Flying carp are in hiding

Photo Courtesy USFWSFlying fish greet boaters on the Illinois River.

The notorious flying carp apparently are in hiding from fish researchers. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists from the La Crosse, Wisconsin, Fisheries Office recently netted the Pool 13 waters of the Upper Mississippi River from Clinton to Sabula in search of these Asian aerial aquanauts.

The good news is that not a single bighead or the flying silver carp were caught.

Some anglers dream of catching a monster fish. A whopper 73 pound bighead carp estimated to be 20 to 25 years old was caught by a commercial fisherman in lower Sabula Lake in summer 2012. However, hook and line fishermen will be disappointed to know that Asian carp are unlikely to be captured by anglers due their filter feeding habits. This monster fish was a bad omen of what natural resource managers have feared for many years.

Why the fear? The bighead carp and its cousin the silver carp are Asian species, they are not native fish. They are physically adapted to live in the Upper Mississippi River due to large size, massive body weight, high reproductive potential and voracious appetite. Asian carp invaded the Illinois River over 20 years ago and now account for over 95 percent of the fish species in some areas.

Asian carp began their trek 30 years ago and a thousand miles away. They were imported by commercial catfish farmers in Arkansas in the early 1970s to remove algae from their ponds. Flood waters in the 1980s washed the fish into tributaries of the Lower Mississippi River. Other isolated introductions are theorized due to their rapid spread.

Their trek north was assisted by the Great Flood of 1993 allowing expansion into the Middle Mississippi River, Illinois River and Missouri River. Subsequent floods in 1997 and 2001 allowed passage past locks and dams to near Lake Michigan by 2002. The first report of Asian carp in our local Mississippi River waters was 2005 with low numbers currently being caught in nets by commercial fishermen. These carp have been reported as far north as Canada.

Very few species have caused such wide spread alarm. Their potential threat to the multi-billion dollar fishing industry on the Great Lakes created the initiative to build three electric barriers in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. These underwater devices emit electric impulses to deter carp and other fish from passing the barriers.

The threat to the Great Lake fisheries has caused a legal and political firestorm with states threatening to sue federal agencies. In the event of a mass electrical failure of the underwater barriers, emergency plans identify the canal would be treated with a fish poison called rotenone. Several thousand gallons of rotenone are currently in storage pending an emergency need.

The silver carp is notoriously known as the flying fish that launches out of the water when disturbed by passing watercraft. Hundreds of fish may leap in unison. They can jump 10 feet high, 20 feet horizontally and many weigh between 10 to 15 pounds.

A growing Asian carp population in our local Mississippi River waters is reason for concern not only due to competition with native fish but also a safety hazard to river users. Recreationists on the Illinois River have received broken bones, lacerations, concussions, and knocked unconscious after flying fish encounters. Who would have ever thought that we may one day have to protect ourselves from flying fish?

Ed Britton is a Wildlife Refuge Manager at the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife & Fish Refuge.

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