Kudzu, then carp: Invasive Asian fish makes its way into Tennessee waterways

photo A participant in the Redneck Carp Tournament takes a swing at Asian carp in the Illinois River. The carp are spooked by the sound of motors and have a nasty habit of leaping from the water like missiles and colliding with boaters with bone-breaking force. The carp were imported from Asia to cleanse fish ponds and sewage lagoons in the Deep South but escaped into the Mississippi and have been working their way north since the 1970s. The prospect of a carp invasion alarms environmentalists and people whose livelihoods depend on a strong fishing and tourism economy. Asian carp, which can reach 4 feet long and weigh up to 100 pounds can wreak havoc not by attacking native fish, but starving them out by gobbling up plankton.

Asian carp soon may finish the job kudzu began years ago.

The invasive fish are coming in waves to Tennessee, and they are taking over the state's waters, much like the reviled "vine that ate the South" has taken over landscapes.

Bill Dance, host of NBC Sports' "Bill Dance Outdoors," is a Tennessee native and has made a life fishing the Volunteer State. Areas he fished as a kid are totally overrun by the "nasty fish," he said, and there are places where the carp gather in the hundreds and feed on plankton and phytoplankton.

"They have occupied so much available water space," the Memphis area resident said.

Traditional Tennessee lake and river fish are disappearing at his longtime fishing spots. White bass, crappie, bluegill and shad - they're all disappearing, he said.

"It is a serious, serious threat to our fisheries," Dance said. "It's just a crying shame."

With certain breeds of the carp, a threat to humans even exists. Videos across the Internet show boaters being slammed by hundreds of silver carp torpedoing from lakes and rivers across the eastern United States.

Bobby Wilson, chief of fisheries at the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, said boat motor vibrations scare the fish, and they leap at great speeds and force out of the water. Dance experienced the "silver bullet" firsthand in West Tennessee.

"It felt like somebody threw a baseball as hard as they could throw it and hit me in the shoulder," he said.

Dance and Wilson said a threat of serious injury exists to personal watercraft riders and water skiers.

Small children are also more likely to be hurt by a 25-pound fish hitting a face or body at potentially 30 miles per hour, the men said.

The carp were introduced to Arkansas fish farms nearly two decades ago, Dance said, and flooding allowed them to get into the Mississippi River.

So far, carp are pervasive along the Mississippi River and are steadily migrating up connecting waterways. Requiring a water current to spawn, the Tennessee River is a prime target for the fish. The steady migration, Wilson said, is "pretty much a helpless thing." He said the silver carp will make their way to Chattanooga-area waters.

So far, only one carp has been caught in the wild around Chattanooga. The state record grass carp was caught in a Nickajack Lake tailwater in 2005. It weighed 70 pounds.

The fish eventually will move through the locks at Chickamauga Dam, Wilson and Dance said, as barges go back and forth up the river.

The current plan for containment is commercial fishing. Wilson said carp are not apt to be caught using traditional angling tactics, so using a net is almost the only way to snag them. Some commercial fishing of the fish is already taking place.

But that poses a risk of accidentally catching and killing native fish species.

Dr. Bernie Kuhajda, aquatic conservation biologist at the Tennessee Aquarium, said accidentally catching large trophy bass in commercial nets is a possibility, but the alternatives are slim. Doing nothing likely equals condemning Tennessee's sport fish to massive decline, he said.

"There's just no easy answer to this," he said.

Even if commercial fishing of the carp takes off, though, Kuhajda said there now are no area processing plants to handle what will be massive hauls. Right now, large amounts of fish are caught in the United States, and are shipped to Asia for processing, he said. The processed fish - often minced or fish meal - is then shipped back to the United States.

Wilson said the TWRA is in talks with area states and looking at adding a couple of fish processing plants in Tennessee. That, he hopes, will help Chattanooga and East Tennessee avoid the fate of places like Memphis, Nashville and other small west Tennessee towns whose waterways now are overrun by the fish.

Dance has already seen many of his favorite fishing holes succumb to the invasion and holds out hope for the eastern leg of the Tennessee River

"It's my favorite river," he said. "It makes me want to cry to know that it can be ruined by these things."

Contact staff writer Alex Green at agreen@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6731.