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Boater turns viral carp video into river advocacy

June 09, 2013 at 08:16 PM

The Associated Press

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) — Brendan Kearns has a warning for anyone who hops into his brown 16-foot, flat-bottom boat for a trip up the Wabash River.

"If they get to jumping, guard your face," he told The Indianapolis Star ( ), throwing his arms up like a boxer blocking a right hook. "Get ready to use your ninja skills."

Kearns, a 40-year-old Terre Haute occupational health and safety consultant, has had plenty of practice on those skills in his pursuit of a fish that has given him a claim to fame: the silver carp.

The aquatic invader, native to Asia, has rapidly expanded through Midwestern waterways, giving biologists heartburn because it threatens aquatic ecosystems, commercial fishing and, yes, people.

Silver carp, you see, not only gobble up organisms vital to a waterway's food chain, but when they're disturbed by a boat, they're prone to leaping from the water, sometimes by the dozen, and often directly into the boat's path.

If you surf the Web or watch cable TV, you may have witnessed Kearns getting beaned by a carp. Kearns became the stuff of viral-video lore after uploading a 2010 clip in which hundreds, yes hundreds, of the fish burst from the Wabash, he and his buddy dodging the assault, Kearns "giggling like a little schoolgirl who lost her mind."

Typical Kearns. A spinner of tall tales, Kearns quipped he grabbed lightning from the sky, grew plantains in his backyard and sold them on the black market, just to see if a reporter was paying attention. That style contributed to the success of his video and his popularity as a local speaker.

Kearns estimates his upload and its various pirated copies and knockoffs have generated close to 10 million views. The clip appeared on Comedy Central's popular viral-video show "Tosh.0." He's been interviewed by media outlets across the U.S. and in Europe. He was featured via Skype on Japan's version of "America's Funniest Home Videos" (Van Halen's "Jump" played during the segment). And he's even battled a TV network for using the clip without his permission.

While Kearns' clip isn't the only viral "flying carp" video out there, it has given him a measure of celebrity in his native Terre Haute, where he gives a presentation to community groups called, "How Asian carp changed my life."

Like much of what Kearns said on a recent trip up the Wabash, the title of his talk is both lighthearted and serious. Though the leaping fish are fun to watch, he says, the threats they pose to aquatic ecosystems and boaters are very real.

"When you're going along at 25 or 30 mph, and a 15- or 20-pound fish hits you, you're going to have a very bad day," Kearns said. "At 10 miles an hour, they hurt when they hit you. I know because I've been hit."

Doug Keller, aquatic habitat coordinator for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, said there's plenty of cause for concern. Actually, two species of invasive Asian carp, bighead and silver, are considered well-established in some Indiana waters. As they move along the rivers feeding on tiny planktonic organisms vital to the ecosystem, the fish can grow to 60 to 100 pounds and eat up to 40 percent of their body weight in a single day.

"They're eating the absolute base of the food chain," Keller said.

The carp were first introduced in Arkansas and other states to clean sewer lagoons and aquaculture ponds.

The carp escaped confinement and began to spread. Prolific breeders with few natural predators, they headed up the Mississippi and other rivers, eventually making their way to Indiana and beyond.

The carp have traveled up the Wabash into the Logansport area north of Kokomo, Keller said, and up the White River at least as far as Martinsville.

Biologists are especially concerned about the fish taking hold in the Great Lakes, where they pose a threat to one of the nation's largest commercial fisheries and the region's recreational boating and fishing.

The silvers are the only ones that jump when disturbed by boats. Strangely, it's a uniquely American trait. Keller said that in Asia, they don't jump at a boat's approach.

Government biologists have spent millions of dollars and used everything from electric barriers, controversial aquatic DNA sampling and poisoning to block the fish's passage, collect evidence of their expansion and to kill as many of the carp as possible.

It's illegal to put an Asian carp, dead or alive, back into the water.

Indiana lawmakers last year even passed a law that gave the state's Natural Resources Commission the authority to set rules allowing people to shoot carp on the Wabash with firearms. (It's perfectly legal to hunt them with a bow and arrow.) The commission, however, has yet to weigh in on whether it's a good idea to allow people in boats to blast away with guns at flying fish.

But state and federal efforts to control the carp's spread have met with dubious results.

"The magic bullet hasn't been discovered yet," Keller said.

Kearns said that when he shot his video, he didn't know anything about the carp — or even that he was breaking the law when he was flipping the fish out of his boat.

He said he got an earful from a DNR official about the flub but no citation. Now, he keeps the fish and eats them. He says they're quite good, especially when smoked over alder wood and grilled with olive oil and a dash of salt and pepper.

Kearns said he gets out on the river at least once or twice a week, trying to make the fish dance, with different degrees of success.

On a recent overcast day when the river was high and extra muddy, Kearns, dressed in full Eddie Bauer chic, tried all his tricks. He varied boat speeds, stomped his feet and played music. Only a few dozen hopped up here and there over the course of about two hours, mostly when Kearns' satellite radio began playing "Kangaroo Court" by the electro-pop band Capital Cities.

One bit of advice: Never, ever play country. "The country music seems to depress them," he said wryly, "so that they don't jump much."

Turning serious, Kearns says he's never been able to replicate the footage of hundreds of flying fish, nor his maniacal giggling that made his video so special.

"It was pure chaos," he said. "I just started laughing. It sounds like I just lost my mind, and I think I did. Literally hundreds were jumping. It is the most surreal thing I've ever experienced. I was scared. I was excited, a little bit of everything."

And he said he never thought the video would turn him into an advocate for a waterway scorned by many recreational boaters and fishermen because of ecological problems caused by sewage outflows and industry. But it has.

On this particular day, Kearns stopped to take the temperature of the water below an outlet dumping effluent from the local coal-fired power plant. (Only three degrees hotter. Not bad. He says he's seen hotter.) He made note of the trash along the river's lush, green tree line ("Was that a condom hanging from that branch?"), and the signs posted within feet of the boat ramp warning of raw sewage contamination.

On the same trip, he also pointed out the river's natural beauty: a swirling whirlpool in an eddy below a railroad bridge, a bald eagle that erupted from its perch as the boat approached, a wild turkey that flew across the river, its beard nearly dragging in the water, a family of wood ducks with a brood of cheeping ducklings and squawking great blue herons, which he lovingly refers to as GBHs.

For Kearns, the jumping carp put a face to the human-caused problems on the river he loves. He uses them to remind us that we're the only ones who can fix them.

"I try to take people out here just to show them how beautiful it is," Kearns said. "It's its own little world not too far from the city. But when we're cruising along going, 'Oh, look at that nice bald eagle,' and a silver carp comes out and slaps them upside the head, it changes everything."


Information from: The Indianapolis Star,

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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