Most sport fishermen are bitterly opposed to commercial fishing with nets. Many think their nets harm game fish populations. But the day might be coming when sport fishermen wish there were more commercial fishermen.
Asian carp have invaded the lower reaches on the Tennessee River, mainly Kentucky Lake, in large numbers. Biologists think it is just a matter of time before they expand upstream in great numbers and wind up in Chickamauga and other East Tennessee lakes. In fact, the state record bighead carp on rod and reel was caught in 2005 below Nickajack Dam.
"We're pretty concerned about it," said Bobby Wilson, chief of fisheries for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. "Right now, [the Asian carp invasion] is headquartered on Kentucky Lake and the Mississippi, but there's little doubt they're going to go up the river."
You've probably seen videos of Asian carp, whether you knew what they were or not. Remember those videos where you see hundreds, even thousands, of fish leaping out of the water all at once as a boat goes by? Those are Asian carp, which really includes three species—bighead carp, silver carp and black carp. There are numerous cases of boaters and jet skiers being seriously injured when the big carp leap from the water.
"We haven't seen them on Kentucky Lake in the magnitude we may have seen on YouTube," Wilson said. "But it's not unusual to see them at all."
Steve McCadams, a well-known guide on Kentucky Lake, said, "I have been observing rapid increases in massive schools of Asian carp across the area for several years. They often cover acres of the surface at times. More troubling are the reports I have gotten from commercial fishermen over the years who say they are increasing so fast their nets fill up in places."
McCadams said massive numbers of Asian carp are beneath Kentucky and Barkley dams, traditionally outstanding areas for striper and catfish anglers.
"Carp are apparently changing the balance there to the extent anglers are seeing diminished catches and eroding forage bases of threadfin and gizzard shad," McCadams said. "Many fishermen can no longer catch bait in throw nets there and must move up into the reservoir to try and find baitfish."
Wilson recently returned from a large-scale Asian carp eradication effort on the Kentucky portions of Barkley and Kentucky lakes. Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife officials held a tournament specifically for commercial fishermen. Over a two-day period, net fishermen captured 83,000 pounds of Asian carp—impressive, but falling short of the 200,000 pounds biologists had hoped for.
"A lot of the commercial guys who saw they weren't well-equipped or prepared left and didn't fish the second day," Wilson said.
McCadams is hoping Tennessee wildlife officials will take a more aggressive approach, like he sees Kentucky doing. Outside of a tournament situation, commercial fishermen have little incentive to try and catch Asian carp, which bring roughly 2 cents a pound.
"TWRA is pretty much kicking the can down the road on the Asian carp issue and watching to see what Kentucky does," McCadams said. "I don’t think private enterprise can take care of the problem by itself unless states or local governments step up and help get the commercial fishery more involved by establishing processing plants in a close proximity to these reservoirs."
Wilson agrees that the problem is best addressed by developing a commercial market. He says the silver carp flesh is excellent.
"Until we get some sort of processing plant, there's no incentive for anybody to get out and try to catch them," Wilson said. "That's our biggest problem ... what do you do with them if you do catch them?"
A release from KDFW said tournaments will continue until fish processing plants can be built to support the existing market for Asian carp. That could generate the prices needed by commercial fishermen to make Asian carp worth their while.
The first Kentucky commercial fishing tournament winner was Barry Mann of Gilbertsville. His team caught 28,670 pounds of Asian carp in two days, winning the top prize of $10,000 offered by KDFW.
Ron Brooks, fisheries director for the KDFW, said the tournament underscored the enormity of Asian carp issues.
"The 40 tons of carp removed during this tournament is not insignificant, but this is only a drop in the proverbial bucket," Brooks said. "The results were as clear as is the message: We must employ the commercial industry to remove Asian carp."
Brooks said the department is seeking sponsors and asking for donations for future tournaments.
McCadams said he hopes TWRA will conduct similar efforts.
"I think it is past time for us here in Tennessee to actively address the situation as well," McCadams said.
Richard Simms is a contributing writer, focusing on outdoor sports.
Updated @ 11:12 a.m. on 3/18/13 to correct a broken hyperlink.