Katie Zipfel has to have one of the toughest jobs in state government.
Zipfel, a fisheries biologist for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, is trying to prevent invasive Asian carp from taking up residence in Mountain State waters.
It appears to be a losing battle.
On July 12, two Ohio River bowfishermen shot and killed a 104.15-pound bighead carp near the Willow Island Locks and Dam. After a review, Bowfishing Association of America officials are expected to recognize the kill as a new world record for the species.
DNR and tourism folks usually love it when record-breaking fish are taken in state waters. Not this time, though. Zipfel said it was a bit unsettling to know that an Asian carp that large had made it that far up the Ohio.
“This is evidence that these fish are moving upstream,” she added. “Most of the bighead carp we’ve found so far have been in the Greenup or Robert C. Byrd pools of the Ohio.
“This one made it past the Racine Dam, the Belleville Dam and the Willow Island Dam.”
Zipfel, who is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to track Asian carp movements in the Ohio, said it’s possible the fish came from far downriver.
“We have an array of telemetry stations that extends from the mouth of the river all the way upstream to Willow Island,” she explained. “We’ve found that some fish hang around in a home area, while others move and just keep moving.”
She suspects the 104-pounder was one of the wanderers.
“This was a really old fish,” she explained. “The largest bighead we’ve ever turned up in our gill-net surveys was a 70-pounder, and the growth rings on its [ear bones] indicated it was 17 or 18 years old.
“In all likelihood, this fish was even older than that, so it had plenty of time to make its way up the river.”
Biologists track Asian carp by capturing them and surgically implanting transmitters into their abdomens. When transmitter-equipped fish pass one of the telemetry stations, a sensor records the fish’s presence.
“We have between 500 and 600 fish tagged,” Zipfel said. “Of those, we only have 20 to 30 that move a lot.”
But, she added, even a few fish can make a profound difference impact on a river’s ecology.
“It only takes one male and one female to find each other,” she said. “And if the female is large, she could be carrying multiple millions of eggs.”
There are two species of Asian carp — bighead and silver. So far, only bigheads have made it into West Virginia’s portion of the Ohio. Both species are “filter feeders,” straining zooplankton from the water as they cruise the river.
In large numbers, they can upset a river’s food chain by gobbling up so much plankton that the newly hatched fry of other fish species can’t survive.
Zipfel said the only way to effectively remove bighead carp from the river is to catch them in gill nets. Electrofishing — shocking the water with an electric current to force fish to the surface — doesn’t work on bigheads.
“It sometimes works with silver carp, but you have to run them in toward the shore where you can scoop them up,” she added.
Anglers on the Ohio and Lower Kanawha river can help biologists slow the invasion by learning to identify them and reporting any sightings to the DNR.
“Report them if you see them, and remove them from the river if you can,” Zipfel said. “We certainly don’t want them there.”