Asian carp is an invasive species of fish that can devastate aquatic ecosystems and, as they have a propensity for leaping out of the water, injure boaters. And once they’ve gotten into a river or lake, they’re nearly impossible to get out.
But for two days last week in Western Kentucky, teams of commercial fishermen tried. They descended on two lakes to catch as many Asian carp as possible. The tournament sponsored by the Commonwealth of Kentucky was called “Carp Madness.”
Asian carp is a species that fishermen usually avoid, because there isn’t much of a market for them. But on this day, fifteen teams of commercial fishermen were out, competing for $20,000 in prizes in a tournament organized by the Kentucky Division of Fish and Wildlife.
One of them was 63-year-old Ronny Hopkins. It’s hard to look more like a stereotypical fisherman: he’s weathered and grizzled, wearing a yellow slicker and a pair of white waders, smoking a short brown cigarillo. The waders were streaked with fish blood, and there were also a few drops of blood in Hopkins’ white beard. His crew had a slow morning.
“It’s bad today, it ain’t going real good today,” Hopkins said. “Fish ain’t cooperating.”
Hopkins was one of the few fishermen in the contest who’s used to fishing for Asian carp. He’s found a market for them, and sells them to a processing plant in Illinois. The fish isn’t very profitable, but it is prolific. And that’s becoming a problem, as the invasive species spreads.
“Asian carp breed like mosquitoes and eat like hogs,” according to Marc Smith, a Senior Policy Manager with the National Wildlife Federation.
“They will eat a lot of the food sources that the fish that we do care about—walleye, perch, salmon, small mouth bass — they will eat the types of food that those fish rely upon, essentially pushing them out of the waterways,” Smith said.
Asian carp was introduced in the United States in the late 1970s, as a way to remove algae from stock ponds. But they spread, and have since been found from Alabama to Minnesota. Once they’ve gotten into a lake or river, they multiply quickly. And they’re nearly impossible to eradicate.
But besides posing an ecological problem, the Asian carp also presents a safety issue. Ron Brooks is the director of Kentucky’s fisheries division. He says the area around Barkley Lake supports about $1.2 billion in tourism every year, including fishing, boating and water skiing.
“If you go out here skiing and a 70 pound Asian carp whacks you, are you going to go back out there? Probably not,” Brooks said. “So you can imagine what that could do to this industry.”
Hopkins has firsthand experience. He pointed to his rib cage, “…where a silver hit me. Busted my ribs along the bottom part. I got punched, landed in the bottom of the boat, crying it hurt so bad. I ain’t never had a man hit me that hard.”
One by one, Hopkins and his crew laid out several nets, hundreds of yards long. They’re weighted at the bottom, and at the top, empty detergent bottles float on the water, acting as buoys. As fish begin to get caught in the net, the bottles stand at attention.
The crew approached a net, and slowly, one yank at a time, began to haul it into the boat. Huge carp — measuring from about a foot to three feet long — fell onto the boat’s deck and flailed.
The fishermen pulled the fish from the net, impaled them with a hook, then whipped them into a metal box. There was a lot of blood, which the crew bailed out of the boat before beginning on another net.
Back on shore, the fish from Hopkins’ boat were weighed in front of a crowd of spectators. His crew jumped into the boat, and pours out buckets of carp into hoppers.
“That fish is as big as me!” one observer noted.
Hopkins was disappointed; the fisherman before him had a haul of more than 6,000 pounds. But Hopkins’s catch weighed in at just under 2,000. He wasn’t even cheered by the fact that several fishermen were empty-handed.
“That don’t matter,” Hopkins said. “If a hundred don’t get any, I didn’t get enough.”
Over the course of the two-day tournament, fishermen took out nearly 83,000 pounds of fish from the two lakes.
Unfortunately for the Asian carp, the animals pose such a problem to the ecosystem that it’s hard to find anybody to defend the fish. Most conservation organizations don’t have a position on Asian carp. The only group that would comment was PETA.
“No being, regardless of species or circumstance deserves to endure such a cruel death, spokeswoman Virginia Fort said. “These animals didn’t ask to be taken from their native waters and turned loose into U.S. waters. They ended up in Kentucky through absolutely no fault of their own, and should be dealt with in the most humane way possible.”
Watching thousands of carp being slaughtered is messy and not for the weak-hearted, but even so, the carp didn’t get much sympathy from the crowd at Carp Madness. Volunteer Dacelle Peckler saves animals for a living as a veterinarian. But she’s also a recreational angler and said she has no problem with killing carp.
“The things that should be here can’t be here, because these things are taking over,” Peckler said. “And it’s just like feral cats and wild hogs — things that don’t belong in the wild because other things can’t out-compete them. And I have no problems, for the betterment of everything, you can’t let one species decimate everything. “
All the fish that were caught during the tournament will be sold to a processing plant, then shipped, ironically, back to Asia. Carp are a delicacy over there, but overfishing has made them scarce.
The second part of Fisheries Director Ron Brooks’ plan is to cultivate a market for the fish in Kentucky. There’s a processing plant coming to the Commonwealth in May.
“Our mission in Kentucky, beyond trying to get more interest in the industry is to get the word out that these things taste good to restaurant owners and to chefs,” Brooks said.
At Carp Madness, a Fish and Wildlife employee demonstrated how to fillet an Asian carp, in front of an expectant crowd. He battered the carp pieces, put them in a fryer, and distributed them to the crowd. Jennifer Lyvers was skeptical, but took a bite.
“I have to say, I like it better than catfish,” Lyvers said. “Because catfish kind of has that fishy taste. And this was very mild, I thought.”