July 23, 2014 10:15:07 AM
BAIRD -- If you can't beat them, eat them.
That's Mississippi's approach to invasive Asian carp, a pesky fish the state is trying to turn into a job creator by catching and exporting it to China.
Moon River Foods said Tuesday that it would invest $3 million and hire up to 100 people to harvest the fish, which will be filleted and packaged at a plant in Baird, near Indianola. Moon River is a subsidiary of China's Shanghai Shen Ran Trade Co. Ltd., said company representative Roger Liu.
The Mississippi Development Authority and local government offered incentives, but state officials said Tuesday that they could not immediately specify their value.
Liu said Moon River hopes to process 50 tons of Asian carp, five days a week, for a total of 25 million pounds per year. If that were the case, it would be a huge increase over current catch levels. In 2010, the latest year for which figures are available online, Mississippi estimated 570,000 pounds of carp were caught statewide.
Introduced into Southern ponds to control algae, Asian carp escaped into the Mississippi River system and are considered a nuisance. They're a staple of Chinese diets, though, and the large size of wild American carp is an attraction. There are already some large commercial carp processors in Illinois and Kentucky. Schaefer Fisheries of Illinois says it processes 20 million pounds per year. Another Illinois company, Big River Fish, has set a goal of 50 million pounds per year. By comparison, Mississippi harvested 173 million pounds of farm-raised catfish last year.
Catfish processing plants in the depressed Delta region have been a source of work, though poorly paid, for decades. But Mississippi's catfish industry has been shrinking sharply as a result of foreign competition.
Duane Chapman, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Missouri who studies carp, said he's not sure if carp stocks would hold up if fished so heavily, or even if Moon River could find enough fishermen.
"It would be wonderful if they could," Chapman said. "We don't have a great estimate of how long the fish population could hold out."
Chapman said one of the best fishing crews in Illinois averages 4,000 to 6,000 pounds a day. Mississippi has hundreds of residents who pay $30 a year for a freshwater commercial fishing license, but surveys show many only fish on a small scale for their families.
Dennis Riecke, a fisheries biologist with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, also expressed doubts about the projected harvest size.
"We don't have any good population estimates but 100,000 pounds of fish per day is a huge amount of fish," he wrote in an email.
Liu said that the company knows it might not reach its goal.
"We don't know if it's possible, if there are enough fish in the river," he said.
Liu said Moon River has bought an existing building in Baird to house its processing operation. He said the company plans to hire 10 to 12 employees to start, but ramp up to 100 within a year "if everything goes smoothly."
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