12 to 15 Million Invasive Carp Removed From Two Lakes In Kentucky And Tennessee

A pile of fish
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

An absolutely astronomical number of invasive carp have been removed from two lakes that straddle the Kentucky and Tennessee border.

Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake form part of what is known as the Land Between The Lakes National Recreation Area. Lake Barkley has more than 1,000 miles of shoreline, 50 miles of which runs parallel to the shoreline of Kentucky Lake. The strip of land in between the two is where the Recreation Area gets its name. Kentucky Lake has over 2,000 miles of shoreline, making it the largest artificial lake in the eastern United States. It’s one of the largest freshwater reservoir complexes in the world.

The Tennessee Valley Authority created Kentucky Lake in 1944 by impounding the Tennessee River. The Army Corps of Engineers created Lake Barkley in 1966. The dam systems are a major source of hydroelectric power. The lakes are also major recreational and tourist attractions and offer some of the best fishing opportunities in the southeastern U.S.

However, the region has become a hot spot for several invasive carp species from Asia, which negatively affects water quality and deteriorating native fish populations.

The Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife has prioritized removing the destructive fish from the lake for years, and those efforts are showing progress as it was recently reported by Field & Stream that an estimated 12 – 15 million of the fish have been removed from the two lakes in just the last few years.

It’s taken significant investment and a lot of targeted efforts to remove the fish, but thanks to commercial operations, progress is being made. Wade White, a Judge Executive in nearby Lyon County, has been instrumental in rallying support for the removal efforts. 

“The commercial fishermen have done a tremendous job.” 

The state of Kentucky has spent more than $4 million on boats, trucks, and other equipment to facilitate the removal of the fish. These efforts are known as what’s being called the war on carp. 

Collectively known as Asian carp, four species, including bighead, silver, black, and grass carp, were introduced to the Southeastern U.S. from Asia beginning in the 1960s and 70s to control the growth of aquatic vegetation at fish farms, but by the 1980s and 90s, the carp made their way into wild waters their populations have exploded across the country since then. 

The carp are now found throughout major portions of the Mississippi, Tennessee, Ohio, Missouri, Cumberland, and Illinois river systems. Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley both feed into the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and scientists fear that carp could move upriver and decimate aquatic ecosystems in the Great Lakes. In an attempt to keep the fish out of the Great Lakes, fisheries managers in Illinois have created revolutionary underwater electric barriers that prevent fish from moving upstream. 

The ecological havoc the fish are causing has been well documented, and viral videos of the fish leaping out of the water display how high numbers of the fish can deter tourists from visiting waters they would otherwise spend the day on. However, with fish populations being better controlled in recent years, tangible progress towards solving the problem is being made. 

To combat the problem, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) launched what’s known as the Asian Carp Harvest Incentive Program, which provides incentives to commercial fish markets and commercial fishermen to harvest carp out of Tennessee’s waters. According to Cole Harty, the TWRA Aquatic Nuisance Species Coordinator shed some light on how commercial harvests help control the carp. 

“Commercial harvest is a key strategy to defend our waters from the impacts and expansion of invasive carp. The other key strategy to prevent the spread of carp to waters upstream is deterrents. 

Though no deterrent is expected to be 100 percent effective, even moderate levels of deterrence can significantly reduce the number of fish moving upstream through locks. Deterrents, when coupled with commercial harvest near the source of carp immigration, are the best strategy we have to prevent the spread of carp to waters upstream. “

The Kentucky Department of Wildlife has a similar program that grants commercial fishermen special permission to fish in previously restricted areas like Barkley and Kentucky Lakes. 

Since these incentive programs have been put in place, it’s estimated that somewhere between 12 – 15 million carp weighing somewhere between 10 million pounds have been removed from aquatic ecosystems throughout the two lakes. 

Removing the invasive carp requires specialized fishing methods, and while electroshocking has long been the preferred method, the KDFW is developing a new technique known as the modified-unified method that involves corralling the fish into bays with nets and seines. 

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