Chinese investment and wisdom rescue Kentucky’s fisheries
WICKLIFFE, the United States－As New Year 2020 nears, 62-year-old Angie Yu is marketing her fish products harder than usual. The Chinese American businesswoman views the holiday season as a prime opportunity for the delicacies to gain wider popularity.
“We are processing the fish head with newly-introduced fresh-freezing equipment to cater to the Chinese community, and we are also developing items including fish patties, dumplings and sausages to target US customers,” said Yu, president of Two Rivers Fisheries, a company dedicated to carp processing located in Wickliffe City, county seat of Ballard in the US state of Kentucky.
The lineup of fish products, ranging from fish meat to fish sausages, is her answer to the invasive Asian carp－a radical plan to battle the notorious carp plague with knives, forks and chopsticks.
Following their introduction to the United States in the 1970s for algae and waste treatment purposes, the Asian carp have multiplied rapidly and have been crowding out indigenous fish species in the Mississippi River and surrounding waters.
US authorities and the fish industry fear that the Asian carp’s northward proliferation, if not curbed, spells disaster for the $7 billion fish industry of the Great Lakes region.
Yu, who has been in the seafood business for over 15 years, acutely sensed opportunities when she read reports about the troublesome fish back in 2010.
She then relocated from California to the obscure Kentucky county on the Mississippi River to start her business in 2012. “Our mission is to reduce, reuse and redefine Asian carp,” said Yu, whose operation hires more than 20 local people.
The entrepreneur prides herself on her choice of location. As the name Two Rivers Fisheries indicates, her plant sits on the confluence of two rivers－the Mississippi and its major tributary, the Ohio. Unlimited supply of Asian carp and agreeable climate in middle Mississippi the whole year round have guaranteed her company’s smooth operation.
After receiving carp from local fishermen, the plant processes, flash-freezes and boxes up the fish before shipping them out to destinations across the globe.
“The yield varies a bit with the season. We have seen rapid growth in production recently, with about 1 million pounds in October alone,” said Yu, adding about 80 percent of the output was exported to Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
Over the past seven years, the company has taken 10 million pounds (450,000 metric tons) of Asian carp out of the Mississippi River, which were sold to a total of 11 countries.
While making headway in fulfilling her business ambition, Yu said the journey has never been without challenge. A lack of commercial fishermen used to be one of them, as most locals deemed there was no market for carp.
Because of the complex bone structure, US consumers showed little appetite for the fish, according to Yu. However, the growth of her business, driven by an export-oriented vision as well as a bold attempt at innovation, has been helping transform the landscape.
“When we first came here, there were only three groups of fishermen in the neighborhood. Now, the number has jumped to some 60 groups,” she said.
Yu said purchasing carp from the fishermen, hiring staff and transporting the products account for a large share of her costs.
Yet, the forward-looking entrepreneur is quite bullish about the prospects as she believes in the potential of a robust fish processing chain along the Mississippi River due to its abundant aquatic resources.
This April, Yu, together with multiple Chinese investors, launched the International Fisheries Industrial Park in the county area.
The 72-acre industrial park dedicated to Asian carp harvesting and processing has attracted about 10 Chinese companies to land by far, said Yu.
The new industrial park, designed for vertical processing integration, aims to produce value-added products with the Asian carp.
Yu wishes the park to be a success in exploring new opportunities while mitigating the “carp crisis.”
Todd Cooper, judge-executive of Ballard County, praised Chinese wisdom as well as business acumen in developing the project.
He is also hopeful that the new business cluster would help bring in more Chinese companies to establish their presence as economic development and job creation are crucial to the local community, which had experienced years of business slack. “We had lost jobs for 12 straight years at one point,” said Cooper, adding the county has started to reverse that trend since 2018, “and I will say it’s because of the Chinese investment.”
The International Fisheries Industrial Park is expected to create at least 150 full-time jobs and plenty of indirect and part-time work for fishermen and construction companies, according to estimates by the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development.
Statistics from local economic authorities showed that Chinese-owned companies operating in Kentucky currently employ nearly 9,000 people.