By Rachel Keller Collins
U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell's message during an Asian carp update in Calvert City last week was, help is on the way and the future is optimistic. Between the BAFF (bioacoustic fish fence) scheduled for installation at Barkley Dam next month, the modified Unified Method scheduled to arrive by early 2020, and the cooperation of federal, state and local government officials with various experts, McConnell said he's confident they can collectively solve the problem to ensure tourism does not further decline in the Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley region.
"We're going to get on top of this problem," he said during a press conference following an hour-long meeting with a variety of interested parties and representatives of actively-involved agencies. "My job is to try to get the money for it and I'm going to do everything I can to provide the funds necessary to fund this effort, at least the federal portion of it. We have representatives from the state government here today who are equally committed to it and this is my top priority for western Kentucky not only for this year but for as long as it takes to finish it. I want to end (the meeting) on a note of optimism: this is not hopeless."
McConnell said the focus of the interested parties is catching the Asian carp, marketing the fish and reducing the population so they no longer threaten bass fishing and tourism.
Lyon County Judge-Executive Wade White, who has spearheaded the aptly named 'War on Carp,' said he's encouraged by the support, ideas and technology coming forward as well as the cooperation from Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi, which are joining the collective effort to tackle the issues caused by the fish.
"A lot of people say we've lost our lakes; I don't believe that," he said. "I'm not willing to give up on our lakes yet and I'm not going to. And with the concerted effort from counties to states to multi-states to now the federal government, I am fully convinced that we are going to win this, that we are going to be able to push the carp population back to where we can recover our lakes."
Allen Brown, assistant regional director of fish and aquatic conservation for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Southeastern Region, said while his agency's mission is conservation, leaders also understand the devastation carp can have on local lakes and economies so they're partnering with other agencies to both control the carp population and restore the native fish populations.
He said the BAFF scheduled for installation at Barkley Dam next month is a customized sound and air bubble curtain design to restrict migration; that's just one piece of technology that's expected to be part of the coordinated efforts that will help "get a handle on these fish in the very near future."
The other piece of technology scheduled to arrive in our lakes by early next year is the modified Unified Method.
Duane Chapman, research fish biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey department and Asian carp expert, said the Unified Method is designed as a way to fish a substantial portion of a large body of water as a unit, which he said is perfect for Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley because they're both too large to fish in entirety.
He described it as "a notch up from typical commercial fishing" because you block off a cove using electro-fishing gear and underwater loud speakers to corral and direct the Asian carp cell by cell until they reach the "killing zone," at which point they're removed in very large quantities.
"We want to kill as many fish as quickly as we can and not hurt the native fish," he explained. "In China they try to get 85% of the fish and that's considered a success."
The reason it's called the modified Unified Method, Chapman said, is because the Chinese method has been modified to fit the local market and local needs.
"We hope to do at Barkley and Kentucky lakes what we've done in other places," he said. "We've tested this, it's worked really well in some other places."
Ryan Brooks, Fisheries Division director for the Kentucky Division of Fish and Wildlife Resources, said the No. 1 concern he hears is creating an industry reliant upon Asian carp and then running out of the fish, which would leave the industry in need of subsidies.
"Fortunately or unfortunately for both sides of the issue, we are never in our lifetime going to be in a place where we've eradicated all the Asian carp out of the rivers. There's thousands and thousands of miles of Asian carp from the Mississippi Delta up through and into Wisconsin and Minnesota now," he explained.
"If we can stop the fish from coming into Kentucky and Barkley lakes and use the commercial industry to profit from that, then we help an industry evolve and grow and we help the issues with tourism and the fisheries in the two lakes. At the same time while we're helping this huge industry here, we're also getting more fishing pressure on the rivers where it really needs to happen across the Mississippi River Basin in order to solve the problem everywhere."
"You're never going to harvest enough Asian carp in the rivers with the effort that we have in the foreseeable future," he added.
Brooks went on to explain that Asian Carp were introduced to the U.S. in the 1970s as a solution to over-nutriated ponds at catfish farms. He said instead of using chemicals, everyone wanted to try bio-controls so the Bighead Carp and the Silver Carp were brought in for farmers and treatment plants to fight the hyper-nutriated effects from large amounts of fertilizer being dumped in those waters.
"It was actually brought in as a positive to try to fight an issue but they escaped from the ponds and got into the waterways and it evolved from there and took off after 20 years," he said. "Nobody back then thought the Asian Carp would escape and become the problem they are today."
Marshall County Commissioner Kevin Spraggs, spearheading the Marshall County War on Asian Carp Working Group, said overall the information presented during the hour-long meeting was "very promising."
"I'm very, very encouraged today. We have the right people, the right experts working on it and there's talk of subsidies to help get more commercial fishermen involved and Senator McConnell is aggressively working on funding," he said. "I think we'll be in a much better place a year from now than we are."
Spraggs said he's asked to be notified when the dredging begins at Barkley Dam before the installation of the BAFF so he will be able to keep the community informed as well. He said he's also planning on having another workshop with the working group in the near future to discuss some of the information he learned during last week's meeting.
At that meeting, he said, he's planning to have break-out groups so people can chat because "one idea from one person might be a game-changer."
Spraggs also mentioned the community at large learning how to be more careful in talking about the Asian carp issue. "We've got to talk about it but we have to be careful how we talk about it. It's all about perception. I think that's a big thing."
Randy Newcomb, Kentucky Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau executive director, said perception is everything.
"The perception out there is that our lake is dead, our lake is dangerous and you shouldn't go but that's far from the truth. Unfortunately in marketing and advertising, perception is the reality, whether it's real or not," he explained. "So we do have to let them know that we do have an issue, we are tackling that issue but in the meantime here's what's really going on: we have plenty of fish, the fish have just changed their patterns, the lake is not dead."
Newcomb said Secretary of Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet Don Parkinson, who also attended the meeting in Calvert City last week, had scheduled a meeting with the state's public relations team to discuss assisting with marketing for the Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley area.
He said when Lake Cumberland's tourism suffered while the lake was lowered for work on Wolf Creek Dam, the state provided marketing assistance during the lull and now their tourism has recovered; he's hoping they'll agree to do something similar for western Kentucky.
"I'm extremely positive this is all going to turn around, it's just the word of mouth negativity and misinformation has done a lot of damage to this area," he said. "Very few people go to social media for positive and fun -- they go for the controversy. You can make a positive post about fishing on social media and out of 100 comments, two will be positive and that's what we're fighting against. We're not going to lie to people but they need to know we're taking steps to alleviate the issues."
Another issue, Newcomb said, is that when people hear of Asian carp but aren't sure what that means, they get online and visit sites such as YouTube, which take them to a video taken on the Illinois River where "fish are just jumping everywhere" around the moving boats. While that's the reality of the Illinois River, that's not the reality of Kentucky Lake -- but that creates the perception and that's what local tourism is trying to combat.
"We don't have enough money to combat all the negativity that's been spread with the actual truth and the optimism we have. There are plenty of fish in the water. The bass and crappie are still there, they've just changed their patterns.
"As long as we can get commercial fishermen's subsidy up that will help. It's going to work we just need state and federal dollars to help us turn it around because we don't have the funding necessary on the local level," he said. "Any time you get leaders from the federal government wanting to help, that's positive."