he can find a local buyer.

: I wish the state would get more involved in maybe using those as product in our schools. We're buying from other countries and other states right now when we've got an abundance of fish that we could use.

JONES: Almost all federal funding for Asian carp management goes to the Great Lakes. But officials in Kentucky are still looking to rid their waterways of the fish, including adding another processing plant. For NPR News, I'm Whitney Jones. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.