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Asian carp invasion: Can we fish our way out of the problem?

As urgency rises over need to halt the migration of invasive Asian carp into the Great Lakes, a new solution comes forward: Eat them. Asian carp could anchor a lucrative fishing industry, some officials and biologists suggest. 

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Proponents of a carp industry say fishermen could catch many more than they do now. The problem is what comes afterward. The Mississippi Basin lacks enough processing plants, the consequence of a long decline in commercial fishing, industry and other experts say. There's also a shortage of markets. Some officials have extolled the potential for exporting large quantities of carp to China, but the logistics are difficult – the fish need to be taken quickly to scarce processing plants to be frozen, and the Chinese are very exacting about the quality – and the margins are slim.

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"There are a lot of plans out there," says Mr. McNitt, who says he gets daily calls about Asian carp. "To make them come together is very difficult."

Some argue that governments should do more to subsidize an Asian carp industry, including placing a bounty on them. Last year, Illinois gave $2 million to Big River Fish Corp., a company in Pearl, Ill., to outfit a plant that can flash-freeze carp for export. (The plant has yet to open.)

This fall, researchers at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale are conducting an experiment to determine exactly how much incentive fishermen and processors need. They have ordered a million pounds of fish meal (a product used for pet food and feed on fish farms) made from Asian carp at a cost of $1.1 million, and they are going to see what happens.

"If it's a viable model, we'll keep going with it," says Jim Garvey, a fish ecologist.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is getting Americans to eat Asian carp. "They look horrible," Mr. Brooks says. "They're bony." Yet, as he and others attest, they taste just fine.

Efforts to market the fish in the United States have been slow to take hold. One of the few restaurants serving Asian carp regularly is Beasley's Fish Market in Grafton, Ill. The eatery began offering carp as a special last spring after patrons started asking about it.

"Mostly they were surprised that it was good," says Deborah Beasley, the restaurant's manager. "In this area, if you just say 'carp,' it has a very negative connotation."

Not everyone is enthusiastic about large-scale fishing for carp. Some biologists worry that a big Asian carp industry would create pressure to maintain carp populations, not get rid of them. Still, it's hard for some to resist a fish that has become so abundant.

"We're finding new ways to use it all the time," says McNitt. "We make jerky. We're setting up to make hot dogs. We're going to make fish sandwiches, breaded or unbreaded. There's a worldwide need for cheap protein, and I think it's one of those things that fit the bill. I think the future is bright for this fish."

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