Paul Hartfield's birthday tradition is very Mississippi — he takes his boat out on the river to catch himself some lunch. But the fish he's after, silver carp, makes for unusual game. You may be more familiar with another name for this fish: Asian carp. That label, which includes several species of invasive carp, is often invoked in doomsday headlines. These fish terrify boaters by flinging their great heft seven or more feet out of the water; they destroy the habitat and food supply of native fish by devouring plankton at a prodigious rate.
Asian carp, native mostly to Chinese River systems, entered the Mississippi River in the Deep South more than forty years ago. The animated maps that chart the carp's steady progress up the Mississippi and its tributaries look like something from a zombie movie, with dots pulsing up and across the continent. And the fear is real. If the carp cross the Chicago canal into the Great Lakes, they will threaten the region's $7 billion-a-year fishery. The government is fighting. For more than a decade, an electric barrier has spanned the Illinois River downstream from the canal; this summer, a lock near Minneapolis was shuttered after 50 years in operation—meant to halt the fish, but stopping human traffic, too. Many argue that the canal should be closed, which would mean severing a century-old link between two great American waterways, and could cost $18 billion.
But it may already be too late. Although no carp have been found in the Great Lakes, water samples have tested positive for their genetic material—twice. Down in Mississippi, Hartfield is concerned. He's an endangered species biologist who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "They are an ecological problem," he tells me as we launch onto the river at Vicksburg. But as he pilots his fishing boat, white-bearded and baseball-capped, he grins. He's happy to be on the river. He's focused on the upside: his lunch is in strong supply. And he says silver carp might just be the best-tasting fish on this river.
Two weeks earlier, Matthew Horner opened his fridge to show me a bowl of fish, steamed and cut into cubes. Horner is the operations manager at Moon River Foods, the first company in Mississippi to process and sell Asian carp for consumption, and he has colleagues who regularly cook the fish. He was not brave enough to try these cubes, though.
"It's good if it's cooked right," he said.
The headquarters for Moon River are out on the back roads of Sunflower County, surrounded by miles of soybeans in the fading remains of a little town called Baird. Once all swampland, this country was rapidly cleared and settled after the Civil War, creating a patchwork of plantations and country towns. Speculators made big money as cotton boomed, but by mid-century agricultural mechanization had decimated the workforce. Most counties here have lost half or more of their population since 1940. The majority of the remaining residents are African American, often descendants of the laborers who cleared the swamps and worked the fields. Unemployment in Sunflower County is nearly double the national rate; the median household income, at $27,000, is just over half the national median. Intermittent attempts to jumpstart the economy all seem to fail. This factory, for example, was built to process catfish, an industry that at its peak in the mid-2000s was a key local source of jobs. But over the past few years, local catfish farming has withered against foreign competition.
Now it is foreign investment that has the plant running again. After more than a half-decade sitting empty, the plant has a strange mix of flags fluttering out front: next to the Mississippi flag and its controversial Confederate saltire is the five-starred red flag of the People's Republic of China. Moon River is a subsidiary of Shanghai Shen Ran Trade Co., Ltd., a Chinese company—which helps explain why its employees, some of whom are Chinese citizens, eat the fish. "Carp is a delicacy over there," Horner says.
There is the demand to match the Mississippi River's staggering supply. It's hard to measure precisely, but as of six years ago, Chinese per capita fish consumption was nearly 70 pounds a year. Almost half that fish is freshwater, with carp by far the most common freshwater species consumed. The same year, total per capita seafood consumption in the U.S. was only 16 pounds.
Last summer, when Moon River announced a $3 million investment to open the plant, it seemed like a godsend. The company projected a daily output of 50 tons of fish—over 25 million pounds a year—and 100 new jobs. The state, which offered the company workforce training and tax exemption, posted a press release quoting praise from the governor.
As I pulled up to Horner's house, he was speaking on his cell phone. It was one of those days: A driver, lost near Jackson, was running hours behind; the summer-long high water on the river made it hard to catch fish; the heat, some of the worst in decades, made it hard to transport what little was caught. Now a chiller unit was on the fritz. Before Horner could authorize repairs, he had to speak to a translator to convey his intentions to company executives. For Horner, many days are like this. He's on and off the phone with the government, he said, ensuring everything is in legal compliance. He rattled off the acronyms: USDC, FDA, SIP, NOAA. "We're in the market for a fish that China wants," he said. "And our government wants it out of this country."
Embedded in that statement is a kind of question: If there's so much supply and so much demand, how can this be so hard?
"I call this the Heart of Darkness tour," Paul Hartfield, the biologist, says as he steers off the Mississippi and into a narrower channel. As if on cue, the boat rattles. A carp has mistimed its leap, hitting our bottom. A flash of silver streaks the air—another fish flying by.
Hartfield's fishing strategy is based on this peculiar behavior. It's a fear response; while many fish dive deeper, carp fling themselves from the water. If Hartfield finds the right stretch of river, the fish will jump right into his boat.
A typical silver carp is a fast-moving 20-pound projectile—and, although it's rare, other Asian carp species have been known to hit 100 pounds. As Hartfield turns into a narrower chute, I prepare myself: I secure my camera and sunglasses in my bag and zip up my life vest to pad my chest. The concern about the fish has as much to do with their physical threat as it does with their impact on ecosystem. I have met experienced fishermen who tuck themselves hands over head at the bottom of the boat when navigating some backchannels. One told me he was knocked unconscious by a carp and woke to his boat spinning circles on the river.
We are near the epicenter of the outbreak. The fish was introduced across the river in Arkansas aquaculture ponds in 1973. This was, ironically, a response to ecological concerns: the Clean Water Act was passed the year before, and Asian carp was seen as a chemical-free way to remove plankton. But the carp quickly found their way out of the ponds and onto the river.
Despite their long tenure, the effect of Asian carp is not fully understood. Hartfield calls this stretch of the Mississippi one of the most understudied rivers in the country. Yet the record Mississippi floods of 2011, though devastating, offered a boon in biological data. Asian carp were pushed into alluvial lakes where they had never been found before, lakes for which local biologists did possess data. By comparing two newly infested lakes with two lakes that remain carp-free, one state scientist found that catch rates of bass and crappie in the infested lakes have decreased by 66 and 78 percent, respectively. Those fish that are caught are smaller—a 17-percent weight reduction for crappie—and take more than a year longer to reach full size. Commercial fishermen I interviewed said they'd seen the similar effects on the size of buffalo fish caught on the river.
What we do know about carp helps explain why they are problematic. Carp are incredibly fecund, laying hundreds of thousands of eggs at a time. They grow incredibly quickly, which limits their exposure to predators. They live for twenty years. They are adapted for the fast waters of the Yangtze and, on the Illinois, they have been known to travel up to 250 miles in one spring and summer. And they live at the bottom of the food chain, an excellent place to wreak ecological havoc, especially when they can eat so much so quickly.
Today the fish are acting funny, waiting to leap until after we pass. They fly through our wake, but none land in the boat. Hartfield says typically he'd have five fish by now.
"This is the problem with a carp fishery," he says later. A fisherman might learn where to find the fish in one season; but a few months later, once the weather and water levels change, they will have moved to an entirely new spot. "You can't depend on them."
Most Americans wrinkle their nose at the idea of eating Asian carp, in part because of those fear-mongering headlines. In many places, it is illegal to return caught carp to the water, which makes it easy to imagine this is some tainted, radioactive fish. Some states do advise consumers limit carp consumption to once per month, or sometimes even less frequently. But the website of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks reminds fishermen in bold letters that this fish "can be consumed."
Its name is a problem. The taste of common carp—another invasive species, longer tenured—is almost universally panned. There have been rebranding attempts; some call silver carp silverfin or Kentucky tuna. So far neither name has stuck.
Then there are the bones. Americans tend to prefer a boneless filet, and Asian carp is bony. Other processing plants offer innovative, bone-free products, but few sound appetizing. There are carp burgers, carp hot dogs, carp jerky—even ground carp. Moon River has its own innovation. The plant in Baird is one of the first in the country to produce surimi, or imitation crabmeat, from carp. Horner told me some of the techniques used in the surimi line were "experimental," which is why we met at his house.
Moon River's big bet, though, is on flash-frozen fish shipped to Asia. Due to overfishing, most Chinese carp is now grown in ponds; wild carp is a premium product. But Chinese consumers often prefer to buy fish live. A few other companies have succeeded; Schafer Fisheries, a company based in Illinois, where carp are even more common, has sold as much as 20 million pounds a year abroad. But after just over a year of operation in Mississippi, Moon River is only now seeing how its product will fare. As this story went to press, Horner was finalizing the certificates needed to export a second 40,000-pound batch of fish overseas.
In their initial press release, Moon River projected that they would process more than that each day. I asked Horner about those claims.
"We can run those numbers," he said. "The fish is there. It just takes time getting everything ironed out just perfectly. We can do that."
First they need to get their hands on more fish. One challenge is temperature: Fish meant for human consumption must be kept below 80 degrees.
Gregory Dycus, a commercial fisherman, lives near the river in Washington County, almost an hour's drive from Baird, which means he has a long drive to keep fish on ice. Dycus said Moon River offered him 13 cents a pound for carp, which, after paying for gas and ice, puts his profit around 7 cents a pound. Still, Dycus is a rarity: He does catch carp. It's not for the money. Rather, Dycus is worried about his river.
He has been fishing commercially for 35 years; his family has been in the business for five generations. "It's an ecological disaster," he said of Asian carp. "It's like a sci-fi movie gone awry."
Over his years on the river, commercial fishing, like so many industries in Delta, has declined sharply, Dycus said. When he started, there were at least a hundred fishermen in Washington County. Now there are fewer than ten. Many consumers think that the river itself is too dirty, and that the fish caught there—like buffalo and wild catfish—are low-class foods. At least for those fish, though, there is some American market. Moon River can pay 25 cents a pound for buffalo fish. Horner hopes that once Moon River starts selling carp overseas, the price he can offer will rise. For now, Mississippi's few fishermen are unmotivated by the low price.
"They're like, 'I'd rather drink my beer and sell my cans,' you know?—than to go out here and hustle for that little change," Dycus said. He guesses that fewer than 10 fishermen in the state are catching the fish. At the end of our conversation, a few other fishermen arrived at Dycus's house. "They told us they're getting a little over a dollar a pound in China for 'em," one said. "But they want to pay us ten cents for it."
When we last spoke, Horner said he could pay 20 cents a pound for some invasive carp species, though only ten for silver carp. A representative from the state fisheries department told me there is some chance a state subsidy will soon be added to that price, although it's unclear how much. The fishermen agreed that if the price went up, they'd start looking at the fish. Eighteen or 20 cents would do it. Get up to 25 cents, Dycus said, and there'd be a gold rush.
Moon River is seeking solutions. Horner said he is willing to make daily pick-ups at Dycus's house; he's also looking to create drop points at other river ports so he can extend his pool of fishermen without forcing them to drive to the plant. The biggest project, however, is the fleet of fishermen they are developing. These fishermen work like specialized exterminators: a landowner calls, and they set up in an infested lake to harvest for a week. An electric signal drives fish directly into nets.
That's illegal on public water. But Moon River holds permits that allow them to fish public lakes with stabilized seine nets, a technique imported from China, which direct fish into the net but don't let them swim out.
Gregory Dycus was an early recruit. "The first fishing crew they had was me and my son and my nephew," he said. "Then they brought in the second team, some Chinese fishermen." The two sets of fishermen could not communicate; Dycus shared one story in which his hand signals failed to warn the fishermen that they were dropping a net in the middle of a shipping channel.
Eventually the company began to hire untrained fishermen at minimum wage, which, Dycus said, is when things really fell apart. These employees are recruited from a state-run job training center.
"We have people out there that have been cashiers, been this and that," Dycus said.
Most, he said, unprepared for the rigors of fishing. One early recruit fell headfirst into the water. "He's a big guy, like a linebacker," Dycus said. "Me and my son had to get him in the boat."
Dycus has since left the company. Over an eight-month period, he said, his pay changed four times. But because he wants the fish out of the watershed, he has stayed on good terms with Moon River, still offering advice. Now, Horner said, Moon River is short on experienced captains. Dycus described one crew that consists of two local men, one inexperienced, the other with alcohol abuse problems. The second crew is the two Chinese fishermen—who, according to Horner, are more of teachers than fishermen. "It's a circus," Dycus said.
Back out on the river, Hartfield casts his rod into a stretch of river where he expects the carp to be stacked. Cast after cast, nothing happens—but then, suddenly, there is a tug. "It works!" he shouts. He knows that fishermen in Louisiana catch carp this way, but he's never succeeded himself. "Whoa-ho-ho-ho-ho!" he shouts. "We got lunch!"
Hartfield guts the carp and drops it on ice. Back at his house, he throws the fish on the grill whole. Once the skin is charred, he peels it to reveal the white flesh below. Seasoned with lemon and butter, the meat comes easily off the bone. Hartfield is right—delicious.
A few years ago, The New York Times published an op-ed advocating for an "invasivore" diet. There are now cookbooks filled with recipe for kudzu, another Asian invasive that has overtaken the South. Some research suggests that such attempts have helped reduce the lionfish population in Jamaica. But there is a counterargument to invasivore eating: diners may want to sustain a species rather than eradicate it. When I mention this to Hartfield, he is unconcerned. Nature might find some way to kill off carp, he says—diseases sometimes level off over-populous invasives—but the same qualities that make carp so problematic means we will not fish them to extinction. At best we can control their population. That is, if we can get the market for carp working.
For now, they remain a freakish oddity. Hartfield's celebration on the river drew the attention of another boat. Its fishermen, when they learned what he had caught, wanted to know what he does with a carp.
Just throw it back?
Hartfield took the moment to proselytize, affirming the great taste of this fish. The conversation hit a dead end. The fishermen stared—bewildered, obviously, and maybe a little concerned—and when they said nothing, we pulled away to cook our lunch.