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In Kentucky's Carp Madness, Fishermen Net 83,000 Pounds Of Invasive Species

Asian carp is an invasive species of fish that can devastate aquatic ecosystems and, as they have a propensity for leaping out of the water, injure boaters. And once they've gotten into a river or lake, they're nearly impossible to get out. But for two days this week in Western Kentucky, teams of commercial fishermen tried. They descended on two lakes to catch as many Asian carp as possible. It was a tournament sponsored by the commonwealth and it was called…Carp Madness.Listen to the story.

Fish are jumping at Barkley Lake. It’s cold, but that hasn’t stopped 15 teams of fishermen from coming out to compete in the state’s first-ever commercial Asian carp fishing tournament.

One of them is 63-year-old Ronny Hopkins.

“It’s bad today, it ain’t going real good today,” he said from his fishing boat. “Fish ain’t cooperating.”

It’s hard to look more like a stereotypical fisherman than Hopkins: he’s weathered and grizzled, wearing a yellow slicker and smoking a short brown cigarillo. His rubber waders are streaked with fish blood, and there's blood splashed into his white beard.

Hopkins has been fishing since he was seven-years-old, following his father into the profession. He now works with both his son and his grandson. Over the past few years he’s been catching carp. It's rough.

“See them teeth knocked out? Feel right there,” he says, pointing to his ribcage.

“That’s where a silver hit me. Busted my ribs along the bottom part. I got punched, landed in the bottom of the boat, crying it hurt so bad. I ain’t never had a man hit me that hard.”

Fishing carp can be painful, and it's not particularly profitable either. Almost no one wants to eat a fish known more for being a pest than a meal. Hopkins has found a processor in Illinois to buy the carp, so he routinely puts out nets for them. But most fishermen, including most of those at the tournament, don’t fish for carp, and as the population grows, that's a problem.

“Every tributary, every stream leading out of the Mississippi River, out of the Ohio River, all the way up to Louisville now, all of those are in danger of overpopulation of Asian carp,” says Kentucky Division of Wildlife Director of Fisheries Ron Brooks.

Asian carp—which include the silver carp and the bighead carp—have been spreading throughout the South and Midwest for the past three decades, and are working their way toward the Great Lakes. And once they get into a body of water, they take over. And the only way to get them out is with a net.

“There’s a lot of species that could, effectively be totally wiped out if these numbers keep going up, like they have in the Illinois River, for instance,” Brooks said. “So there’s a lot at stake here.”

That's why the Division of Fish and Wildlife decided to hold this mass culling, to see how many Asian carp could be removed from the lakes at once. Brooks’ goal for the tournament is 150,000 pounds, and he says even that won’t make a dent in the local Asian carp population.

And unfortunately for the Asian carp, few seem to feel bad about the slaughter. Dacelle Peckler saves animals for a living—she’s a veterinarian. But she’s also a recreational angler and says she has no problem with killing carp.

“The things that should be here can’t be here, because these things are taking over,” she said. “It’s just like feral cats and wild hogs. Things that don’t belong in the wild because other things can’t outcompete them. And I have no problems, for the betterment of everything, you can’t let one species decimate everything.”

Back on Hopkins’ boat, the crew is getting ready to pull in the nets. Slowly, one yank at a time, the men haul it into the boat. Huge carp—one three feet long—fall onto the floor. They're still flailing. The fishermen pull the fish from the net, impale them with a hook, then whip them into a metal box. There’s a lot of blood.

Back on shore, a crowd’s gathered to watch the fishermen unload their boats. The crews climb up and pour buckets of bloody fish into hoppers to be weighed. Eight-year-old Cooper Lyvers is impressed.

“That thing’s almost as big as me!” he exclaims, as the fish are unloaded.

The tournament shows that fisherman can bring in loads of Asian carp, but the question about what to do with the fish remains. Some of the fish will be shipped to Asia, where they're a delicacy. Some will be ground up for fish meal.

There are varying schools of thought of encouraging Asian carp consumption in America—some worry that if the fish is in demand, they’ll be cultivated and end up doing more damage. But others, including Kentucky wildlife officials say creating a market for the fish will go a long way to getting Asian carp under control.

On shore, there are carp filleting demonstrations, and taste tests. People line up to grab fried Asian carp nuggets, and there are rave reviews. Jennifer Lyvers—Cooper’s mother—is skeptical, but takes a bite.

“I have to say, I like it better than catfish,” she said. “Because catfish kind of has that fishy taste. And this was very mild, I thought.”

I try one, too...and it’s delicious. It tastes like fried fish, and is light and flakey.

Over the course of the two-day tournament, fishermen take out nearly 83,000 pounds of fish from the two lakes.

Fisheries Director Ron Brooks was hoping for a larger harvest. But this tournament was just the first effort, and the goal is for the tournament’s effect to be further-reaching, and convince fishermen that there is a market for carp in Kentucky. There's even a processing plant for the fish coming to the commonwealth in May—and if things go according to plan, in the future Asian carp may be rebranded and show up with a different name on Kentucky restaurant menus.