When asked why the average person should care about Asian carp infestation in Kentucky and Barkley lakes, Kevin Kelly has a simple answer. The local tourism economy.
"It's not overstated the impact these fish have on the lakes," the spokesman for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) said last Wednesday, gazing across Smith Bay on Kentucky Lake at the multi-agency effort to eradicate the invasive species.
Nowhere in Kentucky is tourism more important than in Lyon County, where 7.2% of the economy is attributed to tourism. Located on both Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley, local tourism is fueled by the millions of visitors to the area each year for the fishing, boating and other recreational opportunities offered by the lakes and Land Between the Lakes. It adds more than $30 million to the county's economy, per a 2019 Kentucky tourism report. More than 250 jobs in Lyon County are tied to tourism.
Tourism in 2018 accounted for more than 5% of the local economy in only two other Kentucky counties. Overall, tourism injects about a billion dollars annually into the western Kentucky economy and supports about 12,000 jobs in the 15 counties of the Western Waterlands region, according to the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet. The fishing economy adds another $1.2 billion in value to western Kentucky.
"The lakes offer some the best largemouth bass fishing in the United States ... the world," said Lee McClellan, associate editor for Kentucky Afield, the official publication of KDFWR.
It is Asian carp's potential damage to the economy and ecosystem is why wildlife officials are so aggressively pursuing the nuisance species.
"If you're out on the water, you don't want these fish landing in your boat," said Kelly, referring to the nature of the problem fish that can grow as large as 100 pounds and soars out of the water when startled. "It's dangerous."
The first harvest of Asian carp from Kentucky Lake through the experimental procedure known as the unified modified method occurred over the weekend. Ron Brooks, aquatic nuisance species program director for KDFWR, was hoping for a half-million tons of the fish to be forever removed from the lake.
The method utilizes a series of nets to corral the Asian carp as schools are driven to a collection point from the mouth of the bay by acoustic and electric stimuli deployed by researchers.
Because the Asian carp is more skittish and easily chased than other species like sport fish, the loss of fish native to the lake is minimal when the nets are pulled from the water.
"The bottom line is, we are trying to get as many fish out of the lake as possible," said Brooks, who is heading the three-week effort that brings together federal and state agencies.
About 20 workers with various agencies arrived at Smith Bay Feb. 3 and worked through some pretty nasty weather last week. Brooks said fog and ice are about the only potential causes of a halt in the operation. The procedure modifies the method used by Chinese fishermen for decades in which they marry netting and stimuli to capture the fish.
Two big differences, Brooks said, is that commercial fishermen in China typically just bang oars on their boats to run the fish. They also harvest everything in their path, not just the Asian carp. Kentucky wildlife officials are careful, though, to limit the removal of other species.
Once removed, the carp will be trucked off for various uses, including fishmeal for feed and even dining.
"They are very nutritious and good to eat," said Brooks. "Why waste all of that?"
But the work continuing this week on Pisgah Bay on Kentucky Lake is also a research project. It marks the first time the modified unified method has been used in Kentucky and the first time in the United States on a body of water as big as Kentucky Lake, said Kelly. The work could move to Lake Barkley in its final week if time allows.
"What I want to know is how efficient this is," Brooks said of the experimental process.
If successful, the method could become routine work for KDFWR. While the nuisance fish will never be completely eradicated, regular deployment of the method could keep the population manageable for wildlife officials and reduce the threat to commercial and sport fishing and boater safety and comfort.
Brooks said his agency is conscious of the fishermen who make a living removing carp from the lakes and the work should not affect their livelihood. In fact, it could lead to the creation of jobs related to eradication and allow fishermen to start hunting down the fish in the rivers.
The Asian carp, which escaped Arkansas fish farms where it was used to remove hypernutrification in the ponds, escaped during flooding and made its way to the Mississippi River. The species used the river as a conduit to invade other waterways, outcompeting native species along the way for space and food. Its first documented appearance in Kentucky was in 1997, according to Brooks.