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Silver carp invasion causes concern

Larry Woody, Outdoors Writer • Dec 17, 2015 at 6:25 PM

A 10-pound silver carp was snagged below Percy Priest dam last year, indicating the fish's continued infestation of the Cumberland River and its tributaries.

The carp initially were found in Arkansas but entered the Mississippi River during flooding in the early 1990s. Within a decade they had found their way into the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. Today they are abundant in Kentucky and Barkley Lakes, and rapidly spreading into more areas.

Fisheries biologists believe they will eventually be profuse in Percy Priest and Old Hickory Lakes.

Silver carp, different from the common golden-colored carp that have been present in Tennessee waters for generations, present serious problems on two counts:

1. Schools of the fish leap from the water when disturbed by a boat motor, presenting a hazard to fishermen, water skiers and other boaters. Getting smacked by a big fish while moving at a high rate of speed is obviously dangerous. There have been reports of boaters being knocked unconscious by the fish, and one water skier suffered a broken jaw and other facial injuries.

2. Silver carp compete for resources with native species, including game fish. Although the carp don't feed on minnows, the algae and other microbes they consume is the same as is relied on by game-fish fry and smaller forage fish. When the carp consume that food, they break the food chain on which game fish rely for survival. Large schools of voracious carp can devastate an area of water.

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency is studying ways to deal with the silver carp problem. There is no season or limit on the fish, and anglers are encouraged to catch and keep all they can. Silver carp are tasty, and there is information about how to clean and cook them on on-line videos and other internet sources.

However, since silver carp don't feed on bait fish, they are virtually impossible to catch on lures or baits. Most of the fish caught by fishermen are grab-hooked in rivers in the same manner as are paddlefish.

The most effective way to reduce the carp population is by commercial netting. But the drawback is that the fish are not worth enough on the market (for use as pet food, for example), to make processing and transporting them profitable. There have been proposals to build on-site commercial processing plants specifically to handle netted carp.

Meanwhile, about all biologists can do is try to slow down the migration of the nuisance fish as much as possible. That includes warning fishermen to be careful not to mix small silver carp with threadfin shad, gizzard shad and other species of bait fish. The latter are often caught with cast nets, and it is possible to collect small silver carp by mistake and add them to bait buckets.

Along that same line, the TWRA prohibits releasing any fish of any species in any water; fishermen not even supposed to dump leftover minnows overboard at the end of a trip, because there is a chance a nuisance species might be included.

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