Kentucky Lake’s Asian carp crisis

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Tennessee Tech University Photo Services

Bass anglers in the lower Tennessee River are just now learning what boaters in the Illinois River have dealt with for more than 25 years: Boating in waters infested with Asian carp can be hazardous to your health.

“You don’t come to the Illinois River and run a bass boat at 70 miles per hour without a helmet on and a plan for what you would do if a 5-pound carp jumps out of the water in front of you,” warned Kevin Irons, one of the nation’s foremost authorities on invasive carp.

Actually, you can’t truly prepare for that danger, he acknowledged. Irons, who is the Aquatic Nuisance Species program manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, has encountered carp at slow speeds, and he once watched a 10-pounder jump out of the water while he was running at 30 mph. It missed him but tore the cowling off his motor.

Noting that silver carp are easily disturbed and will jump as high as 10 feet into the air, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) issued the warning, “With a boat speed of over 20 mph and fish that can weigh over 20 pounds, this can be disastrous. Jumping fish have seriously injured many boaters and damaged boats. Water-skiing on the Missouri River is now exceedingly dangerous.”

Anglers in the recent Berkley Bassmaster Elite at Kentucky Lake presented by Abu Garcia weren’t so much concerned with flying carp as they were the fate of the lake’s legendary ledge fishing. Kevin VanDam calls the Asian carp invasion “the scariest thing facing bass fishing today,” and numerous other competitors in the event expressed similar fears for what once was a world-class fishery.

Television angler Bill Dance of Tennessee was one of the first to sound the alarm, and today he’s among the most vocal in declaring that something has to be done.

“I lived it,” he said of the scourge that has spread from the Mississippi River into connecting waterways. “I’ve seen it from the time it started on the Mississippi. I have seen how our rivers have gone down. I’ve seen our freshwater herring diminish. I’ve seen our threadfin shad and gizzard shad go down. I’ve seen our oxbow businesses go out of business. These nasty things are going to destroy our fisheries.”

Those “nasty things” are bighead and silver carp, which, along with grass carp and black carp, were imported by fish farmers in the 1960s to increase pond productivity and control vegetation and pests. Their introduction occurred in the wake of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, which warned of the dangers of synthetic pesticides. Biologists, including those working for federal agencies, saw the carp as a biological control that was much better for the environment than chemical treatments, according to Irons.