High-flying carp pose a threat to fishermen

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COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Fishermen used to joke that when the fish are biting on the Missouri River, "they're practically jumping into the boat." P> To Duane Chapman, this isn't funny any more. Almost every time he goes out in his 22-foot skiff, fish jump in or over his boat. He has been repeatedly battered by 20-pound flying fish, which he compares to slimy bowling balls. Not long ago, an incoming fish slammed into the boat's throttle, sending the skiff roaring into a mud bank.

These fish -- called Asian silver carp -- were imported to the U.S. in the 1960s. Now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is taking aim at the species. It's proposing a ban on the importation and interstate transportation of the fish, saying, "Silver carp have leaped into moving boats injuring people and damaging equipment."

Mr. Chapman and other fish biologists, however, say more needs to be done. They believe only one biological mechanism can get rid of the carp: the American stomach. But convincing U.S. diners to eat these fish may be a challenge.

The skittish, torpedo-shaped carp reproduce faster than native fish and beat them out for food. They also have a peculiar habit: Upon hearing the rumble of a motorboat, or any other noise they deem strange, they leap as high as eight feet in the air, arcing into and around boats like silvery missiles.

Mr. Chapman, a 41-year-old fish biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey who studies the silver carp as part of his job, has a love-hate relationship with the fish. He admires their toughness and ability to survive. They're so good at finding food that they grow bigger than most of their predators. And they're hard to catch. "They're much more net-savvy than native fish," he says, and not interested in bait put on hooks.

But the biologist also sees them as a dangerous nuisance, a view shared by most boaters, fishermen, water-skiers, conservationists -- and their representatives in Congress. "If I could snap my fingers and kill every one in the U.S., I would do it in a second," Mr. Chapman says.

The native habitat for the Asian silver carp is the Yangtze River in China. The fish were brought to the U.S. to help clean up algae and other microscopic wastes at fish farms and municipal waste-treatment plants. Some escaped into the Mississippi River and migrated to the Missouri and the Ohio rivers. Now, they inhabit the waters of 15 states, and experts worry the Great Lakes will be next.

Depending on how it's cooked, Asian silver carp can taste like fried chicken. Ning Wang, another U.S. Geological Survey biologist here, grew up in Wuhan, China, eating the delicate fish, which he says is so prized that the Yangtze is nearly fished out. "Chinese love it," he says. "They eat the whole fish, from the head to the tail."

After listening to Mr. Wang and visiting China to study how the Chinese raise and catch silver carp in fish farms, Mr. Chapman began teaching some of the techniques to the Boy Scout troop he leads. In June, he and the scouts strung a net across the entrance to a nearby backwater of the Missouri. Then, he revved up his boat and zipped around the water. Fleeing the noise, the fish soared over the net -- and landed in a second boat waiting to catch them.

"We fried them up and ate them," says Mr. Chapman of the 42 fish they caught. "I had catfish, too, but my scouts prefer the Asian carp."

Landing the fish on U.S. dinner tables will be difficult. Other species of carp have swum in U.S. rivers since the early 1800s, but most fish eaters shun them. The silver carp is even less appealing; it has a peculiar network of needlelike bones running through its flesh that many find repellent.

"To tell you the truth, they're pretty good, but I personally don't like to clean the nasty things," says Betty DeFord, an avid fisherman and the owner of a tavern in Bath, Ill. Silver carp first began jumping into her boat on the Illinois River four years ago. She thought it was funny until one day when she and her husband ran into a school of them. "We had these fish flying out of the water so fast and so viciously," she recalls. "One slammed into my lap. Another nearly knocked me out of the boat. Then another knocked me back into it. When it was over, we had 32 fish in the boat. We were slimed from head to toe. It was really scary."

Mrs. DeFord's revenge: She organized the "Redneck Rodeo," a fishing tournament on a backwater of the Illinois River near her tavern. Fishermen wearing protective gear ranging from garbage bags to football helmets compete in small boats, using hand-held nets. The crew that snatches the most fish out of the air in three hours wins $300. In September, at the third annual rodeo, 78 boats caught 1,840 of the fish.

Mrs. DeFord says that a man from Springfield, Ill., holding his dip net and peering into the water got smacked in the face by a carp and went to the local hospital with a broken nose and blackened eyes. "But then he came back, finished the tournament and vowed he would be back next year," she says.

At the end of the day, the contestants went back to her tavern to drink beer and dine on catfish and other native fish. The silver carp, she says, were carted off to the dump or ground up for fertilizer.

The fish's unsavory reputation as a food may be undeserved. In a recent taste test conducted by the University of Arkansas, consumers rated canned silver carp equal to or better than canned tuna fish and salmon. Carole Engle, a university fish researcher who canned the carp, told tasters only that they were nibbling on "a new freshwater fish." Identifying it as silver carp, she worried, would skew her study. "This fish has been demonized," she says.

James Sneed, a retired computer engineer from Hollywood, S.C., thinks there is money to be made in silver carp. He is lining up investors and scouting sites for a processing facility that would turn the carp into surimi, a popular fish puree flavored to taste like crab or lobster meat. "We want to harvest in the tens of millions of pounds per year," he says. "That's the only way you can really knock these populations down."



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