Selling Asian Carp to China

  • Commercial fisherman Gary Shaw shows off his silver and big head Asian carp, just before handing them off to Big River Fish, an Illinois company that has landed a major contract to send carp to a Chinese food company. (Photo courtesy of Ross Harano)

This little Asian carp went to market….

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

You probably know Illinois wants to stop Asian carp from getting into Lake Michigan. Biologists say one solution would be to fish the carp out of the Illinois River at a big, commercial scale. That way they won’t expand their feeding range to Chicago, the Great Lakes and beyond – at least, they hope. Entrepreneurs in Illinois want to get rich off Asian carp.

A draft plan to control Asian carp
An Environment Report story about another Asian carp entrepreneur

More info about the new carp deal


Shawn Allee tells us about the company that’s closest to grabbing the brass ring.

Last December, biologists got scared Asian carp were getting close to Lake Michigan, so they poisoned rivers near Chicago.

That’s when Ross Harano got a call. Harano is an international trade agent in Chicago.

“A friend of mine was in China, working for the largest beef processing company. He read about these fish being killed, poisoned, and wondered what the heck is going on because they’re a delicacy there.”

Harano’s friend works for the Beijing Zhuochen Animal Husbandry Company – it’s like the Kraft Foods of China.

“The company in china had decided to do a marketing study and they felt there was demand for a high-end, wild asian carp. Shawn: ‘Why would that be?’
All these fish they are getting now are raised in these rivers that are polluted and the farm-raised taste muddy, evidently. Shawn: ‘At least in China.’
At least in China. And so, they liked the idea of a fish that jumps out of the water and has all this energy.”

Harano’s friend asked if he could send Illinois’ perky Asian carp to China.

Harano just happened to know Big River Fish, a processor in Southwestern Illinois.

Harano said, have your company come see our fish.

“They sent a representative over who’s a food expert for their company and we cooked some Asian carp for him, according to his recipes.
Shawn: Down in southwestern Illinois.
Down in Pearl, Illinois. Mr. Yang is his name. He said this is the best Asian carp he’s had since he was a child. So, based upon that, Mr. Yang signed a memorandum saying, yes, we want to look into this further. They’re very interested in 30 million pounds of the fish. I said we don’t have that capacity, we could probably do ten.”

This meant trouble.

Harano says the Chinese company was firm: deliver thirty million pounds of carp – or no deal.

But Harano’s client, Big River Fish, would need a new factory.

And right here, Harano’s client hit a problem other Asian carp entrepreneurs hit: they’ve got ideas to sell Asian carp, but they don’t have money to expand or even start their business.

Big River Fish only had half the money … so it asked Illinois’ state government for two million dollars.

The state gave it.

“There was a gap and that’s where we step in to help meet the gap.”

This is Warren Ribley – the head of Illinois’ Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

“Anything we can do to help reduce those populations is just a good thing not only from an environmental point of view, but helps create jobs.”

Well, Ribley’s dead-on with the jobs part, but he’s kinda right on the environmental argument.

Biologists say commercial fishing can help control Asian carp, but Illinois needs huge operations, and lots of them.

The Big River company’s deal with China starts this fall. It’s a big deal, but it’s the only deal.

In fact – it’s the only company on the Illinois River that’s gotten this much state help … even though other companies hope to turn carp into pet food, fertilizer, even carp patties to feed state prisoners.

“Those are not yet as proven… this was a case with a contract they had to be ready to enter into and to deliver as many fish as you can.

Ribley says his agency is conservative with grant money because it doesn’t want to subsidize carp businesses that will fail.

But there’s no other help for Asian carp start-ups.

So for now, any Asian carp gold rush in Illinois is just gonna have to wait.

For The Environment Report, I’m Shawn Allee.

A lot of environmentalists wonder whether it makes sense to build a business on a fish a lot of people hope disappears.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.