For many years there have been a number of fruitless efforts to remove the invasive Asian carp from the Illinois River. But a renewed sense of excitement exists with an new initiative set to open this summer along the riverbank in East Peoria.
If you have trouble deciding what to order at the carryout window at Carters Fish Market in Springfield, Clint Carter recommends you try the silver fin.
“People like the word silver fin better,” said Carter. “But we want them to know its Asian carp.”
With the Silver Fin moniker and boneless deep fried fillets, Carter is one of many business owners in Central Illinois who has worked for years to get more people eating Asian carp, despite its bad reputation.
“You have to build the market, you have to put something quality out there,” said Carter.
“They’re invasive fish, brought into the US back in the 1970s,” said Kevin Irons, assistant chief of the fisheries division at Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
“It was brought over to make catfish ponds down south cleaner, so we have cleaner healthier catfish. It was thought of as a win-win because it also was a desirable product, a good-eating flesh known worldwide," he said.
But despite its apparent tastiness, the market potential of those transplanted Asian carp species as a food product has never really materialized. And the result has been an explosion of the Asian carp population that now accounts for around 70% of the total biomass in the Illinois River. This has caused a major disruption to the river’s ecosystem and continues to threaten numerous major waterways in the midwest.
So what stopped the industry from taking off? One big factor is that fishing on the Illinois River just isn’t what it used to be.
“120 years ago it was very vibrant,” said Irons. “We don't have that backbone, the infrastructure, logistics, and sheer number of fishermen so we have to start from the very beginning.”
So, where to begin? Well, in recent years, conservationists, planning organizations, and entrepreneurs have all rallied around a 2018 action plan commissioned by Illinois DNR that provides a clear road map for turning this ecological nightmare into a scalable economic development opportunity. One of the key suggestions was the need to make Asian carp profitable for commercial fishermen.
“A lot of the recommendations involved having a fishing coop,” said Sean Park with the Illinois Cooperative Development Center at Western Illinois University.
“So we put together what we believe to be the first fishing coop in the region, especially for Asian carp.”
Park has led the work to pull together 11 independent fishing crews that plan to join forces to catch and process large quantities of Asian carp, and then share in the resulting profits.
Clint Carter is the president of this newly formed enterprise, the Midwest Fisherman's Cooperative.
“I think it's got a lot of potential,” said Carter. “The end goal is to get these fish out of the water and create some jobs.”
The potential success of the cooperative lies with the development of key infrastructure such as freezing, transportation, and processing.
Roy Sorce of Sorce Enterprises in East Peoria has been involved in the cooperative and is currently expanding the capabilities at his riverside facility to provide those services to Asian carp fishermen.
“Just in the Peoria Pool we can harvest 20 million pounds a year and still not make a dent in the population,” said Sorce. “Our goal is to try to harvest at least 15 million pounds a year in just this one facility.”
Sorce also noted that the added capacity at his facility could, over time, add up to 20 direct jobs and up to an additional 80 indirect jobs.
With this job creation and new business opportunity on the horizon, efforts are being made to connect this emerging industry with Peoria’s minority communities.
Denise Moore, the executive director of Peoria’s Minority Business Development Center, says this emerging industry holds economic development potential for Black entrepreneurs and other minority communities in the Peoria area.
“I think this is going to be an opportunity for folks who live on the Southside, even folks who live in the North Valley, to become part of a supply chain that they can explore and develop,” said Moore.
Moore also stressed the need for continued, intentional outreach to minorities through community media outlets to ensure equitable access to this emerging Asian carp industry as it finds its footing in the region.
Learn more about the new Midwest Fishing Cooperative at www.midwestfishcoop.com.
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