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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Asian carp invasion and the war to rid Ky. waterways of these nuisance species


Of all the invasive, non-native species that have made their way to North America from China, none is more egregious than the Bighead Carp (Hypophthalmichthys nobilis) and the Silver Carp (Hypophthalmichthys molitrix).

Their impact is severe and far-reaching.

These so-called Asian carp were originally imported by Arkansas fish farmers in the 1970s to control plankton in rearing ponds and provide fresh fish for commercial markets.

However, during floods these carp escaped captivity and began reproducing in the wild, developing large populations in the early 1980s in major river drainages of the central and southern U.S. They eventually expanded their foothold northward to the Upper Mississippi, Ohio, Illinois and Missouri River systems.

Silver carp jumping (Photo from Wikipedia Commons)

Size, Coloration and Reproduction

The Bighead Carp has a large, scaleless head, largemouth without barbels (whiskers), protruding lower jaw, and eyes located very low on the head.

Adults typically are solid gray in coloration, with dark blotches and a white belly.

The Silver Carp is silver-colored all over, with small scales, an upturned, smallmouth without barbels, scaleless head, and low set eyes.

Asian carp can grow to enormous size, with many adults weighing 20 to 40 pounds, but the maximum size for both species is more than five feet in length, with a weight approaching 100 pounds.

Silver Carp pose a danger to boaters due to the jumping behavior they exhibit when startled by turning on bright lights at night or the vibrations from an outboard motor. They jump wildly out of the water, sometimes landing in the vessel, causing injury to boaters, fishing tackle or other gear.

Large female Asian carp are very fecund, capable of producing hundreds of thousands, even a million or more eggs a year. They produce so many young they gain an advantage over Kentucky’s native game fish species.

Asian Carp are drawn to tailwaters below dams because there’s more plankton and they need 30 to 50 miles of running water to spawn, as their fertilized eggs must drift in the current to hatch.

Distribution in Kentucky

Asian carp populations have expanded in Kentucky waters in recent years.

They are now present in alarming numbers in many of Kentucky’s major river basins including the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, Cumberland, Kentucky, Salt (up to the tailwaters of Taylorsville Lake), and Green (up to the tailwaters of Green River Lake).

Electrofishing for Asian Carp on the Cumberland River next to Barkley Dam in Grand Rivers. (USACE photo by Leon Roberts)

They are as far up the Ohio River as the Meldahl pool, which is 95 miles long from Foster, Kentucky, in Bracken County, upstream to near Greenup, Kentucky.

Additionally, there are large populations of Asian carp in Kentucky Lake, Lake Barkley, and their tailwaters.

Food Habits

Bighead and Silver Carp consume zooplankton and phytoplankton, and other microscopic organisms, stripping the aquatic food web of the key source of food for young native gamefish.

They are filter feeders and have highly specialized anatomy for feeding. Both species swim in schools in open water with their mouths agape.

Bighead Carp feed mostly on zooplankton on or just under the surface. Silver Carp target phytoplankton tend to feed at deeper depths.

Since they have no stomachs, they basically feed continuously. Asian carp are capable of eating up to 20 percent of their body weight each day.

Asian Carp Research and Harvest

For more than a decade, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) has been working with other state and federal fish and wildlife agencies, fish processors, commercial fishermen, and other groups to develop a plan to control and remove Asian carp.

Beginning in 2014 KDFWR began receiving federal dollars that allowed them to hire fishery crews dedicated to studying, and removing Asian carp from Kentucky waters by electrofishing, and other methods.

Some of the research on the Ohio River includes:

• The distribution and abundance of Asian carp, and their impact on gamefish populations.
• Control and removal of Asian carp in areas where high densities are present.
• The use of ultrasonic telemetry to track the movement of tagged Asian carp over a 500-mile stretch of the river.

In Western Kentucky, the focus has been on the removal of Asian carp primarily by promoting year-round commercial harvest.

Since Kentucky’s Asian Carp Harvest Program inception in 2013 commercial fishermen have harvested a total of 5,891,774 pounds of Asian carp from Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley, in Kentucky, according to KDFWR’s 2019 Annual Report on Asian Carp Monitoring.

Some of the research in the region includes:

• Testing sound as a deterrent to Asian carp movement.
• Silver Carp demographics in Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley.
• Monitoring the impact of Asian carp harvests.

Recreational opportunities abound for harvesting Asian carp by bow fishing.

Kentucky bow fishing record carp (Photo courtesy Bowfishing Association of America)

Bow Fishing has gained in popularity, especially on big rivers and tailwaters, as Asian carp numbers have increased.

Imagine sticking a 30-pounder and then reeling in a fish that big.

Asian carp may be taken year-round, day or night, by bow and arrow. Bow anglers may use a longbow, recurve, crossbow or compound bow. Arrows must have a barbed or retractable style point that has a line attached for retrieval.

There is no daily creel limit on Asian carp.

Bow anglers must have the appropriate fishing license to take Asian carp, and may shoot fish from the bank or a boat.

Kentucky bow fishing records are kept by the Bowfishing Association of America (BAA), incorporated in 1989.

The BAA’s mission includes working with biologists and natural resource departments to help reduce the spread of invasive fish species around the country, as well as control populations of non-game fish with few natural predators.

Take a guess at the size of Kentucky’s bow fishing state record Bighead Carp.

It weighed 82 1/2 pounds, was 62 inches long and was arrowed by Will Burgess on April 17, 2017.

That’s no fish story!

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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