A black carp collected by USGS scientists from the Mississippi River. (Courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey)
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This story is a product of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an editorially independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in partnership with Report For America and funded by the Walton Family Foundation. Wisconsin Watch is a member of the network. Sign up for our newsletter and donate to support our fact-checked journalism.

Audio story voiced by Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco / WNIJ-Northern Public Radio.

The black carp, one of four invasive species of carp in North America, has made it into the  Mississippi River basin.

A new multi-year report from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) found the range of black carp in the Mississippi River basin now includes the entirety of the river, from New Orleans to the southeastern edge of Iowa, near Keokuk.

The black carp is a large species of fish endemic to parts of east Asia, typically growing over three feet long and weighing over 100 pounds. The fish was deliberately brought to the states during the 1970s as means of pest control for aquatic snails in fish ponds. The population quickly grew out of control.

The research was done by analyzing the “ear stones,” or “otoliths” – of over 200 black carp from 2011 to 2018 to differentiate whether they were wild or farmed.

Patrick Kroboth is a fish biologist with USGS’s Columbia Environmental Research Center in Columbia, Missouri, and one of the authors of the study, published in Biological Invasions. He said that the carp’s ear stones, among other methods, figured prominently in their findings.

“As a fish grows, that calcified structure deposits some of the micro-chemistry of the water around that fish, the environment that it lives in, it’s captured there,” he said.

While the presence of the black carp in part of the Mississippi River basin has been previously reported, the research concludes that the population is now self-sustaining.

The black carp is a molluscivore, meaning that it mainly consumes snails, clams, and mussels, among other mollusks. Kroboth said this poses risks for the Mississippi River and its tributaries.

“Many of North America’s mussel species are threatened and endangered. That’s obviously a concern,” he said.

Back in 2003, the first non-captive black carp was identified in a southern Illinois oxbow lake adjacent to the Mississippi River. Earlier still, commercial fishers in Louisiana had reported catching the fish throughout the 1990s in the Red and Atchafalaya rivers.

The black carp was deliberately brought to the states during the 1970s as means of pest control for aquatic snails in fish ponds. The population quickly grew out of control. (Courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey)

Brad Parsons, with the Mississippi Interstate Cooperative Resource Association, said biologists have long suspected that the black carp lived in the basin, and now the priority should be figuring out how to manage the pest.

“The fact is — fish don’t understand political boundaries, and they are not bound by them,” said Parsons. “A fish that is in the Mississippi River one day could be in the Ohio River the next.”

Beyond the main stem of the Mississippi River, the black carp’s range also includes the majority of its tributaries: the Cumberland, Illinois, Kaskaskia, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, Wabash, and White rivers. 

Parsons said that the management of invasive species in the Mississippi River is going to require a collaborative and multifaceted approach to effectively curb the existential threat that the carp pose.

“Our native species are incredibly resilient, they’ve been here for a long time. But they are facing a full frontal assault,” said Parson. “And, you know, we don’t need any more new challenges to be thrown into the mix here.”

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Juanpablo covers environmental, substandard housing and police-community relations. He’s been a bilingual facilitator at the StoryCorps office in Chicago. As a civic reporting fellow at City Bureau, a non-profit news organization that focuses on Chicago’s South Side, Ramirez-Franco produced print and audio stories about the Pilsen neighborhood. Before that, he was a production intern at the Third Coast International Audio Festival and the rural America editorial intern at In These Times magazine. Ramirez-Franco grew up in northern Illinois. He is a graduate of Knox College.