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New USFWS grant will help AGFC tackle Asian carp

LITTLE ROCK – Arkansas will receive a share of the nearly $14 million being distributed in 2020 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to states in the Mississippi River Valley to better manage and study Asian carp.

The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission has been working for the past several months to receive some of the grant money, according to Bill Posey, Fisheries Division assistant chief over Aquatic Wildlife Diversity Programs, and USFWS is passing along $635,759 to the agency as of Oct. 1. At the September AGFC commissioner’s meeting last week, Commissioner Joe Morgan announced that his budget committee had approved a minute order moving that money to the Fisheries Division for Asian carp research, with the USFWS’s grant reimbursing the amount.

“This is a new pot of money put into the U.S. Fish and Wildlife budget by Congress in the past year specifically for managing Asian carp,” Ben Batten, AGFC Fisheries chief, said. “There are 28 states in the middle of the country affected by this and we were all dealing with (USFWS) for a grant. We have been researching Asian carp and how we manage it, but all of a sudden we have a lot more money for it thanks to this federal grant.”

Total money allocated to the sub-basins that include Arkansas was $2.3 million. The entire congressional appropriation to the USFWS was $25 million, with $13.92 million going to areas outside the Great Lakes region.

Posey said the AGFC receives an appropriation of $86,000 a year from USFWS to implement its Aquatic Nuisance Species plan, which was approved in 2013. Asian carp is only a part of that plan, with such invasive nuisance species as the northern snakehead also getting the agency’s attention.

There are four species of Asian carp in Arkansas: silver, bighead, grass and black carp. The AGFC’s plans will be geared mostly toward managing silver and bighead carp, Posey said, but all four breeds of nonnative, nuisance carp will need attention.

Arkansas received enough money from the USFWS funding to help with management projects in two Mississippi River sub-basins, Posey said. Arkansas will share efforts with Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky and Missouri in the lower Mississippi River sub-basin on one project, and will also manage Asian carp in the Arkansas, White and Red rivers sub-basin that extends into northwest Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, New Mexico and Colorado.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate majority leader, reportedly led the funding efforts in Congress late last year for the USFWS appropriation. Kentucky Lake, a navigation reservoir on the Tennessee River that reaches into the senator’s home state, has seen a serious invasion of silver carp in recent years.

Asian carp are viewed as a food delicacy in China. They were imported to help agencies manage vegetation, sewage or, in the case of black carp, to control the invasive ramshorn snail. Black carp threaten native mussel, snail and crayfish populations. The introduction of grass carp didn’t appear to be a problem for vegetation management in lakes because they can’t reproduce in lakes; but they will constantly eat, and their numbers can grow elsewhere when they are able to lay eggs in the water column of fast-running river water, such as the Mississippi, where the fertilized eggs can drift until hatching.

Silver carp has been in Arkansas since the 1980s, brought in to clean up sewer pond lagoons, Posey said. But from there they followed the discharge into waterways. Silver, bighead and black carp can reproduce in large numbers in lakes and streams, and Posey says he’s seen silver carp that were 15-20 pounds. The carp can dominate a lake and make life difficult for sport fish, hurting angling and tourism in the process.

Silver carp and bighead carp feed on plankton, Posey said. “All life stages of fish rely on plankton at some point in their life,” he said. “When you start having a large amount of consumers of plankton, like silver carp or bighead carp, they are going to affect other species.”

Management of Asian carp is best handled by removal, Posey said. That is where a lot of this funding will go. “We hope to contract fishermen to get them out of the water,” he said. “Really, that is the best method that we have, removal.”

Along with contracted fishing for carp, the money to Arkansas will allow biologists to research Asian carp populations and movement, he said. Right now, Posey says, it’s just a guess how many are in the state’s waterways. Some $200,000 is budgeted for contract fishing, split between the two sub-basins in Arkansas, while nearly $400,000 is split in the budget for studying movement, distribution and population demographics of Asian carp in both the Lower Red basin and the Lower Mississippi basin along with the Arkansas and White rivers.

Before this latest money from USFWS, most big grants to manage Asian carp were going to prevent their migration into the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River via the Chicago River and through the Chicago shipping canal. The newest grant sends about $11 million that direction.

Silver carp are encountered in the backwaters of the Mississippi River rather than the main river itself, Posey said, “in an old oxbow or something along those lines.” Carp have provided a business opportunity for some people; Posey noted a company in Kentucky that buys Asian carp from commercial fishermen and processes the meat into multiple products for shipping back to Asia. “It’s a light meat, kind of sweet, with a firm texture,” he said.