An estimated 400 fishermen, tourism industry members, lawmakers and others concerned about sport fishing Kentucky and Barkley lakes attended a Congressional field briefing Friday in Lyon County.
The message from those testifying and members of the audience was nearly universal: combating Asian carp will take more money.
U.S. Rep. James Comer held the hearing to gather testimony from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Kentucky Lake Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, and the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency. The agencies — along with hundreds of commercial fishermen — discussed the threat of Asian carp, a term encompassing four different fish: silver, bighead, grass and black carp.
Not native to local waters, carp breed at a faster rate than sport fish like bass and crappie, consuming natural forage and resources. Because of their irregular spawning cycles and aggressiveness, Asian carp have been negatively impacting fishing and tourism, which generate an estimated $1 billion annually in the region around Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake.
Seth Blanton is one of those depending on local waters to provide his livelihood. Blanton, a commercial fisherman from Johnson County in eastern Kentucky, said he and his business partner headed west about three months ago to establish their company. He heard about the growing Asian carp market from a story on National Public Radio, but arrived to find little demand.
The price per pound of Asian carp has been a hurdle to making their harvest profitable.
“We’ve invested a lot of money into this, just about everything,” Blanton said. “For the amount of money we’re getting per pound, it’s barely covering expenses. Just last month I spent $2,098 in just fuel.”
The problem Blanton and other fishermen face is a small domestic market for carp and difficulty in cheaply transporting it internationally.
Panel members Friday testified on ways to reduce the population of Asian carp, primarily through a mixture of commercial fishing, sound or physical barrier deterrents to reduce spawning and chemical agents. Some of those methods are already in place, such as fishing tournaments, contract fishing and natural predators like alligator gar.
Despite existing efforts, wildlife expert Ron Brooks testified that it’s a growing problem.
“There was a huge 2015-year class that is now becoming young adults,” said Brooks, fisheries director for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “The urgency of this issue is being exemplified by that. You’ve already got unbelievable amounts [of carp] in those two lakes. The timing couldn’t be more perfect to get funding to help us tackle this issue.”
Brooks said the economic problem extends outside of Kentucky, spreading into Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama. Cooperation has grown between states and agencies during the last decade, Brooks said, but noted additional funding was needed.
State and federal lawmakers from Tennessee, along with city and county leaders from western Kentucky, attended the hearing. Representatives of Sen. Mitch McConnell and Sen. Rand Paul were also present.
Brooks said commercial fishing can help the three processors already established in the area, but suggested increasing subsidies to make it attractive for fishermen to seek out Asian carp. Currently fishermen receive about 22 cents per pound from processors, with 5 cents coming from subsidies. He estimated to meet market demands and be profitable for processors, fishermen will have to harvest between 9-11 million pounds annually.
From providing ice to subsidies, almost every member testifying Friday said more money was needed to tackle the issue. Blanton said making nets available at reduced cost has a positive impact on the industry. Each net costs about $1,000, Blanton said. His boat needs about 30 nets, but currently operates with 12.
“My research has shown that in the past there has been an appropriation from Congress, [but] all the money appears to have been spent to keep the fish out of the Great Lakes,” Comer said. “I am going to ensure that changes. From now on we’re going to get our fair share from the federal government. We’re trying to figure out ways to invest the money to get the best results.”
Much of that investment discussion centered around expanding commercial fishing. Comer said the population could support commercial fishing in addition to eradication efforts.
“I think the problem is so great that there’s an opportunity to do both,” Comer said. “I think it’s going to take a two-step approach so every option is on the table.”
Lyon County Judge Executive Wade White set the hearing in motion by reaching out to Kentucky’s lawmakers in recent weeks. White said the turnout reflected how big the impact is.
“For that kind of turnout where all they were going to do was sit and watch, that’s incredible for a Friday at 2 p.m.,” White said. “That tells me how important this is to everyone.”
White said he appreciated Congressman Comer for being on top of the issue.