August 26, 2002
By PETER T. KILBORN
VICKSBURG, Miss., Aug. 23 - Five miles west of downtown
Tunica, over the grassy levee that keeps the floods out of
town, the fishermen who had gathered by the banks of the
Mississippi were telling tales of crazed fish as big as
hound dogs that leap out of the water and hit boaters on
"This year there's a gang of them coming into the boats,"
said John Robertson, who helps out at a bait shop at
Charlie's Landing, a fishing camp. "If you're down there
fishing, they'll jump over in the boat to you. I had one
guy, it hit him and busted his mouth."
In the next fishing camp over, Jack Bryan, who had joined
some friends for breakfast beers at Big Roy's, a tavern,
said: "It started about two, three years ago. What I was
told was, some of these fish ponds got flooded, and they
spread all over." Two weeks ago, he said, a flying
48-pounder split a buddy's lip.
The men were sober. The tales were true. The fish were
Grass carp, bighead carp and the neurotic silver carp -
giant, prolific species all originally imported by catfish
farmers in Mississippi and Arkansas two decades ago to
control detritus and unwanted plant and animal life in
their manmade ponds - have escaped in floods into the
Mississippi, and have begun showing up as far north as Iowa
"They are thick as fleas in Mississippi tributaries," said
Bill Reeves, chief of fisheries for the State of Tennessee.
These carp lack any touches of style, like a swordfish's
elegant fins or a sturgeon's scoopy nose. The grass carp
"is like an aquatic cow," said Jack Killgore, a fisheries
biologist at the Army Corps of Engineers' Waterways
Experiment Station, a research center in Vicksburg. "It
Now a more recent arrival, the black carp, is stirring
alarm from New Orleans to Ontario. Also known as the snail
carp and the Chinese roach, the black carp is a
bottom-sucking ogre that can grow five feet long and up to
150 pounds. It gorges on mollusks - including
parasite-infested ram's horn snails, which can populate
ponds and infect the catfish with wormy yellow grubs. Teeth
in the back of its throat grind up its prey like garbage
The various carp species, imported from China, Russia and
Vietnam, are banned from fish farms in several states. They
are edible but largely uneaten here, except by some Asian
immigrants for whom they are a dietary staple.
Most farms get along without them, said Hugh Warren,
executive director of the Catfish Farmers of America, a
trade association in Indianola, Miss., but a sizable
minority believe they must have them. Several farmers in
Arkansas breed small numbers of sterile black carp for sale
to catfish farms in Arkansas and Mississippi.
As yet, none is known to have escaped a pond for the wild,
but after two years of pressure from many states'
conservation and natural resource agencies, the Fish and
Wildlife Service on July 30 proposed adopting a rule
designating the black carp an injurious species. On Aug. 3
it issued a similar ruling for the northern snakehead, a
predatory Asian fish that has been found in Maryland,
California, Florida, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode
"The probability is high" that the rule will be approved
for the black carp after a 60-day comment period, said Ken
Burton, a spokesman for the service. Opponents, he said,
"would have to present very convincing arguments, because
all the evidence goes the other way."
The rule would ban the importing and interstate shipping of
the carp, although states that now allow them, like
Mississippi and Arkansas, could continue to do so. The
agency cited other ways to control snails on catfish farms,
using chemicals and less invasive snail-eating fish. But
some farmers say nothing works like black carp, and they
intend to fight the ruling.
In the political storm that is brewing, the Mississippi
Interstate Cooperative Resource Association, made up of
natural resource agencies from 28 states and four federal
agencies, favors such regulations. State and federal
agriculture departments tend to oppose them.
"I've talked to both of our senators personally," said Mike
Freeze, a black carp and bass farmer in Arkansas. "I know
both are opposed." The industry has formed a formidable
The earlier invasion of Asian carp into American waterways,
before injurious-species regulations had been written and
long after a ban would have any effect, presents a major
conflict. It not only sets commercial interests against
conservationists and ecologists, but also pits the
interests of one business, catfish farming, against the
interests of another, the sale of mussel shells to Japan to
make cultured pearls.
In Mississippi, catfish have become the state's
fourth-biggest crop. Like the casinos that have opened
along the Mississippi River, catfish farms have helped
sustain a region of the country, the Mississippi Delta,
that ranks with Appalachia and Indian reservations in
unemployment, poverty and disease. Workers who have lost
jobs on mechanized cotton plantations find jobs at catfish
Mr. Warren of the Catfish Farmers of America said 395
Mississippi farms raise catfish in 111,500 acres of water.
They represent more than half the nation's cultivated
production of catfish. Some farmers also raise a hybrid
striped bass for restaurants. "And there are people that
grow catfish that also grow carp," Mr. Warren said.
But as the grass, silver and bighead carp already in the
river grow and proliferate, conservation agencies are
finding them no easier to control than alewives, round
gobies, the zebra mussels that have stacked themselves
along the Mississippi and across the Great Lakes, and the
sea lampreys that latch onto fish and suck the life out of
them. Carp hug the bottom of the muddy Mississippi, and
nobody knows how many there are.
Day by day, fishermen have lately been reporting sightings
of the once-infrequently seen silver carp springing like
torpedoes from rivers in the Mississippi basin when
outboard motor boats pass. "It's common behavior to jump
when frightened," Dr. Killgore of the Army Corps of
Engineers said. "One clipped my ear."
For a couple of years, bighead carp have been piling into
the nets that Bill Lancaster of Sunflower, Miss., sets out
for native catfish and buffalo fish. "They've gotten more
and more and bigger and bigger," Mr. Lancaster said. "I
caught some bigheads last year that weighed over 70 pounds.
They tear enormous holes in your nets."
As they head north, John Chick, director of the Illinois
Natural History Survey's Great River field station near
Alton, Ill., said, "Individuals have been seen up around
Iowa and Wisconsin." Their next stop could be the Great
Marc Gaden, spokesman for the Great Lakes Fisheries
Commission in Ann Arbor, Mich., an organization of the
governments of the United States and Canada that seeks to
prevent pollution and ecological damage to the Great Lakes,
said the fish were "scratching at our door."
"They're very large, they're voracious eaters, and they're
very well suited to the climate of the Great Lakes," Mr.
Jerry Rasmussen, coordinator of large river activities for
the Mississippi Interstate Cooperative Resource
Association, which petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service
for the ban against black carp, said, "Two bigheads in the
50-pound range have been found in Lake Erie." Mr. Rasmussen
said Asian immigrants might have put them there.
To thwart escapees from the Mississippi, and any other fish
heading from there to the lakes along the Chicago Sanitary
Canal, the Corps of Engineers has installed an electric
barrier in the canal that induces them to turn back. "The
barrier was turned on in April," Mr. Gaden said. Asian carp
have yet to test it, he said, but so far it seems to be
working on gobies.
With relatively few established in the rivers, it is hard
to tell which of the carp, if any, will become bearable
nuisances, or whether any will become something much worse,
like the zebra mussel. As big, gluttonous vacuum cleaners,
carp compete with native fish for food and spawning ground.
"At some point, we're going to run into a major crisis,"
said Ronald Benjamin, a fisheries biologist in the LaCrosse
office of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
Richard Wehnes, fisheries unit chief at the Missouri
Department of Conservation, said, "The silver carp has
taken off exponentially." Because they compete with
largemouth bass, bluegills, redears and crappies for
plankton - single-cell plant and animal life - Mr. Wehnes
said, "Our concern is, what are they pushing out?"
Although it is too late to stop the other Asian carp, Mr.
Wehnes said his office had ordered producers to destroy
their black carp. To help them adjust to other means of
snail control, he said, the department is providing sterile
black carp to use in their ponds temporarily.
Mike Freeze, who raises hybrid striped bass for
restaurants, also produces the sterile black carp, which he
sells to Mississippi farmers. That business would stop
under the Fish and Wildlife Service's rule, and Mr. Freeze
is a leader of the lobby against it.
"There has not been a single black carp that escaped into
the wild," he said. "It's a legitimate concern." With
screens on the drains of the ponds and high leveelike walls
around them, he said, "We're extremely careful, and we're
being punished for that."
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