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Company is latest to test carp market

GRAFTON, Ill. - When they arrive at the processing plant, the fish that have been cursed as a menace to American lakes and rivers are raked onto a conveyer belt, some of them still flopping.

Brought by the boatload to this facility north of St. Louis, the Asian carp quickly meet a gruesome fate: They are ground to a bloody pulp in a maze of machines that churn their bony bodies into dehydrated meal and fish oil.

A company called American Heartland Fish Products is the latest to venture into the small but growing business of carp-rendering, and their experiment offers another test of whether private enterprise can help reduce invasive species by turning them into food, be it for humans or more likely livestock.

For plant workers, purging the nation's waterways of carp that muscle out native fish for food and habitat isn't about balancing nature. It's strictly about making money.

"The government wants this fish removed in large volumes, and this is the way to do it," said Gray Magee, chief executive of the company, which began processing the carp in April atop a bluff near Grafton, a tiny tourist hamlet perched along the banks where the Mississippi and Illinois rivers meet.

Heartland joins Schafer Fisheries, which more than a decade ago expanded its northern Illinois operations near the Mississippi to include carp after focusing entirely on catfish.

A similar venture was launched recently in Kentucky, and yet another carp-processing site has been proposed for a site along the Illinois River near Peoria.

The idea of eliminating carp by eating them, much promoted only a few years ago, has been fairly slow to take hold in the business world.

Partly because they're so bony, Asian carp have drawn little interest among U.S. consumers. The few Americans who make a living exporting carp face big challenges: Profit margins are thin because of freight and fishing costs. And the carp have soft flesh that can spoil quickly if not processed rapidly and packed in ice.

American Heartland originally targeted exports to China but turned to the domestic market when a contract fizzled. Now some experts say a recent fall-off in the world's anchovy supplies could open a new market for carp as a replacement in animal feed.

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