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By Michael Butler, CEO, Tennessee Wildlife Federation

Sections of this article are taken directly from the following sources, and from direct communications with Fisheries Chief Bobby Wilson of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

Tennessee is experiencing a significant expansion and growing problem of Asian carp in our rivers.  This article is an effort to bring the reader up to speed on the issue.  Stay tuned for future updates where we will be discussing potential solutions to this problem.

“Asian carp” refers to several species of related fish originating from Asia. Two species of Asian carp—the bighead and silver carp—were imported into the southern United States to keep aquaculture facilities clean and to provide fresh fish for fish markets. Bighead and silver carp escaped from Arkansas fish farms into the wild in the 1970s and have been swimming northward and southward ever since, overwhelming much of the Mississippi River drainages (including the Tennessee and Cumberland River systems). In some areas like the Illinois River, the Asian carp now comprise more than 95% of the biomass.

Bighead and silver carp are voracious eaters. This is a problem because the diet of Asian carp overlaps with the diet of native fish in the Tennessee, Cumberland, and Mississippi Rivers. Asian carp consume plankton—algae and other microscopic organisms—stripping the aquatic food web of the key source of food for native fish. Averaging 30-40 pounds, some Asian carp can grow to be over 100 pounds. An Asian carp is capable of eating 5-20 percent of its body weight each day.

Between 1991 and 2000 the Asian carp population dramatically increased as the fish spread throughout the Mississippi River drainage. Between 1994 and 1997 commercial catches of bighead carp in the Mississippi River increased from 5.5 tons to 55 tons. Today, commercial fishers in the Illinois River regularly catch up to 25,000 pounds of bighead and silver carp per day. The commercial value of Asian carp is quite low and much less valuable than the native fish they replaced.

In addition to causing ecological harm and negatively impacting sport fishing, the silver variety of the Asian carp has caused direct harm to people. The silver carp is skittish and easily startled by the sound of a boat motor. The sound causes the fish to leap as high as ten feet out of the water. They land in boats, damage property, and routinely injure people.

While both species of carp are of concern in Tennessee, the silver carp is of greatest concern due to its potential to negatively impact native fisheries and injure outdoor recreationists.

There are currently discussions taking place to utilize methods that can help stop the advancement of Asian carp. Currently, Asian carp are present in the Tennessee River system as far upstream as Guntersville reservoir in the Tennessee River system and are present as far as Old Hickory Lake in the Cumberland River system.  They are also present in Reelfoot Lake.

Interestingly enough, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with assistance from Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, have recently been using environmental DNA, commonly referred to as eDNA, as a surveillance tool to try to find out if DNA from bighead or silver carp is present in certain sections of the Tennessee River.  eDNA is one of the newest surveillance tools used by these agencies to monitor and track Asian carp in certain waterways. However, there are also limitations on what eDNA can tell researchers about Asian carp.

eDNA has been used as an early detection surveillance tool since 2009. It provides information about whether Asian carp DNA is present in water samples. What it doesn’t tell researchers is if the genetic material came from a live or dead fish, one fish or several, or if the eDNA may have been transported from other sources (e.g., navigation vessels or fish-eating birds). Due to the two-week sample processing time, eDNA cannot yet provide precise, real-time information about where Asian carp might be.

This species is notoriously difficult to find in waterways if the population is very low. The eDNA technique is much more sensitive than other standard fishery sampling gear, and is useful for early Asian carp DNA detection and to identify distribution patterns of DNA when the fish are low in abundance. A positive eDNA result tells researchers if Asian carp genetic material is present in an area, then that area may be a good place to use other sampling tools, such as netting, to look for signs of live Asian carp. For example, despite over two years of eDNA sampling, hundreds of hours of monitoring efforts and tons of fish harvested, only one Asian carp has been captured in the Chicago Area Waterways above the electric barriers in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.

In the Tennessee River system, test results indicated the presence of silver and bighead carp eDNA in Pickwick, Wilson, and Wheeler reservoirs (biologists already know that they are present in Kentucky reservoir so they did not test there). The “leading edge” appears to be in Wheeler reservoir.

Another potential control strategy could involve commercial fishermen catching these fish and selling them to processing facilities.  Asian carp flesh has many uses that include, but that are not limited to Surimi (also known as Artificial crab meat and as a filler in mixing and preparing processed fish sticks), whole fish to be shipped to China, fish filets (Asian carp meat is very mild and tasty but extremely boney like all carp species), fertilizer, fish meal, and pet foods derived from fish meal.


A 9 member task force, including myself, has been created by an act of the General Assembly this past legislative session (HB1821 and SB1753 were passed and Gov. signed creating Public Chapter 949

Purpose as stated by the legislation is “to review the detrimental effects of invasive Asian carp, and recommend any necessary statutory revisions that should be made to protect the waterways and native species of this state from any such detrimental effects”.

Serving on the task force are the following:

Rep. Tim Wirgau – Chair

Senator Mark Green – bill sponsor

Rep. Jay Reedy – bill sponsor

Rep. Joe Pitts

Senator Mike Bell

Senator Ed Jackson

Jeff Griggs – former TWRA Commissioner and chair

Ben Duncan – commercial fisherman

Mike Butler – CEO, Tennessee Wildlife Federation


Stay tuned for updates on where the effort to control these damaging and invasive fish is heading.

28 replies
  1. Russell Andersen
    Russell Andersen says:

    I went to Illinois 3 weeks ago and stayed at my brothers house for 3 days in Streator. I went there because I was going to Wisconsin to purchase an Alumacraft boat. I’m from Cartersville Ga. my brother has a pontoon boat on the Illinois River in Ottawa Illinois. He took me out on his boat twice for the day to relax and boat ride on the Illinois River. My brother and I are originally from Ottawa I’ll. We grew up on the river where my parents purchased a home on the water when I was 9 years old. We fished the river everyday. But what I seen on the river for them 2 days was totally disgusting. I seen at least 1000 Asian carp jumping every where we went. No one catches game fish any more, And a lot of boaters sold there boats and got off the river. Where he keep his boat at a Marina the docks had very few boats. People left the river. It’s sad that it has gone this long with out not much being done to save our waterways. An electronic barrier was installed in Chicago to stop the carp from entering the Great Lakes. How can you stop trillions of carp at one damn?? Every Lock and Damn should have had the barriers years ago. We could have contained the carp between the damns and system actically removed them or killed every fish with chemicals and start over. But the political BS wanted to create a market for them instead of trying to stop the upstream migration. They only cared for the Great Lake Fisherman. Not us along the thousands of miles of shore lines. And thousands of acres of water that the carp have taken from us. It’s only money! If the Federal Government really cares about jobs in America they best get going on this problem and spend some money wisely and put barriers in now and quit giving our money to foreign countries. I have a lake home on Guntersville Lake here in Guntersville Alabama. The reports say the carp are below Guntersville Damn. 69,000 acres of beautiful water will be a huge loss for everyone if this lake has 10 billion carp jumping in people’s boats. It’s a shame. My wife and I have decided not to wait for the carp to jump in our boat. We will not retire here as we planned to do next July, We going to sell our Lake home now and stay in Georgia.

  2. Nick
    Nick says:

    I’m a fisherman in east tennessee, I’m just getting into bow fishing and I am curios to what species of fish I am allowed to hunt. I know no game fish but just want to make sure. T.I.A

    • Tennessee Wildlife Federation
      Tennessee Wildlife Federation says:

      Nick, thanks for commenting. Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) is the state agency responsible for law enforcement pertaining to wildlife and will be the best source for up-to-date regulations. We are a nonprofit dedicated to the conservation of the state’s wildlife and natural resources through stewardship, youth engagement, and public policy.

      You can find TWRA online at

  3. Dan Holton
    Dan Holton says:

    To: CEO
    From: Dan Holton

    When are you going to hold public meetings on the uses of Federation funds to benefit hunters in the area of wildlife conservation and wildlife resources? Asian Carp is important to rich landowners, but what about the private land owners sequestering property with the express purpose of excluding hunters from rightly public land to hunt? Look forward to hearing from you.

    Dan Holton

    • Michael Butler
      Michael Butler says:

      Mr. Holton,

      Thanks for your reply. We are engaged on the Asian Carp issue because these fish are a threat to our public waterways and the native fish and recreation that takes place along the entire Tennessee and Cumberland river systems. Left unchecked or unaddressed, Asian Carp can severely damage these public resources that are utilized by many Tennesseans.

      As to private landowners and the proximity of their land to public land, we are strong supporters of sportsmen and the public having access to public lands and waters, and as such work on and support efforts by TWRA and others to make these areas as available to the public as is possible.

      Regarding the use of Federation funds to benefit hunters in the area of wildlife conservation and the wildlife resource, our work falls squarely in this arena through our programming efforts. Whether it is working towards passage of the wildlife restitution bill that raised fines on poachers (or any other bills or policies within state wildlife and conservation agencies) , to helping landowners and hunters use surplus deer to feed less fortunate families, to teaching kids and parents who have never hunted how to hunt, to restoring wetlands, to calling for the creation of Tennessee’s first sandhill crane season, and the reintroduciton of wild elk into Tennessee…the funds our donors and supporters provide to us have a direct impact in accomplishing our mission, which is to lead the conservation and wise use of Tennessee’s wildlife and great outdoors.

      We appreciate your comments, and please don’t hesitate to call us if you have any further questions.


      Michael Butler, CEO
      Tennessee Wildlife Federation

      • Steven
        Steven says:

        I just read an article in the Detroit Free Press about a delay in the plan to address the Asian carp problem around the Great Lakes. Do you think they should go ahead with this plan? Thanks.

        • Michael Butler
          Michael Butler says:

          Not knowing the intricate details of the proposed plan, it would be inappropriate for us to give an opinion as to the potential efficacy of said plan. It is also of note that the Trump administration has suspended many initiatives across multiple federal agencies as they review them and consider whether to support them.

          With the confirmation of Rep. Zinke as Secretary of Interior, we are confident that his team can provide some insight into this situation and help guide the administration to a solid decision.

          What is not debatable in our opinion is that asian carp’s advance and population growth must be stopped. They cannot be allowed to reach the Great Lakes, as all predictions of such a thing indicate catastrophy if it does indeed occur. So if the proposed plan is the only plan that has a chance to stop the asian carp, then we would be for it. But if there are other options that a larger group of stakeholders can get behind, then that should be considered as well.

  4. Dyson
    Dyson says:

    Helping children learn about the forest and the importance of natural areas is the premise behind the development of a 16-acre outdoor classroom next to the school in Blount County, Tennessee. The Tennessee Wildlife Federation recently recognized this project with a Conservation Organization of the Year for Outstanding Achievement award.

  5. Ed Hood
    Ed Hood says:

    Asian Carp (AC) are destroying our fisheries!. Lakes alongside the Mississippi River have already been destroyed. They (the Wildlife Management folks) have got to quit “studying” the problem & focus on control & hopefully, eradication. Australia has done a lot of work developing techniques to catch them. We need to do the same here in the U.S. Netting regulations need to be relaxed to allow year round, reliable harvest.
    AC eat the “Mother’s Milk” of our young sport fish (fry) & thus their survival is in danger. We cannot deny the Value of our sport fishing industry. We must demand legislation to allow & encourage the harvest of AC. We need to promote Bounties, tournaments, anything that will reduce or at least arrest their movement & population increase.

  6. Steve
    Steve says:

    We hear complaints about the invasion of illegals from the south but rarely pay attention the numerous invasions from Asia. Maybe it’s time we ban all imports or shipments from Asia so we can protect our environment. Below are just a few invasive species from Asia.

    The Asian Tiger Mosquito
    Snakehead Fish
    Asian Longhorned Beetle
    Emerald Ash Borer
    Burmese Python
    Japanese Beetle
    Zebra Mussel
    Asian Clam

  7. oneil gray
    oneil gray says:

    I want too I know why twra want let you use a shotgun to shoot these jumping carp? Duck hunting is allow on the state waterways. I was told you cannot shoot fish. These fish are evasive and do not belong in are waterways. It would be great fun and can be done as safe as any shooting sports.

      • Brett J. Dennison
        Brett J. Dennison says:

        We hunt these fish in the Greater Nashville area. If anyone knows where these schools of fish are just message me. We cannot get them all, but so far from what I have seen over the years us bowfisherman are the only hope as of now. TWRA does nothing to prevent or stop them. They have been studying the species, and they do know of the problems, but I don’t think that they are to concerned at this time. If people would push to allow bowfishing within 100 yards of a dam in TN I can garentee the numbers will not be increasing as much as they are now. We know where an abundance of these fish are, it is just illegal for us to get them…

  8. Bob C
    Bob C says:

    As Bo has stated above, the carp problem is affecting revenue for TN, the resorts, etc. around Reelfoot. I’m a Missouri resident and for the last 6 years I’ve purchased out of state fishing license, rented a lot to park a camper on at the lake, purchased bait, etc at the local business and ate many meals at the restaurants around the lake.
    This year has been the worst year I’ve ever had on the lake. Is this the affect of the carp showing up? And as Bo said the mess when they jump in the boat not to mention the danger. I plan to fish again this fall and see how it goes, and evaluate whether I’ll pay rent for a lot next spring or not. Not sure where I’ll fish if Reelfoot continues to decline.
    Something has to be done about the carp, and NOW. At least the TWF has issued this statement, on the MO side I haven’t seen anything. Over here we had a Bowl Weevil eradiation program for the cotton that to my knowledge was successful. Can we not figure out something similar. Asian Carp Eradication sounds good to me.
    We have Roundup ready soybeans,, there has to be a solution to this mess. Turn loose the bow fishermen, and nets. Ease laws, whatever it takes!!
    And I can’t believe this statement “Asian carp meat is very mild and tasty”. If you’ve ever had one of these jump in the boat you’ll never think of eating the nasty thing.

    • Bo Faulkner
      Bo Faulkner says:

      I only live 14 miles from the lake, but for the last 3 years, I am either fishing Ky Lake or going to Mississippi, buying an out of state license and enjoying fishing without the bother of being either knocked out of my boat, or being hit in the face by a carp, as one of my fishing partners did. I was hit in the left kidney by one of these things 4 years ago and was sore for about 10 days, I am done with Reelfoot Lake until something is done.

  9. Robert Bending
    Robert Bending says:

    I fish for Paddlefish below dams and have noticed the Asian Carp are getting bigger and Paddlefish smaller in 2014. Years ago I caught smaller carp and bigger Paddlefish and Asian Carp were much less plentiful. Below Old Hickory I caught a 22lb Silver Carp and at the time it was a state record, they are much bigger now in the record book sorry I killed it and put it back in the river instead of the book. Tennessee should net them or contract it out monthly and hopefully find a use for them as food or fertilizer as soon our native fish will be stunted or gone………folks it is a big problem now so don’t “study it to death”.

  10. Dub Cofer
    Dub Cofer says:

    I have a house on Soddy Creek in the Chickamauga reservoir and while fishing with my 4 year old grandson at Pine Harbor Boat dock recently he caught a fish that i could not identify. Upon researching the species ,I was astonished to find out that the fish he caught was a silver Asian carp. Has anyone reported seeing any this far upstream on the Tennessee River system? What can be done to keep them under control?

  11. Bo Faulkner
    Bo Faulkner says:

    I am 70 years old, and have fished Reelfoot Lake all my life, I have quit fishing Reelfoot Lake due to this problem. The last several times I have been Crappie fishing, I have had to go home, power wash my boat to get rid of the slime, blood and smell of 2-4 of these fish jumping in my boat, to be able to back my boat into my shop so I can stand to be in there myself. I discussed this with one of our TWRA agents before I left the lake that last fish outing, and told him they would soon completely take Reelfoot over if there was nothing done. I have talked to several anglers who have quit fishing the lake for this same reason. Something has to be done or revenues are going to suffer badly, not only for Wildlife Agencies, but for resort owners, motels who cater to fisherman and as at Reelfoot we are going to see a great amount of large investments go down the drain.

    Bo Faulkner
    Union City, TN

  12. Kristie Sullivan
    Kristie Sullivan says:

    We went out last summer in cross creeks area on our boat and had a massive encounter with lots of asian carp jumping against our boat and into our boat. We were scared to death that 1 of us would be seriously hurt. I will have a baseball bat with me the next time I encounter them and I hope that is never!

  13. Brett J. Dennison
    Brett J. Dennison says:

    I would love to start meeting authers of these articles. We have been actively hunting these fish in NashVille for years. We have put many in the boat, from 20-97 pound fish. There is a little bit that can be done by allot of the Anglers that we associate with. There is a law in TN that could be changed that could also help. There is no bowfishing allowed within 100 yards of the dams. That 100 yards is where allot of this species are. We have had citations for being in that area. It is legal to rod and reel fish it, but not Bow?? This doesn’t help in the trying to eradicate the non game and invasive species, just helps to pull game fish out by fisherman . That one law would encourage more Anglers to go after these invasive Asian carp.

  14. Michael Ridings
    Michael Ridings says:

    I am an avid Bow Fisherman here in Middle Tennessee and I hunt fish mainly on the Cumberland River.
    My first encounter with the Asin Carp was in 2011 near Ashkand City TN.
    Although I mainly hunt fish at night, I also see them quite often during the day.
    This species is difficult to hunt mainly because of their speed when moving through the water.
    The Cumberland River is dingy/dirty most of the time so the only way to see them during daylight is when they jump out of the water.
    At night we see more Asian Carp with the bright lights on my boat even when they aren’t jumping. Most of the time when we see them they are in large schools.
    I’ve seen large Asian Carp 45-60 lbs. quite often and have even had them jump completely over the boat.
    I would like to see a concentrated effort by all anglers to help rid our waters of this very invasive fish. Maybe the TWRA could consider offering a ‘bounty’ for fish harvested whether by rod, archery equipment, or netting. This may create an interest in targeting this species.


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