When asked why the average person should care about Asian carp infestation in Kentucky and Barkley lakes, Kevin Kelly has a simple answer.
"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 Wednesday, gazing across Smith Bay on Kentucky Lake at a multi-agency effort underway to eradicate the invasive species.
Each year, tourism injects about a billion dollars into the western Kentucky economy. Most of that is tied to the recreational opportunities on the lakes and Land Between the Lakes. Tourism also supports about 12,000 jobs in the 15 counties of the Western Waterlands region, according to the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet.
"The lakes offer some of the best largemouth bass fishing in the United States ... the world," said Lee McClellan, associate editor for Kentucky Afield, the official publication of KDFWR.
"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 Asian carp, which can grow to 100 pounds, to jump out of the water when startled. "It's dangerous."
Caldwell County is not located on either Kentucky Lake or Lake Barkley. But tourism fueled in part by the millions of visitors to the area each year for the fishing, boating and other recreational opportunities offered by the lakes adds about $10 million to the county's economy, per a 2018 Kentucky Tourism report. And roughly 100 jobs in Caldwell County are tied to tourism.
The first harvest of Asian carp from Kentucky Lake through the experimental procedure known as the unified modified method was expected today. Ron Brooks, aquatic nuisance species program director for KDFWR, is 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 it is 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.
Once removed, the fish will be trucked off for various uses, including fishmeal for feed and even dining.
"They are very nutritious and good to eat," Brooks said. "Why waste all of that?"
But work continuing this month on Kentucky Lake -- Pisgah Bay is the next target -- 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, Kelly said.
"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 fisherman 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, Brooks said.