APPLE GROVE — It isn’t every day a 60-pound fish shows up in an Ohio River navigation lock, but the one that showed up recently really got people’s attention.
It was an Asian carp, exactly the kind of fish biologists didn’t want to see.
Fisheries officials up and down the Ohio worry that non-native bighead and silver carp might someday dominate West Virginia’s segment of the river’s ecosystem as thoroughly as they’ve come to dominate Kentucky’s segment along the Illinois and Indiana borders.
Katie Zipfel, interim large-river biologist for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, said the 61.8-pound, 50.2-inch bighead carp that turned up dead at the Robert C. Byrd Locks and Dam wasn’t a good sign, but it wasn’t a particularly bad sign either.
“We call those fish ‘roamers’ because they tend to show up well ahead of any significant migration,” Zipfel explained. “They tend to move upstream well ahead of the ‘invasion front.’ Because they have no competition from other carp, they are usually much bigger. I haven’t seen a lot of bigheads, but the one that showed up at the Byrd Locks was the biggest one I’ve seen.”
Bighead carp have been showing up in the Ohio between Huntington and Point Pleasant for the past several years. Zipfel said anglers occasionally catch them by accident, and bowfishermen encounter them from time to time. She said reports aren’t frequent; in fact, there have been only three since last December.
“Roamers tend to travel way upstream and then turn around and travel back down,” she said. “We’ve had [radio-tagged] fish cover hundreds of miles in a matter of days.”
Zipfel made it clear, however, that those radio-tagged fish come from the portion of the Ohio downstream from Greenup, Kentucky.
“We’ve drawn a proverbial line in the sand at the Greenup Dam,” she said. “Anything we catch below there, we will tag and make part of our telemetry study. Anything we see upstream from Greenup, we will kill. We are definitely not tagging fish and bringing them [into West Virginia’s portion of the Ohio].”
In addition to the radio-telemetry study, researchers are also testing the river for what they call “environmental DNA” or “eDNA.” Essentially, they take water samples at strategic points up and down the river and test to see if Asian carp DNA shows up in it.
Environmental DNA from both bighead and silver carp has been found as far upstream as Hancock County, near the tip of West Virginia’s northern panhandle. That could conceivably be a sign that both species have made it that far upstream, but it also could be a sign that carp DNA has been transported upstream on the hulls of river barges.
Zipfel said samples taken this year in the upper Kanawha and lower Little Kanawha rivers failed to turn up any Asian DNA, even though it had been found in those waters before.
“We did get one ‘hit’ in the lower Kanawha below Winfield, but that was no surprise since we know we already have had bighead carp make it upstream of the Robert C. Byrd Dam,” she added. “As far as silver carp are concerned, the farthest upstream they’ve been found is Franklin Furnace, Ohio, just a few miles upstream from the Greenup Dam.”
To try to fend off a potential Asian-carp invasion, biologists from West Virginia have teamed up with the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and with fisheries biologists in Ohio, Kentucky and Pennsylvania. Together they’ve put together the Ohio River Basin Asian Carp Control Strategy Framework, a program they hope will help slow the two species’ advance as much as possible.
DNR officials once held out hope that West Virginia’s portion of the Ohio might prove too swift and clear for Asian carp, which prefer slow-moving, muddy rivers.
“We’ve thought they shouldn’t be able to establish in certain streams, but they do,” Zipfel said. “They’ve turned out to be more adaptable than we thought.”
Still, she holds out hope that the Ohio upstream from Willow Island might prove more resistant to the species’ advance than the lower river has been.
“Upstream from Willow Island, the character of the river changes pretty dramatically,” she said. “Downstream it’s a lot wider, slower moving and muddier, with a lot more embayments and shallow backwaters. That’s the Asian carp’s bread-and-butter habitat.”
Zipfel said it’s only a matter of time before the two species move into the Ohio and some of its West Virginia tributaries.
“We’re trying to learn more about them, but even that is hard,” she added. “It’s very hard to catch them with electrofishing or with gill nets. We usually have to take our electrofishing boats and drive them into gill nets. And even then, a lot of them jump the nets.
“We’re trying to get as much information as we can ahead of time. We’re going to do fish-community surveys to we can understand how an invasion would affect other fish species. And we’re working with the folks in Kentucky to try to make sure the carp stay in Kentucky. Will we stop [the advance]? Probably not. But if we can slow it down five to 10 years, I’m fine with that.”