Neil Matlock

Hoisting an 83-pound big head carp taken from Kentucky Lake in late July is local commercial fisherman Neil Matlock. Back in December, he netted one that weighed 76 pounds. Commercial fishing for Asian carp will continue to be an effective method to help control the invasive fish. Barriers at dams will help but commercial fishermen will always play a big role. 

Last week’s column dealt with some history of Asian carp introduction into our waterways and a new tool — a Bio-Acoustic Fish Fence (BAFF) — about to be introduced that will enhance the ability of fish and wildlife agencies to curtail migration.

A few members of the media, along with fisheries biologists from Tennessee and Kentucky plus representatives of several federal agencies such as U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U. S. Geological Survey were invited to see, firsthand, what the BAFF was all about.

We also witnessed a shocking demonstration by Kentucky Fish and Wildlife that showed just how many carp can stage in a small area below locks, awaiting the opportunity to pass through the open doors, clearing the path for mass migration into such reservoirs as Barkley and Kentucky. The video of thousands of carp erupting has since gone viral on social media plus received a lot of national exposure in newspapers and television as well. I was standing right over the boat when the shocking occurred and it sounded like a waterfall when many fish jumped. It was an eye opener.

Meanwhile, a United Kingdom-based company known as Fish Guidance Systems hopes to have the BAFF — a bubble curtain with light and high frequency sound — installed by October if not sooner. Initial plans intended it to be up and running before now but high water below Barkley Dam delayed the project this past spring and summer.

 

THE BIG PICTURE

The war on Asian carp is complex and being fought on many fronts. Far from the flowing waters of Barkley and Kentucky lakes where the fish have taken center stage lately over a once thriving sport fishery and tourism mecca are the halls of Congress. Problems with the carp don’t stop and start at state lines. The enormity of the saga is almost overwhelming.

When the problems first began to show up a few short years ago it was clear state fish and wildlife agencies wouldn’t be able to combat the invasion on their own. State agencies simply didn’t have the money and manpower to tackle such a big issue. It was also a learning curve for fisheries biologists who didn’t have a lot of experience managing and battling this new intruder.

Sport fishermen began to howl with discontent. Bass, crappie and bluegill fishing started to decline. Resorts and restaurants along the lakes started seeing visitors decline, leaving their dollars behind that once nourished a healthy, diverse recreational wonderland. It quickly became clear the encroachment of Asian carp was having a negative rippling effect that reached far and wide. It wasn’t just the lake area that was suffering.

Practically everyone had ideas and suggestions on what to do and how to do it. 

Commercial harvest of the carp is now underway. While thousands of pounds are being caught, many ask if it is even making a dent in the population. Asian carp can out-compete native species for food. One mature female Asian carp can produce more than 1 million eggs in a year. Were they spawning here in the Tennessee and Kentucky lake areas? Could they be stopped or slowed as to their migration from the Ohio and Mississippi rivers into local waterways? Was eradication possible or would we have to learn to live with this invasive fish? 

Were the carp to blame for the disappearance of aquatic vegetation, which had helped sport fishing, waterfowl and more thrive? Was the decline in shad populations affecting the whole food chain and influencing the degradation of bass and crappie numbers? So many questions; so few answers.

Quickly emerging in this enormous endeavor was the need for local, state and federal assistance. It was going to take a lot of agencies pooling their resources to stop the carp invasion. Where would the funding come from to use new technology and research? The clock was and is ticking. Carp keep swimming and thriving with few enemies.

With all the questions it became clear the war would never be won unless funding was secured on the federal level. That’s why the war will have to be fought on another battlefield in addition to the creeks, dams, and rivers.

 

POLITICAL SUPPORT NEEDED

Politicians at all levels are getting their ears bent. Their support base has raised awareness about Asian carp.

“For the past five years, Tennessee Wildlife Federation has been hard at work fighting for solutions and resources to combat the invasion,” said Mike Butler, chief executive officer of the federation. “Practically speaking, our work has focused in three areas.” 

“The first has been informing the public on what is happening with Asian carp and the threat these fish pose to our native fish and river recreation. We have spent considerable time and resources getting the message on this crisis out to media outlets, social media, and the public at large. People need to understand the severity of the problem in order to help us with supporting the solutions.”

“The second has been to engage and motivate citizens, professionals, and elected officials to get to work on those solutions, primarily securing the financial resources to put solutions in place. 

Specifically, we hold a monthly Asian carp conference call to bring together all relevant decision makers so that we are all on the same page coordinating the efforts being made, the needs we face, and the strategies we need to work together on to fix this problem.

“We also are launching a second call to further organize all the grassroots efforts that we have generated and that we see being generated in Tennessee and the region so that they can become an effective force for supporting solutions that combat Asian carp.

“The third is working directly with members of Congress, the state House of Representatives, and the governor’s office to keep them apprised of what we need to effectively address this Asian carp crisis. This work began when we helped pass the state Asian Carp Task Force legislation that elevated this issue and began the support for commercial fishermen three years ago.

“To date, our elected officials’ response to the problem has been positive. Of course what matters most is results, and we will have an opportunity to see if those results can be achieved when the final federal budget is announced. Senator Lamar Alexander is actively working with Senate Leader Mitch McConnell and Chairman (Alabama Sen. Richard) Shelby toward a $25 million appropriation that would provide critical funding to support barriers on our river locks and incentivize commercial fishermen to remove Asian carp from our public rivers,” continued Butler.

“Additionally, we are working with Governor Bill Lee and his administration toward a broader state response that could further assist the TWRA and their ongoing work in attacking this problem. 

“One thing that is important to realize is that we are still in the early stages of effectively combating the Asian carp problem. In order for us to protect our native fisheries and our outdoor recreation lifestyle on the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, we are going to need everyone’s help, and we are going to need sustained financial resources from our elected officials over the long term.”

“If we don’t take advantage of this opportunity now,” says Butler, “the cost to attack this problem will skyrocket. Being aggressive and resolute right now is critical to any chance of future success.”

 

STEVE McCADAMS is The Post-Intelligencer’s outdoors writer. His email address is stevemc@charter.net.

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