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.