Commercial fishers, processors share thoughts on Ky. invasive carp harvest program
Western Kentucky’s interconnected waterways have shaped the region’s economy and culture, but being connected to some of the nation’s key river transportation corridors comes with a catch now: millions of invasive Asian carp are eating away at the habitats and food sources of native fish.
These invasive Asian carp directly compete with native species for food and habitat, and can harm native fish communities and interfere with commercial and recreational fishing. Kentucky’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources launched the Invasive Carp Harvest Program in 2013 to incentivize their removal by local and regional businesses and commercial anglers.
Members of the department met with commercial fishers, processors, market owners, local government leaders and regional economic development officials Tuesday in Eddyville to get their input on the program after a decade of implementation.
Dave Dreves, the department’s director of fisheries, said the session was an opportunity to hear from those who are out on the waters, what they think would improve the harvest program and help sell more invasive carp on the market.
“It was really a chance for us to find out what's working for them, what's not working for them,” he said.
The program allows commercial anglers to fish for invasive carp in areas that were previously restricted to commercial fishing, including Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley in far western Kentucky.
Four types of carp originating from Asia — including the silver carp, bighead carp, grass carp and black carp — were introduced in the United States in the 1970s to control algae, plankton and other vegetation growth on fish farms. Those fish eventually found their way into the Mississippi River and its tributaries, establishing breeding grounds in the home of other fish native to Kentucky. Since then, the population of Asian carp has boomed as the species spread throughout the country’s waterways.
According to data from the Fish and Wildlife Department, over 9.5 million pounds of invasive carp was harvested from Kentucky waters in 2022. That’s up drastically from when the program first started in 2013 – when just under 800,000 pounds of invasive carp was harvested.
Joshua Tompkins, a fisheries biologist for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife, said about 80% of the 2022 invasive carp harvest, or roughly 7.6 million pounds, came from the Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley reservoirs.
The state offers a subsidy of eight cents per pound to commercial fishers to encourage harvesting of the invasive species. Tetra Tech, a California-based engineering and consulting firm, offers separate subsidies for invasive carp harvested from the Wabash, Green, Ohio and lower Tennessee and Cumberland. Commercial fishers on these rivers get 10 cents per pound of invasive carp harvested, while buyers can receive a five-cent-per-pound subsidy.
Commercial anglers and processors alike told Fish & Wildlife staff that even more subsidies like these are necessary to speed up the removal of the species by the region’s fishing and processing industries.
Dreves said the agency’s mission is to conserve, protect and enhance the state’s natural resources, but he’s hopeful a new partnership with Murray State University’s College of Business can help Kentucky’s Fish and Wildlife Department evaluate the best commercial uses for invasive carp.
Chris Wooldridge is the director of Murray State’s Center for Economic and Entrepreneurial Development. He said Tuesday’s meeting helped him and Fish and Wildlife representatives learn from the perspectives of those who are fishing, buying and selling Asian carp.
“The Department of Fish and Wildlife is trying to figure out, ‘how do we incentivize along that economic model, where's the best way to incentivize and help folks move down that supply chain?’” Wooldridge said.
Some fishers said they would like to see the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources also expand opportunities for experimental fishing to try new equipment that may increase their invasive carp fishing hauls as opposed to traditional means.
Another issue discussed during the session was what to do with the fish once they are caught, and how and where carp should be marketed.
Last year, after two years of consumer research and planning, Illinois launched a marketing campaign to rebrand Asian carp as “Copi” as a way to encourage more consumers to eat the fish. Other fishers told the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife they have sold Asian carp as fishing bait. Some processors said the fish could be used as a source of protein in pet foods or made into pellets for use on fish farms.
Some fishers said there simply aren’t enough buyers for the harvested carp, while some processors conversely said they weren’t being brought enough of the species by commercial fishers.