Tennessee's Asian Carp Advisory Commission, created through an executive order from Gov. Bill Lee, voted in its first-ever meeting to look at the economics of controlling the fish and discussed how preventive actions in Tennessee and elsewhere are succeeding.
The panel met Dec. 8 at the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency's Region II Office to discuss the study and provide advice regarding the best methods for mitigating the invasion of Asian carp into the state's lakes and river systems.
Asian carp have an increasing population in Tennessee's waters, mostly in the western part of the state, competing for food and habitat with native species where the invasive species' numbers swell.
The invasive species migrated from the Ohio River into the Tennessee River, threatening the region's renowned biodiversity, commercial fishing industry and posing a health risk to recreational boaters.
The fish has been a serious problem in Illinois, Missouri and Kentucky. Millions of pounds of the fish swim in Midwestern states, and there's a large federal effort to keep the fish out of the Great Lakes. In Tennessee, most of the fish have been kept to the north, with large populations in Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake along the Tennessee-Kentucky border.
The commission, led by chairman Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, also includes Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency chief of fisheries Frank Fiss, TWRA designee Kurt Holbert, Tennessee Wildlife Federation CEO Michael Butler, Department of Economic and Community Development appointee Sammie Arnold, Department of Tourist Development appointee Dennis Tumlin, Department of Environment and Conservation Commissioner David Salyers, Tennessee Valley Authority representative Robert "Bob" Deacy and Monte Belew, both Gov. Lee appointees, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers representative Travis Wiley.
Fiss, who has studied the fish for about 10 years, updated the group from a report completed Oct. 14 on the current status of the fish in Tennessee waterways and elsewhere as experts learn more about its movements.
"In the late-1990s/early-2000s we were encountering them in decent numbers on the Mississippi River, that's our waterway where we first detected them. We were seeing enough of them that we were able to go out and collect them in some numbers in 2012," Fiss said. "It's been serious ever since."
There are four species of Asian carp — black, grass, silver and bighead — that were all brought to the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s, he said. They escaped from aquaculture ponds during floods in the 1980s and 1990s and by the later 1990s self-supporting populations were established in the Mississippi River and its major tributaries.
Of those species — all four are concerns to some degree — the silver and bighead are most concerning in the Tennessee Valley, he said.
Silver carp are the variety that leap from the water, posing a danger to boaters and skiers, and bighead carp, which don't jump. Otherwise both are similar and are "filter feeders" that eat phytoplankton that other native species rely on, he said.
"We're concerned about them stripping the productivity out of the system and leaving nothing left for the species that are native or those species we care about," Fiss said. He said the fish in Asia, oddly enough, have some populations that struggle to exist with competing species and overfishing, so the story there is nearly the opposite. The two species are actually stocked in waterways on the other side of the planet, he said.
The fish reproduce readily and can't be controlled in West Tennessee, and there's a high abundance in Barkley Lake and Kentucky Lake and moderate abundance upstream in Pickwick Reservoir and Cheatham reservoirs, he said. There have been no reports in Cordell Hull Lake where the lock is infrequently opened.
In March of 2017 a carp was caught in Wheeler Reservoir and there have been undocumented reports of bighead caught during the Bassmaster Classic professional fishing tournament this spring on Guntersville Lake, Fiss said, as well as reports of what were likely bighead carp on Nickajack Lake, the body of water that lies downstream from the Chickamauga Dam in Chattanooga.
In October of 2019, an image of a silver carp was reportedly taken on Chickamauga Lake but Fiss said the only populations that come close to being levels that can reproduce exist only downstream of Pickwick Dam in Hardin County, near Tennessee's border with Mississippi and Alabama.
"We have yet to have small carp to be evidence of reproduction anywhere in the in the Tennessee or Cumberland [river] systems this calendar year or the previous five calendar years," Fiss said. He said 2015 was the last time an abundance of small fish were reported in the system.
"We're kind of getting a break here in that they are not spawning every year readily, and maybe they don't have the conditions they need in some of these systems," he said. "If they did have what they need everywhere there'd be no hope of controlling them."
Asian carp don't seem to be determined to head upstream as much as they are seeking favorable habitat in all directions, Fiss said.
"It gives me hope that they don't have what they need everywhere," Fiss said. "They're not finding what they need, and they need warm water, and they get that every summer, and they need water that's moving enough that it carries their eggs up out of the sediment."
He said efforts to control water movement through coordination with TVA could help make the Tennessee River and its tributaries unattractive for carp reproduction.
Meanwhile, the fish are being harvested for commercial use but those types of operations don't exist everywhere, he said.
"We are paying to have Asian carp removed from Kentucky and Barkley lakes, and if they pull fish from Old Hickory and Cheatham (lakes) we'll pay for those, too, but the population there is so low nobody's going to fish for them," he said.
ASIAN CARP ADVISORY COMMISSION
The commission is authorized by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s Executive Order 62 for the purpose of addressing and mitigating the invasion of Asian carp into Tennessee waterways in order to protect native fish species and aquatic life and commercial and recreational fishing and water activities. Lee’s order requires the advisory commission to deliver an interim report to him by Feb. 1, 2021, that will include findings regarding the effectiveness of current barriers in place to contain or manage Asian carp; the effectiveness of the Asian Carp Harvest Incentive Program; partnerships with nonprofits and private industry with respect to Asian carp management; steps necessary for funding, timing, implementing, and locating barriers or other methods to contain or manage Asian carp, and the results of commercial fishing efforts related to Asian carp; and efforts of the Mississippi Interstate Cooperative Resource Association with respect to management of inter-jurisdictional fish and other aquatic resources in the Mississippi River Basin, according to state records. The panel’s also required to deliver an annual report by Oct. 1 of each year starting in 2021.
Since 2018, there have been 5 million pounds of Asian carp harvested by Tennessee operators and 13 million pounds harvest by operators based in Kentucky, he said. Grants funding commercial efforts in Tennessee have been issued in Benton County and to the Paris-Henry County Industrial Committee to help wholesale dealers. An incentive program also has received $1.2 million in funding through 2021 from the TWRA, TVA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Current control strategies consist of preventing movement of the fish by people, strategically removing carp from Kentucky and Barkley lakes where the work is most meaningful, erecting barriers to stop or reduce movement upstream on the Tennessee River and continuing to monitor populations, Fiss said.
Commission members discussed the operations where carp meat is processed mostly for out-of-country commerce, how barriers work in various locations, funding ideas and plans to join with neighboring states to better coordinate efforts and to seek joint funding for preventive measures.
Members unanimously approved a measure to seek an economic impact study by a University of Tennessee at Knoxville economist.
Dr. Bill Fox, an economic expert who assists the state in its annual budget and revenue projects, has already unofficially discussed an economic study involving carp in past years and he will now be asked to help with current efforts, Bell said Friday.
Bell said officials need to be able to accurately identify and quantify the problem "and a study from an economist as respected as Dr. Fox would go a long way toward helping us define the problem."
Commission members have already reached out to Fox, Bell said, and TVA's Deacy plans to speak with his counterparts in Mississippi and Alabama in search of partners.
"If we're going to do an economic impact study, it makes sense to do it on the whole Tennessee River Valley, not just the Tennessee River," Bell said. The economic impact study will include cost projections for including Mississippi and Alabama. Bell said he hopes to get funding from TWRA and possibly TVA for the study.
The advisory commission will meet in late January 2021, as it prepares its first report to Gov. Lee, Bell said. A date for the meeting will be set later.
Contact Ben Benton at email@example.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.