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Ky. tries to interest anglers in Asian carp

May 20, 2010 at 04:58 PM

The Courier-Journal

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - They say they taste like tuna. Or cod. Or a cross between scallops and crabmeat.

But whether Asian carp from Kentucky ends up on a restaurant plate, or as lobster bait, the state is working to develop markets for the fish they fear could if left unchecked threaten the ecological balance of the Ohio River and other waters.

“This is a pretty serious situation,” said Ron Brooks, director of fisheries for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “It’s definitely one of the most important problems we are going to have to deal with for a while.”

The silver and bighead varieties of Asian carp have made their way up the Ohio from the Mississippi River and have also gotten into the popular Barkley and Kentucky lakes in western Kentucky.

The fear is that these Asian carp, which can grow to 100 pounds, will crowd out more desirable native fish like sauger, white bass, crappie and catfish that help support a nearly $1 billion a year recreational fishing industry in Kentucky. They are also causing problems for people who fish for a living.

“It’s got so bad now, you can’t catch anything but them,” said commercial fisherman Ronnie Hopkins. “If we don’t do something about them, in another five years, there won’t be no bass and crappie, (and) no paddlefish.”

Asian carp are voracious eaters of plant and animal plankton and were brought to the southern United States in the 1970s to help fish-farming and wastewater treatment facilities remove algae from retention ponds.

But they escaped into the Mississippi and have been migrating northward ever since. Experts say the bighead and silver carp outgrow most predators’ menus very quickly.

“They are not in balance here because they are not native to the Americas,” said Dave Baker, a spokesman for the Kentucky wildlife agency. “They are trying to fill in a niche that exists in their place of origin, but is occupied here by other species.”

Illinois, Michigan and several other states currently are in a high-profile fight over how to keep them from passing through Chicago-area shipping locks and into the Great Lakes, where biologists fear ecological and economic devastation.

“They’re here to stay,” Brooks said of the foreign carp in the Ohio and connected lakes. “The risk for us is whether they will out-compete our natives.”

Bighead carp have made it up the Ohio River as far as West Virginia, Baker said. “Silver carp those huge fish you see jumping out of the water as boats go by have made it to Louisville,” he said. Others have been found in the Salt River in Bullitt County.

“They are a nuisance,” said Greg Hoskinson, a Louisville bass angler who said he has encountered them near the Falls of the Ohio and in some smaller creeks that empty into the river. “When they hear a boat coming, they just jump straight out of the water.”

Hopkins, the commercial fisherman o f paddlefish and buffalo fish, unintentionally caught 7,000 pounds of Asian carp in his nets in just one day this spring on Lake Barkley. Some were as large as 70 pounds.

“Commercial fishermen were telling us about them,” said Paul Rister, a state fisheries biologist. He acknowledged he was skeptical of the size and number of Asian carp that were being reported. “Fishermen,” he said, “like to grow their fish in their stories’.”

But Rister went along with a camera, and he said he’s now a believer.

“Until we went out with them, and saw all that we saw, and saw them as big as we saw, it never hit home with me,” he said.

Brooks said he’s been talking with representatives of lobster fishermen from Maine, who are facing a shortage of herring for bait, and working on how to ship the fish across state lines without violating rules or recommendations designed to prevent the spread of fish diseases.

“They want anywhere from 40,000 to 60,000 pounds, severa l times a week,” Brooks said.

He said the state is also looking into reports of new commercial markets in China for the fish, and that he plans to attend a meeting this summer in Chicago with China representatives. “We are going to try to find out what’s going on,” he said.

A Kentucky State University researcher agrees there’s potential to put Asian carp on people’s plates, and insists the fish taste good.

They need a more attractive name, and some savvy marketing, said Sid Dasgupta, an associate professor and principal investigator in economics and marketing at the KSU Aquaculture Research Center.

“It is very similar to tuna,” he said, adding that testing shows the meat low in toxic compounds because the fish feed at the bottom of the food chain and grow quickly, and are high heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids if also a bit boney.

Patrice M. Charlebois, an invasive species specialist with the federally funded Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant Program, said markets exist overseas and the program is trying to develop markets at U.S. grocery stores and restaurants.

She said the fish tastes “a lot like cod,” or, “sea bass without a hint of the sea. The meat is really mild.” They call it silverfin in Louisiana, where chefs in a promotional effort have said it tastes something like scallops or crab.

For the Ohio River, whose native fish have rebounded in recent decades with cleaner water, much is at stake. Biologists say there are few options other than establishing a commercial market to help keep their numbers from swelling and taking over.

“I see this as a way to encourage commercial fishermen to go after them,” Brooks explained. “You get commercial fishermen interested in something, and they will take it as far as you let them. They will harvest these fish if you give them a market.”

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