The Common Carp in North America
Arriving in the United States during the mid-1800s, increasing waves of immigrants could scarcely believe that this vast new land had no carp as it had been a cultivated food source, garden element, and symbol of strength and courage in Asia for over 4,000 years, and similarly esteemed in Europe for nearly 2,000!
Inspired by the European model (whereby the Austrian princes of Schwarzenberg maintained 20,000 acres of carp ponds), scattered entrepreneurs began to import the prized fish, hoping to provide a familiar, profitable food staple to the rapidly growing nation. Julius A. Poppe was one of the most successful, expanding a stock of five common carp imported from Germany in 1872 into a thriving California farm by 1876. Fielding orders from throughout the country, he actively began to lobby for national cultivation of the hearty fish:
There ought to be one person in every county who would raise choice carp as stock fish to sell to others to fatten for their own tables. It would be a cheap but sumptuous food and at the same timevery convenient, as they are ready to be eaten at all times of the year. (Gapen, p. 8).
Faced with such public pressure to make carp more widely available and the worrisome decline of native fish stocks after a century of intense exploitation, the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries began an intensive effort of carp cultivation in 1877. Subsequent efforts by state Fish Commissions had introduced the carp to many area waters by 1883, and the fish's remarkable ability to live and reproduce in most every water condition allowed it to quickly infiltrate others.
A Fish once Prized, Now Despised
By the turn of the century, the introduction of the carp was such a "success" that both public agencies and sportsmen had come to regard the fish as a nuisance. While tons of free-swimming carp were being harvested from area waters, they were comparable in taste to neither the selectively bred pool-cultivated carp of Europe nor, it was believed, to many of the native "game" species, and were thus useless as a food source. Moreover, their rapid spread appeared to threaten both water quality and native species, as commissioners nationwide noted a deterioration of formerly clear and fertile lakes and waterways upon the arrival of carp.
Standing on clear-cut hillsides with a bucket of garbage in each hand, they looked down on the rivers, saw carp swirling happily in the mess humans had created, and made a correlation - albeit the wrong one - between the rise of carp and the fall of game fish. Either ignorant of or blind to the damages they themselves had wrought on the landscape, people looked past the dredged and straightened channels, drained wetlands, eroded riverbanks, and waters laden with human and industrial waste, saw carp roiling in the shallows, and accused them of wrecking the water. (Buffler and Dickson, p. 74).
As the carp is both a prodigious reproducer and highly tolerant of pollution, it spreads quickly through waters in which most native species cannot live. In the early 1990s, biologists exposed control groups of carp to 1600 chemicals commonly present in United States waters; only 135 of the pollutants killed all the fish.
This is not to deny that the carp can have a negative impact on its own, however. A bottom-feeder, it roots along the floor of a body of water, frequently uprooting vegetation and feeding on insect larvae. This increases the turbidity (muddiness) of water, which in turn reduces the ability of predator fish, such as pike or walleye, to see their prey. The amount of sunlight received by plants also decreases, reducing their growth. As plants are impacted so to are the species that depend on those weeds for food, cover, and spawning areas. Carp can quickly crowd out other fish with sheer numbers as well. Females lay up to 2 million eggs when spawning and fry can grow as large as 8" in the first year. Thus, the health of numerous small lakes and fisheries has suffered from the presence of the carp.
Due to the impacts of the carp upon our waters, concentrated efforts to permanently eliminate the fish by trapping, seining and poisoning were frequently undertaken early in the century. Few were entirely successful, however, as the carp was simply too adept at reproducing and thriving in polluted waters. (Having learned from the introduction of carp and other organisms, exotic species control programs presently take an aggressive preventative approach to their spread from the beginning). Conceding to the fish's permanence, carp removal programs began in the 1950s to concentrate instead upon the control of carp populations and their migration into gamefish waters.
Despite the best intentions and desires of decades of anglers, the once common practice of leaving accidentally landed carp along the shore, instead of returning them to the water, has likewise failed to make a permanent impact upon most fishing hole's carp populations. In some cases, in fact, the removal of similar native species with which the carp is often confused has actually aided carp proliferation. In an effort to prevent such instances, as well as to reduce the occurrence of piles of rotting fish along the State's waters, Minnesota declared the practice illegal in 1981.
Ironically, the greatest present promise for carp control hearkens back more than a century, when carp was intended to become a great renewable food source. A steady, or hopefully increasing, market for carp and carp products could provide a limited check upon their population.
Creating thriving aquatic ecosystems may also help control carp populations, especially the invasive carps. Visit the WaterShed Partners for ideas on how cleaning up your home, yard and neighborhood can benefit your local rivers and the lives they support.
Last updated: March 6, 2023