In 1673, French explorer Père Marquette traveled down the Illinois River. In his journal, he wrote of encounters with "monstrous fish" so large they nearly overturned his canoe. In all likelihood the fish Marquette was talking about were channel catfish, but nearly 340 years later another monster now harasses boaters on the Illinois -– the Asian Carp.
"Oh everybody hates ‘em, except for people that shoot ‘em and stuff like that. I hate ‘em when I’m trying to tube with my kids, but then when we’re trying to shoot ‘em I like them. So it’s a love-hate thing," said Josh Havens, a fisherman.
Bowfishing for jumping carp may be fun, but the sheer volume of carp is crowding out native fish, so much in fact that in parts of the river 8 out of every 10 fish is an Asian carp.
Originally from China, fish farmers in the South began importing Asian Carp in the 1970s to help clean their commercials ponds. The fish have since spread up the Mississippi and tributaries like the Illinois. They’re an ecological threat to be sure, but some are starting to see them as an asset.
"We should be thinking about these invasive species as opportunities for us to focus on economic development," said Marc Miller, director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, speaking to residents in the tiny river town of Grafton, Ill., just northwest of St. Louis.
Miller is bullish on carp in part because of new companies like Grafton’s American Heartland Fish Products, which hopes to start processing and selling carp later this year.
"I mean who else can take lemons and turn them into lemonade like providing an opportunity for 39 jobs here in this community, that’s what we’re doing with the Asian carp," he said.
Carp are considered too boney for American tastes, but they are wildly popular in China, where pollution has made many fish unsafe to eat. Demand for the fish has lured Chinese investors to the U.S. to strike export deals. Investor Lu Xu Wu was also on hand in Grafton to announce a partnership with American Heartland to ship 35 million pounds of carp to China over the next three years.
Speaking through an interpreter Lu thanked the community for the investment opportunity. The fish caught here will be marketed as “upper Mississippi wild-caught” carp, with “so much energy they can jump.” So far however, Chinese demand hasn’t necessarily meant profits for U.S. producers.
"You just absolutely can’t make any money. The margins are too close," said Steve McNitt, sales manager for Schafer Fish in Northwest Illinois. Schafer has experimented with selling carp to China, but at 45 cents per pound, the price is too low to cover costs and turn a profit.
"I’m telling you the truth, there is absolutely no way you can do it for that kind of money," he said.
Economics aside, many ecologists also warn that building an industry based on an invasive species might only further establish the carp in American rivers. But Ben Allen, owner of American Heartland Fish, says he expects to not only control the population of carp, but ultimately beat it back.
"Of course that’s what we’re hoping to get, we want to move these fish out of the river. And we’re going to attract people that have large boats and want to go out and work hard and bring in a lot of weight," said Allen.
He doesn’t see China as the sole market for his carp -- rendering patents will also allow his company to tap into the booming trade for fishmeal, used in animal feed and Omega-3 fish oil.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Grafton, Ill., is northeast of St. Louis.