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The Great Fish Battle

Silver Carp Jumping

Written by Raymond Thompson Jr.
Photo by The Associated Press

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At a glance, the river looks like most rivers look after a rain shower. The storm runoff has kicked up a blanket of brown sediment turning the water to the color of milk chocolate. At the river’s edge, the crest of a green mountain lifts up into an emotional gray sky. These old mountains share a metaphoric kinship with the ones formed over millions of years in Appalachia.

Along a tributary in the Yangtze river basin near Chongqing, China, in the Sichuan province, Quinton Phelps, assistant professor of wildlife and fisheries at West VirginiaUniversity and director of the Applied Fisheries Management Lab, stands with a local fisherman on a wet concrete boat dock. Phelps holds a recently harvested silver carp in his left hand as he poses for a photograph.

 

Last fall, Phelps visited Southwest University in Chongqing as part of a collaborative relationship with international educational institutions. While on this trip, he took time to observe the techniques Chinese fisherman use to harvest Asian carp for China’s booming commercial fish market. The Asian carp is featured in a number of dishes in the Sichuan province, which is famous for its spicy food.


Phelps fisherman and silver carp

Quinton Phelps (right) visited China to see how the commercial carp fishing market works there. Photo provided.

The silver carp in his hand is a small example of fish in a species that can grow to over 50 pounds. And Bighead carp can grow to over 100 pounds. They are known for jumping out of the water in what scientists believe is possibly a defense mechanism. There are commonly reported stories of the silver carp landing in boats and striking boaters, while leaving a trail of slime, blood and feces. Of greater concern, silver carp also represents a growing threat to fisheries in the heart of the United States.


“I think that we can use fish as a canary in the coal mine for looking at how water resources are or are not being used properly,” Phelps said.


THE ACCIDENTAL INVADER

Asian carp are actually made up of four separate species: black carp, grass carp, bighead carp and silver carp. The latter two are threatening to overtake the native species in economically valuable fisheries in the U.S, including the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. There is already a large population of Asian carp in the Ohio river in Kentucky just south of West Virginia.


Asian carp were first introduced to the United States in the 1970s in what seemed like a good idea at the time. The non-native species was used to help control water quality in aquaculture facilities in southern states. Then Asian carp made their way into the river system after escaping the secure facilities due to floods and other catastrophic events. They are thriving in their new environment because the characteristics of the local big river systems are similar to their native rivers in Asia. They have no native predators and feed at the base of food chain.

“I think that we can use fish as a canary in the coal mine for looking at how water resources are or are not being used properly.” -QUINTON PHELPS assistant professor of wildlife and fisheries and director of the Applied Fisheries Management Lab 

“The reason that there are problems is because Asian carp are playing Tetris, meaning that they’re consuming zooplankton and phytoplankton, which is the very base in pretty much all aquatic food webs,” Phelps said. “So when you have the perfect environment for them to grow to thrive and they’re consuming all of the base of the food web, It doesn’t allow any of our native species to survive because they don’t have the food to survive.”


Asian carp are vastly outcompeting native fish. In areas where they have taken hold, they can make up more than 80 percent of the biomass, according to Phelps. They also can live for over a quarter of century, and one female can lay one million eggs. Once Asian carp have been introduced to a system, they will be a problem for fisheries managers and the region for at least a generation.

Over the past two decades silver and bighead carp have been threatening the $7 billion fisheries located in Lake Michigan. This is where the front line in the battle to contain the Asian carp is being fought. The Army Corps of Engineers has constructed physical barriers designed to keep the Asian carp in the Mississippi River. These expensive barriers are made up of a combination of electric, sound, bubbles and light barriers.


A drop of water that falls from a rainstorm in Morgantown will eventually flow downhill to the Mississippi River. In reverse, there is nothing physically in the way of Asian carp swimming and breeding their way into the heart of the Appalachian region.


Phelps and the graduate students from the Applied Fisheries Management Lab are a part of a multi-university, multi-state and federal government collaborative effort to combat the Asian carp.

This collaboration is made up of fisheries managers and scientists from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Illinois Natural History Survey, Missouri Department of Conservation, Illinois Department of the Interior, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Southern Illinois University, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and WVU.


The information learned from this collaborative research project is reported back to the U. S. Geological Survey, which then informs the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ plans in combating the Asian carp.


WVU’s Applied Fisheries Management Lab is helping in the implementation of a plan called the “Integrated Asian Carp Management Framework.” It is a four-part plan whose goal is to determine if Asian carp are harmful to ecosystems, to evaluate the spatial extent of the problem, to look for reduction benchmarks, and to design pathways for control and prevent the Asian carp’s continued expansion.


WHAT WE DON’T KNOW

Up to this point much of the lab work in this collaboration has been to help determine the extent of the problem.


“We’re getting baseline population information for a whole host of species. If the Asian carp invade those locations, we’ll have a benchmark of the attributes of the native fish that are there,” Phelps said.


They are in a race to document the quantity of fish species and the size of those populations before Asian carp enter those ecosystems. They are also helping to figure out where Asian carp are seeing the most successful “recruitment,” which means where the Asian carp juveniles have the best chance to make it to adulthood.


“What we’re trying to do for the upper Ohio River is figure out where they’re at and where they’re spawning and then cut that completely off,” said Hae Kim, who is pursuing his master’s degree in wildlife and fisheries resources.


Hae Kim with carp

Graduate student Hae Kim holds up a silver carp that a team of researchers found on the Mississippi River in St. Louis. Photo provided.

Wildlife and fisheries graduate students Ethan Rutledge and Colby Gainer are in charge of collecting Asian carp trapped by local natural resources departments from the upper Mississippi. They collect bone otoliths from the fish, which helps the fish sense gravity and movement. The lab uses the otoliths to measure periods of faster and slower growth. This process is called “aging” and is similar to measuring the age of trees using tree rings. In the summer, fish growth rates increase and in the winter they slow down. Measuring these periods of fast and slow growth provides valuable data in helping scientists understand what’s going on in big river ecosystems.


The lab is in the first year of a four-year research project, with the early stages of their work focused on creating a baseline for native fish populations. Next year they will begin work on measuring baseline population information for Asian carp.


While the lab is busy helping to find a solution for managing the invasive Asian carp, they are also working on other research projects concerned with protecting and understanding ecosystems of local river systems. Their projects range from measuring the local catfish populations in the Monongahela River to research exploring the impact of acid mine drainage of local watersheds.


EAT UP

Asian carp are not only a threat to big river ecosystems of West Virginia, but their presence could cause a chain reaction that will be felt all the way down the recreation economic chain, from sporting stores to mom-and-pop gas stations. Phelps argues that the Asian carp invasion could have a big impact on West Virginia’s fisheries, which bring in over $400 million each year to the state economy, according to the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources.


Silver carp on plate

Quinton Phelps took this picture of prepared Asian carp in China where the fish are commonly eaten. He says the fish is delicious and should appear on American tables. Photo provided. 


A decade ago the Asian carp was a distant threat, but that has now changed.


Asian carp have the potential to turn many of the rivers that flow in Appalachia into single fish zones, which would be devastating to the ecosystem of the big rivers and the surrounding environments that many of the people in the region inhabit.


“If we homogenize the system and we only have that one species that’s kind of dominating, then you’re just setting yourself up for collapse,” Rutledge said.


“They are beating on the door of pretty much everywhere in the country,” Phelps said. Most likely fisherman and other river recreators would not notice any change to the river environment until it was past the tipping point.


“Until they get to that breaking point where they’re actually overharvesting that base of the food chain, there’s a good chance you’re not going to see anything. But once they get to that breaking point, that’s when everything will just fall,” said Ron Brooks, fisheries division director for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.


Kentucky has seen an explosion of Asian carp in the Ohio River, but they have been working on a solution.


“We began to understand that the only way to control Asian carp in areas where there was a lot of them is through commercial fishing,” Brooks said.


It is almost impossible to catch Asian carp by traditional rod and reel fishing.

Kentucky is working to build up the commercial fishing capacity to help in the fight against the Asian carp. They created a special Asian carp harvesting program, which allowed for year- round net harvesting. They have also created other financial incentives to encourage commercial producers to harvest Asian carp in the state.


Phelps has been advocating for the increased consumption of the Asian carp in the U.S. his entire career. He says we are going to need a combined effort to manage the Asian carp population, which means having a united front across states, natural resource agencies, angling communities and business, with all the management plans moving toward increased Asian carp consumption.


Plus Phelps argues that Asian carp just tastes good. “It’s that perfect snow-white flesh that will take on any seasoning that you want to put on it,” he said. Phelps has appeared in several YouTube tutorials that teach viewers how to prepare and cook Asian carp. He has also appeared on the Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern” where they made fried Asian carp sandwiches.


“Whether you’re frying them up old school-style in a cast iron skillet or if you prefer an Asian twist with carp-on-a-stick, don’t knock them until you try them,” Phelps said in a YouTube video. “Asian carp are actually a delicious fish to eat.”