The Carp You Know

Tasty, trophy-sized fish are slowly making their way toward the Allegheny Reservoir and almost everyone is against the idea.

The opposition to these fish extends to the federal government.

Some Asian carp can grow to more than 100 pounds, but the fish represent four invasive species – bighead, silver, black, and grass carp – that can take over an ecosystem.

Since Asian carp escaped after being introduced to the American South in the 1960s and 1970s to help control plankton blooms, they’ve been making their way north, according to Tim Schaeffer, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s director of policy and planning.

Asian carp compete with the young of game species for food. They spawn frequently, grow quickly, and live long lives. They eat continuously and young fish can consume more than 100 percent of their weight each day.

So far, most of the government attention focused on Asian carp has been in the direction of keeping them out of the Great Lakes.

“As a Great Lakes state, Pennsylvania certainly doesn’t want Asian carp to get into the Great Lakes,” Schaeffer said. “A lot of the attention nationally has been focused on keeping the Asian carp out of the Great Lakes.”

That’s not the only concern.

The fish are making their way up the Ohio River and Pennsylvania river systems connected to the Ohio, including the Allegheny, are at risk.

“If they would become established in our rivers in the same numbers, they would have an enormously detrimental impact,” Schaeffer said. “They’re really voracious eaters. They attack the bottom level of the food chain.”

Phytoplankton and zooplankton are tiny organisms that form the base of the river food chain. Most carp eat plankton – as much as 40 percent of their body weight each day. Carp grow rapidly and often live for 15 years.

Another problem with the fish is some species have the tendency to jump out of the water when they are alarmed – such as by the sound of a boat motor.

Boaters and water skiers have been injured by flying silver carp.

“Imagine huge 35-pound silver missiles leaping out of the eddy during Kinzua’s famed canoe races,” Jason Oliphant, a local fisherman who targets common carp but knows Asian carp would not be good for the Allegheny, said.

With the fish seen as far up the Ohio River as Greenup Lock and Dam – near where the borders of Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky meet, their migration up-stream seems certain.

“We have been sounding the alarm, along with our partners, that we don’t want them to advance any farther up the river,” Schaeffer said. “If they become established (they could) dramatically alter the ecology of our rivers.”

Large populations have been seen as far up the Ohio River as Louisville, Ky.

Ron Brooks, Fisheries Division director at the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, is all too familiar with Asian carp.

So far, the fish haven’t destroyed the bottom of the food chain and wiped out game fish. But that could happen soon, as it has in Illinois.

But the fish are certainly present in big numbers. A commercial fisherman reported that “he could see from bank to bank on Kentucky Lake – about two and a half miles – nothing but carp heads,” Brooks said on Monday.

So far, the main problem in Kentucky is what Oliphant calls the “silver missiles.”

Silver carp are not as far up as bigheads, but there are large populations in the river and, at up to 70 pounds, they are dangerous.

“We have reports of boaters getting knocked out of their boats, we have reports of broken bones, every year,” Brooks said. That’s not good for business at resorts known for water-skiing.

Kentucky plans commercial fishing tournaments for Asian carp.

“We’re hoping for over 200,000 pounds the first tournament,” Brooks said.

Although that would not represent a large percentage of the population, a million pounds, the goal for the year, would help.

The fishermen in that tournament would not use the fish as fertilizer – one of the things common carp are used for.

“We’re pushing a domestic market,” Brooks said. “These things do taste very good when you prepare them properly. They are very light tasting, firm texture, very nutritious. The problem is they’re called carp.”

Recently, both U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey and Congressman Mike Kelly have co-sponsored legislation that would assign the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service the task of monitoring and hopefully preventing the spread of Asian carp.

“It’s great that on both bills we have a lead sponsor from Pennsylvania,” Schaeffer said.

“Asian carp pose a very serious threat to the ecosystems of both Lake Erie and the water systems of the Ohio River Valley,” Kelly said. “I have worked very closely with Sen. Toomey, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, along with other legislators that represent potentially affected areas to both study and develop plans of action to deal with these invasive species.”

“I recently co-authored legislation (H.R. 6385) as part of a more comprehensive strategy to curtail the migration of this invasive and voracious fish by directing U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in coordination with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, National Park Service, and U.S. Geological Survey to lead a multi-agency effort to slow the spread of Asian carp in the Upper Mississippi and Ohio River basins and tributaries,” Kelly said.

“Southwestern Pennsylvania’s iconic three rivers and our state’s beautiful Great Lake are vital for both commerce and recreation,” Toomey said. “The spread of Asian carp threatens this, and the federal government must act as a cooperative partner with state and local governments to stop this invasive species and protect the Ohio River basin’s ecosystem and economy. The Strategic Response to Asian Carp Invasion Act will help do just that, and I urge my colleagues to join us in defending the Ohio River basin against this invasive species.”

“What these bills would do would help to create the structure for a similar effort as the Great Lakes here on the Ohio River,” Schaeffer said.

They would also authorize dollars for the effort.

“We’re hopeful that they will provide funds to the Fish and Wildlife Service to provide these services,” he said.