The scale of the Asian carp problem has gotten considerably worse in recent years as the invasive species moves further into Tennessee. The state Wildlife Resources Agency is developing a plan to keep the carp contained and eventually push them back.
The agency is working with other states and the federal government to sponsor fishing tournaments, create incentives for commercial fishermen and test out new technology to keep the carp from spreading out of West Tennessee.
State agencies from Tennessee and Kentucky hosted a bowfishing tournament specifically for Asian carp at Kentucky Lake with a $10,000 prize. About 80 boats spent the night on the water with bows and arrows. They pulled about 17,000 pounds of Asian carp out, but that won’t make enough of a dent in the population to matter. The main purpose of the event was to spread awareness.
“It’s like a plague,” Joe Nichols, tournament host, said. “Over 18 years of me doing this, I’ve seen them evolve.”
Asian carp have been present throughout the Ohio River Valley for decades, ever since they were accidentally introduced into the Mississippi River Delta in the late 80s and early 90s. From there they have been slowly migrating into Tennessee waters.
The carp are aggressive growers, they eat the plankton that’s at the bottom of the food chain for many native species. This essentially starves out the other fish in the ecosystem.
Not only is this a problem for diversity within the environment, this also harms sports and commercial fishing in the area.
“When I started fishing rivers, I would shoot nar and buffalo fish,” Dustin Apple, a competitor in the bowfishing tournament, said. “But within the last 10-12 years, the asian carp population has moved up the Mississippi. They are everywhere.”
As a way to keep the population down, the TWRA is trying to take advantage of a growing commercial fishing industry that usually harvests Asian carp for fertilizer.
“It was only three-four years ago they were harvesting fish in the tens of thousands of pounds a year, and soon it was hundreds of thousands of pounds a year and now they’re talking millions,” TWRA Chief of Fisheries Frank Fiss said.
The agency is funding a $500,000 program to develop new markets for the carp beyond fertilizer, like getting more of them into restaurants.
While this might keep the Asian carp problem at a manageable scale, keeping the population from spreading is a different challenge.
Tennessee and Kentucky are working with the federal government to test out technology this fall.
“They’re bringing in sound barriers to test at the Barkley Dam to see if we can keep fish from coming in,” Fiss said.
The sound barriers play loud noises underwater and scare the carp, which are extremely sensitive to sound, away from dam locks. This would keep them from moving further into the river system.
All of these efforts — the new technology, harvest incentives and the fishing tournaments — will get expensive and the federal government has prioritized some northern states because the Asian carp problem is considerably worse there.
“Illinois gets most of the money to address asian carp and they’ve got a pretty significant challenge trying to keep them out of the Great Lakes,” Mike Butler, CEO of Tennessee Wildlife Federation, said. “Moving forward, there’s got to be some support given to southeastern states like Kentucky and Tennessee.”
Even if Tennessee were to receive more funding, the agency’s plan wouldn’t solve the problem any time soon.
The Asian carp have continued to move further and further into the river system. All anyone can do is hold the line and keep it from getting worse.