Unfortunately, fish ponds couldn’t contain the carp, and massive floods carried them into the Mississippi River. “These fish got out right away,” Irons explained. “Silver and bighead carp got out in the ’70s.”
With virtually no natural enemy other than a speeding bass boat or predators that carp quickly outgrow, carp spread rapidly up the Mississippi and throughout the Illinois River by the 1990s. Before long, they were threatening to move into Lake Michigan and then into the other Great Lakes.
Among efforts to prevent their escape from the Illinois River, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintains a series of electric barriers near Romeoville, Ill., and that — along with carp removal operations downstream — so far seem to have prevented the unimaginable.
Over the past decade, however, silver and bighead carp have invaded the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, taking up residence in massive numbers in Kentucky and Barkley lakes. Anglers scouting for bass with side-scanning sonar have found ledges and bars that typically teem with bass have now been taken over by carp.
Bighead and silver carp feed on plankton, the same microscopic organisms that sustain threadfin and gizzard shad as well as bass, crappie and bluegill in their early life stages.
“From research that’s out there, the first species that take it on the chin when Asian carp come in are crappie and bass,” said Ron Brooks, chief of fisheries for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife. “It’s hard to gauge those effects because of the typical up-and-down cycles of bass and crappie in reservoirs, but we’re definitely in a down cycle with crappie and largemouth bass, particularly in Barkley Lake. Condition factors are going down, and that’s a really bad sign.”
His counterpart to the south, Frank Fiss, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency fisheries chief, agrees.
“We’re a few years into a downturn after a really good four or five years in a row,” he explained. “Local biologists say it was really, really good for a while, so the bar was set very high. Now it’s down low by any measure. We’ve had a really rough winter, with embayments freezing over and all the shad dying and crappie and bass at a low point. All these can bounce back up, but we’ve never been at this point in a lake where we’ve had so many Asian carp before. If things get worse and worse, it will be easy to attribute it to carp.”
Kentucky Lake anglers are already at the point of blaming carp for poor bass fishing. Bill Cooksey, former editor of Midsouth Hunting and Fishing News magazine and currently with the National Wildlife Federation, said he has considered selling a home on the lake that has been in his family for 70 years. He knows at least one bass fisherman from Paris, Tenn., who hasn’t fished Kentucky Lake in a year, instead choosing to drive four hours to fish Lake Guntersville.
The invasive fish now are threatening reservoirs upstream on the Tennessee River. They have used locks to enter Pickwick, Wilson and Wheeler reservoirs upstream from Kentucky Lake, and they’re poised to invade Guntersville, according to Fiss.
He has high hopes for a sound barrier that would be placed near Guntersville Dam. Consisting of underwater speakers, the system emits noise tuned to drive away carp without bothering native fish. It’s been effective in China, where commercial fishermen use sound to herd carp into their nets.
“The technology is being delivered to Barkley Dam this September, where the Fish and Wildlife Service will test it,” Fiss said. “That’s the most carp-abundant spot where they can put this system in and test it. We’re hoping it works.”
Testing of the barrier is set for a three-year period, however, and some biologists fear carp might sneak into Guntersville before a sound curtain is installed there. Then there’s the issue of cost, which might run as high as $1 million, just for Guntersville dam.
Money to deal with the carp issue, however, is in short supply along the Tennessee River.
In July, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) inserted language in the Senate Interior Appropriations bill directing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to focus its efforts on combatting Asian carp in Kentucky and Barkley lakes. The legislation, which cleared the Senate, allocates $11 million to control carp, but that is spread across the entire Mississippi and Ohio river basins.
Most federal expenditures have been concentrated on stopping carp from getting into the Great Lakes. Those electric barriers cost more than $18 million, and estimates for a control plan at Brandon Road Lock and Dam at Joliet, Ill., are running about $275 million.
By comparison, federal funding for carp programs in Kentucky and Barkley lakes have totaled just under $800,000 since allocations began in 2015, said Greg Conover, Mississippi Interstate Cooperative Resource Association coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Kentucky’s Brooks says he has had to spend $4 million in state fishing license revenue to deal with carp on Kentucky and Barkley lakes.
This is a national problem — a national crisis — say Brooks and Fiss, and it will take federal resources and cooperation among the states to deal with it.
“We get a small fraction of the money spent on protecting the Great Lakes,” Fiss noted. “Protecting them is important. People throw out numbers showing that Great Lakes fisheries are worth [$7] billion — but if you look at the value of fisheries in the Southeast and the Tennessee River system, we’re right up there.”
In western Kentucky, including the state’s portion of Kentucky and Barkley lakes, sportfishing alone generates $1.2 billion in economic value, according to McConnell.
Fisheries leaders don’t begrudge the money spent on protecting the Great Lakes, but they do want other river systems, such as the Tennessee, to receive the attention they need.
“The Great Lakes and their connectivity to invasion sources has been a focus area for excluding Asian carp effects,” added Mark Rogers, a research biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey and leader of the Tennessee Cooperative Fish Research Unit. “In the Southeast, we have Asian carp that are established [and we have] important fisheries, and concerns for our fishery resources. We are starting to get the attention of Congress for population controls and monitoring.”
Fortunately, controlling carp in Southern rivers and reservoirs may be cheaper than keeping them out of the Great Lakes. In fact, control efforts might someday become a self-sustaining industry and a boon to beleaguered local economies.
“I wish there were a silver bullet for getting rid of these fish,” said Irons, who has been on the front lines of the war on carp almost as long as anybody. “It’s going to take hard management — targeting and removing them in large enough numbers to protect our crappie and bass.”
In portions of the Illinois River, commercial fishing has reduced Asian carp populations by 50 to 75 percent, according to Irons, and Kentucky’s Brooks is optimistic that, given enough money, similar success can be achieved in the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers.