People on Kentucky's lakes and rivers are getting a nasty shock that's only going to get worse: 70-pound fish that leap out of the water and pummel them. Or flop around on a boat, spreading bloody slime.
Escaped Asian carp, originally brought to the United States to eat algae in aquaculture ponds and wastewater treatment plants, have migrated from the Mississippi River well into Kentucky's waterways and are showing up where they are least wanted, said Ron Brooks, fisheries director for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife.
"A fisherman called me recently and said he saw a 21/2-mile-wide school in Kentucky Lake," Brooks said. And Lake Barkley's Asian carp population is already becoming "ridiculously over-populated," he said.
"It's a nightmare, it really is. Not just for fishing but for tourism," said Ronny Hopkins, a commercial fisherman from Ledbetter who fishes Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley in Western Kentucky. Hopkins said he has caught 36,000 pounds of carp in six hours.
"These fish are fixing to destroy all our native fish. We're catching so many of them. ... They're taking over and killing our native fish. They've jumped from thousands of pounds to millions of pounds (of fish in the lakes) in a period of a year," Hopkins said.
The carp also have been found up the Ohio River, along Kentucky's state line, past Cincinnati and into its tributaries.
State Sen. Joe Bowen, R-Owensboro, said recently that he has been contacted by sport fishermen in his community who are concerned, prompting him to investigate the problem.
"It's incredible what the fish are doing to our waterways," Bowen said. "Not only is it predatory, but the safety issue with boaters and skiers. Those things jump. ... Once a waterway is infested, they multiply at an alarming rate and weed out all the other fish. They have the potential to totally wreck our major waterways."
Major impacts are probably happening to sport fishing in Kentucky, and emaciated paddlefish have been sighted in Western Kentucky, Brooks said, but wildlife officials fear what is coming.
They jump, they breed
There are two kinds: silver carp, the jumping kind that can grow to more than 70 pounds, and bigheads, which can weigh 110 pounds. Both are invasive species with enormous potential to damage Western Kentucky's $1.4 billion recreational fishing and boating business.
The silver and bighead carp eat the same thing as native species and can reproduce much, much faster.
In the Illinois River, federal environmental officials estimate that nine of every 10 pounds of living material is now carp. Kentucky doesn't have it that bad ... yet.
"They are very fecund," he said.
As in: at least 1 million eggs per mature adult each year, spawning nearly year-round in running water.
Those who use Kentucky's waterways for fun won't like the carp much more than the bass, catfish and paddlefish do.
"Those are huge recreational and boating areas," Brooks said. "Imagine if those fish are coming out of the water at you."
The carp leap several feet out of the water when surprised by boats or jet skis; videos abound online. The biggest ones have been known to break bones (a woman bow hunting them had her jaw broken). In some areas, "redneck" fishing tournaments have become popular as helmeted competitors try to net the carp.
"People don't like to ski around them. We get a couple of reports every year of people getting knocked out of boats," Brooks said. "Those things come up in a split second and they just whack you. You don't see it coming."
What's the solution?
This problem is one Kentucky has seen coming, and Brooks hopes there is still time to do something about it.
Federal agencies have spent more than $200 million in efforts — so far thought to be successful — to prevent the carp from getting into the Great Lakes. With the carp moving up the Ohio River, Pennsylvania is desperate to stop them from getting there, and Kentucky is leading several multi-state efforts to deal with the problem.
New state regulations under discussion and likely to be introduced in February would ban moving bait fish from one body of water to another because young Asian carp look very similar to shad, a popular bait fish.
The carp aren't in Lake Cumberland now, but one bucketful of bait dropped in is all it would take.
Brooks said this is just a stop-gap. The carp are probably here to stay now.
So, if life hands you lemons, make lemonade. With unwanted carp, make fish meal.
For more than two years, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources has talked about the carp problem to state lawmakers, economic development officials and anyone else they can get to listen. The goal: establish a commercial fish-processing plant to take the carp.
There is a distribution plant in Livingston County in Western Kentucky that last year exported more than 1 million pounds to Illinois, but Brooks said Kentucky could support at least a couple more plants.
Another might be coming. The Ballard County Economic and Industrial Development Board, with the Ballard County Fiscal Court, is negotiating with Two Rivers Fisheries to create a plant in Wickliffe to flash-freeze and vacuum-pack fish for export to China, where a market for carp exists. They hope to have it up and running in two to three months.
"What attracted us is that they had a market. That's the problem with Asian carp: developing a market for the fish. It's kind of a nuisance fish for commercial fishermen and the sport fishermen," said Terry Simmons, president and CEO of the Ballard County economic group.
Regular fish-processing plants don't like to take carp, he said, leaving the fishermen with no place to sell what is clogging their nets.
"Commercial fishermen do not like the carp because they interrupt their fishing. Carp is a fish people in the U.S. won't touch. They are very bony. And hard to process," Simmons said. "But it's a delicacy for the Asian community and there is a market. There's pretty good potential there for commercial fishermen, who have been very supportive of this effort."
In June, Two Rivers Fisheries was approved for a $1 million package in state economic incentives for the $2.6 million project, which could create 50 jobs. The county also is providing some incentives.
"That's hopefully going to be the solution," said Bowen, the state senator from Owensboro. "There's a big market for them. Commercial endeavors are the way we have to combat this. I think there's a need before this thing spirals completely out of control."
Make a meal of it
Processing the carp into fish meal could be even bigger.
"The business itself is a no-brainer," Brooks said. "The fish-meal market is insatiable."
A plant to grind the carp into meal that could be used in cat food and dog food, other kinds of animal feed and high-grade fertilizer would cost less, Brooks said. So far, economic development efforts for a fish-meal plant have stalled.
But federal legislation, from Pennsylvania lawmakers, has been filed to address fish removal that could provide some money outside the Great Lakes efforts.
There are objections. Fish and wildlife experts are divided because they fear that establishing a business built on this fish means they can never be completely eradicated and that creating a market will give people an incentive to spread the fish.
However, unless science comes up with something soon, that argument might be moot.
"We're not going to run out, but I think we can control them," Brooks said. "I think we can fish them down so the other species can co-exist. Every body of water has a limited amount of biomass, so every 100 pounds of Asian carp is a hundred pounds of native species gone."
The carp themselves taste pretty good, Brooks said, and he knows this from personal experience — as do many Kentucky lawmakers.
In February, the Fish and Wildlife department held its annual legislative fish dinner in Frankfort. During a blind taste test between carp and catfish, the carp won hands down.
"Ninety percent said Asian carp," Brooks said. "And that's not unusual."
"Carp wings," long slender pieces that can be pulled off pliable bones, are building a following; carp patties are going for $8 apiece in Chicago.
Fillets "are being sold for $17 a plate in Louisiana right now. People are loving it," Brooks said.