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Jumping carp infest some Iowa waterways
Their big appetites deprive other fish of food, and some people have been hurt after being struck by them.
By Perry Beeman
Des Moines Register
Published July 3, 2005

Humongous jumping carp are living in Iowa and starving other fish by eating too much.

The fish can be a hazard to humans as well. Boaters have had teeth knocked out and ribs broken when struck by the jumping fish on the Mississippi, Illinois and Missouri rivers.

There have been no reported injuries to Iowans, but boaters on the Des Moines River downstream from Ottumwa have seen silver carp - which can grow to 50 pounds - jump behind, over or into their boats.

These intruders - which are native to China and were imported to Arkansas fish ponds in the early 1970s - have made themselves at home in the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois river systems. Ditto for Asian bighead carp, which can weigh more than 50 pounds, but don't jump when startled.

Iowa and several other states now are working on ways to keep the fish from spreading into other waterways. Scientists think the fish moved into the rivers during floods or were purposely released after they proved unmarketable for the fish farms.

State officials don't know specifically of any Iowans hurt by the fish; however, a Peoria, Ill., woman was knocked out by a carp on the Illinois River in 2003. She was riding a personal watercraft and suffered a concussion, broken nose and broken foot.

"We have thousands, maybe millions, of bighead and silvers in our rivers," including several of the major Mississippi tributaries, said Marion Conover, Iowa's fisheries chief. Bighead carp outnumber channel catfish in some stream stretches now.

The carp are filter feeders, which means they eat all the plankton and other little stuff that all larval fish, and some adults of some species, rely on for survival.

A hydroelectric plant at Keokuk, the Red Rock dam on the Des Moines River, and small dams along the Mississippi tributaries have helped slow the spread, but environmental officials in the Midwest are looking for ways to stop the fish from taking over other waterways.

Randy Moore, 36, of Prairie City has heard stories of the carp knocking into people when they jumped, but said he thought they were folklore. He knows firsthand - the big carp are not.

Moore set a state record when he caught a 4-foot, 54-pound bighead carp in the tailwater below the Red Rock dam while fishing with two other men. It took him 45 minutes and required help from all three fishermen to reel it in.

"It was a beast," Moore said. "It was so big it actually busted the net."

Just before a storm Tuesday evening, Moore spotted what he thinks was another giant carp in about the same place. This time he saw it jump. He snagged something strong and shortly thereafter the fish leapt about a foot and a half out of the water and threw the hook back at him.

"As soon as I set the hook in, I knew I had something big on," Moore said.

Some people have spread nets across their fishing boats to keep the startled fish out. Chicago installed a system in the Illinois River that sends a small electrical current into the water to deter the carp.

Now, Iowa and other Midwestern states, especially Minnesota, are pushing for federal money to install another type of fish barrier - one that uses sounds that ride along a curtain of bubbles to discourage the fish from moving upstream. Great Lakes states are fighting hard to keep the unwelcome silver and bighead carp out of their prized waters.

Although no one knows if the carp will boom to numbers that will significantly harm the native species such as paddlefish and lake sturgeon, the U.S. Geological Survey recently concluded there is a moderate to serious risk of that happening.

The fish barriers can affect other species as well, which makes efforts tricky. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has planned fish passages at locks and dams that are set to be reconstructed, to allow game fish easier access to northern waters. Putting in fish barriers could work against that goal.

Mark Cornish, a fisheries biologist with the Army Corps of Engineers, said researchers have found the sound-and-bubble systems can be tuned to scare the carp more than some other species. The systems can cost about $15 million each. They have been eyed for a series of locks and dams downriver from Minnesota, especially the ones at Dubuque, Davenport and Keokuk.

Bighead carp are found in large numbers as far north as Muscatine; some have been found as far upstream as Lake Pepin, Minn. Silver carp have been found in the Mississippi River south of Keokuk and in the Des Moines River below Ottumwa.

Cornish said it is unclear when Congress will consider proposals to build the barriers. Minnesota lawmakers are pushing for an appropriation in the next budget.

Register staff writer Kate Slusark
contributed to this article.

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