Clearing up carp confusion

In 2003, an angler wrote to Bassmaster Magazine complaining about its coverage of the growing threat to sport fisheries posed by Asian Carp. He asserted that he had fished for carp as a child, that they were native fish and that they were not a problem.

All these years later, "carp confusion" remains a common affliction in the angling community.

"I've got guys arguing not to put grass carp in lakes because of the damage that they've done to the Mississippi and Tennessee Rivers," said Bill Frazier, conservation director for the North Carolina B.A.S.S. Nation. "They also think that common carp are the same as grass, bighead and silver."

Speaking about what he sees posted on social media from anglers, he added, "It's total confusion, which makes for a disjointed and embarrassing assemblage, making us all look bad, like we don't know what we're talking about."

The issue goes beyond confusion and embarrassment. Knowing your carp can help you be a better steward, and ignorance can result in devastating consequences.

In West Virginia, Frazier said, a bait shop was selling "these great new minnows that bass love." Fortunately, an educated fisherman identified the small fish as juvenile bighead carp, told Frazier who notified the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources.

Likely this has happened in other states as well, as bait shop owners and fishermen mistake juvenile bighead or silver carp for shad. In response, state agencies have implemented restrictive regulations regarding live bait and published identification guides. But for such tools to be effective, people must know the law and, more importantly, the carp.

Let's start with the basics: The common carp, which is not one of the Asian carps, has been around for so long — more than a century — and is so abundant in our waters that many mistakenly believe it is native. It is not.

No carp species is native to the United States. All of them were intentionally introduced, for one reason or another, and what happened afterward because of flooding, carelessness and ignorance, has been generally catastrophic for our waterways and our fisheries.

Common carp are even more adaptable than bass. Unlike the Asian carp species, they don't require flowing water to spawn. They uproot vegetation and diminish water quality by rooting on the bottom. They, along with their goldfish and koi cousins, can overwhelm and destroy fisheries.

Asian carp which include silver, bighead, grass and black, are reproducing in many rivers and streams. The former two are of most concern because they are the most prolific and potentially damaging. Continuous feeding machines, they gobble up the zooplankton and phytoplankton needed by native filter feeders such as shad, as well as juvenile sport species. Additionally, silver carp pose a physical danger to anglers and boaters because of their tendency to leap when frightened.

For nearly two decades, most of the concern about these species was focused on keeping them out of the Great Lakes to protect the billion-dollar sport fishery there. But a recent silver carp explosion in Kentucky and Barkley Lakes on the Tennessee River made national headlines, as it galvanized local, state and federal efforts to contain the invaders and minimize their damage.

Feeding on mollusks, black carp began showing up in noticeable numbers only a few years ago, mostly in Illinois tributaries of the Mississippi River. 

Grass carp have been around the longest of the four. Their numbers have been steadily growing in many of our rivers, after these fish escaped from aquaculture facilities and private farm ponds where they were stocked to control excessive aquatic vegetation. They are of special concern in states and provinces around the Great Lakes.  And they're also reproducing in the Mississippi, Missouri, Illinois and Tennessee Rivers, as well as the Red and Trinity in Texas.

While the general consensus is that silver and bighead carp pose more of a threat, grass carp can live up to 30 years and don't require huge populations to have detrimental effects on wetlands and beneficial aquatic vegetation.

In short, no carp is a good carp in our lakes, reservoirs, rivers and streams. Accidental or intentional introducing one of the Asian species into a lake or pond carries the risk that the fish will escape. Armed with a little knowledge, anglers can play a key role in minimizing the damage done to our fisheries by these invaders.

Resources to help minimize carp confusion:

West Virginia DNR Asian carp identification guide

Carp profiles