The Mississippi River and other waterways in the state have been invaded, and the enemy is Asian carp.
Introduced in the 1970s to control weed and parasite growth, Asian carp — also known as silver carp — are now a major nuisance. But a solution might come from thousands of miles away. In China.
The most obvious — and startling — nuisance is when Asian carp, usually weighing around 20 pounds each, leap out of the water and into boats, occasionally striking people on board. Rather than dive deeper in the water as other fish do when threatened, these fish jump up to 10 feet out of the water.
Asian carp also may be harming the native fish population in Mississippi waterways by consuming massive amounts of plankton and wiping out the habitat and food supply of species such as bass and crappie.
“We’ve done a little bit of research in comparing our fish population before silver carp got into a particular body of water and how the sports fish have been affected by silver carp,” says Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks fisheries biologist Darrin Hardesty.
“We take the relative weight of the fish, lengths, just sheer numbers, catch per mile type situation,” he says. “And compare that to some historical data that we have for some particular bodies of water, and there’s definitely a sign of a decrease in those parameters.”
Asian carp reproduce rapidly and they grow quickly, limiting the time they are small enough to be the prey of species such as gar, bass and catfish.
“It’s just sheer abundance,” Hardesty says.
So if native fish don’t eat a lot of Asian carp, and Americans typically won’t eat Asian carp because they don’t like the taste and the multitude of bones, what is there to do?
Keith Schneller, a business consultant who has worked with China through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agriculture Service for 24 years, hopes the Asian market can come to the rescue.
Schneller got the idea after reading an article by Boyce Upholt about the problems Asian carp have caused here in Mississippi and the one place in the state, Moon River Foods in Sunflower County, a subsidiary of Chinese company Shanghai Shen Ran Trade Co. Ltd., that processes Asian carp.
“Chinese enjoy eating carp … and we have an overabundance of carp here, and we’re worried about the carp moving up to the Great Lakes, so we’re just trying to figure out if there might be a use for some of the carp here in Mississippi,” Schneller says.
Schneller and Jun Wang, a marketing specialist for the Embassy of the United States in Beijing, brought a delegation of four food manufacturers and two professors from China to Vicksburg to see what they think about America’s Asian carp.
“I think the fish tastes so well. It’s really beyond my expectation,” says Wang. ”In China the taste of the carp, if you taste it for the first time, it might take you a couple of times to get used to it.”
Others in the group also said they enjoyed the taste of one fish that was roasted on the bank of the river after it jumped into a boat, and they were surprised by the big chunks of white flesh.
There isn’t a shortage of this species of carp in China — it’s commonly raised on farms in aquaculture there — but Schneller believes the sheer amount of seafood consumed in China may offer an opportunity for export.
One major obstacle to establishing this new trade is the culture of Chinese cooking. According to Wang, Chinese people are used to cooking with fresh ingredients.
“The thing is how do we move the fish in a nice way to China?” asked Wang. “If it has to be frozen then it may lose some of its nice taste.”
Getting the price up to a point where fishermen are willing to target Asia is another obstacle. Asian carp currently sells here for 10 cents a pound.
This trip to the United States was a fact-finding mission with business representatives from six different companies, Schneller says.
“Some might want to import some of these raw materials for processing in China, and I think some of these companies might be willing to find investment partners in the United States,” Schneller says.
Until then, keep your head on a swivel when operating a boat in parts of the Mississippi River and its tributaries.