The Black carp now established in parts of the Mississippi River basin

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

A new multi-year report from the US Geological Survey (USGS) found that the Mississippi Basin black carp range now spans the entire Mississippi River between New Orleans and 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 a meter in length and weighing over 100 pounds. The fish was intentionally brought to the States in the 1970s as a pest control agent for aquatic snails in fish ponds. The population quickly got out of control.

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

Patrick Kroboth is a fish biologist at the USGS’ 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 figured prominently in their finds, among other methods.

“As a fish grows,” Kroboth explained, “this calcified structure deposits some of the microchemistry of the water around that fish — the environment in which it lives becomes trapped there.”

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

The black carp is a mollusk, which means that it mainly eats snails, clams and mussels, among other mollusks. Kroboth said this poses risks for the Mississippi and its tributaries.

“Many of North America’s mussel species are threatened and critically endangered,” he said. “Of course that’s worrying.”


Credit: USGS. https://www.usgs.gov/media/images/wild-black-carp


A commercially caught wild black carp from the Mississippi River.

As early as 2003, the first non-captive black carp was identified in an oxbow lake in southern Illinois alongside the Mississippi River. Even earlier, commercial fishermen in Louisiana had reported catching the fish in the Red and Atchafalaya rivers in the 1990s.

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

“The fact is, Pisces don’t understand and aren’t bound by political boundaries,” Parsons said. “A fish that’s in the Mississippi River one day might be in the Ohio River the next.”

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A map of black carp sightings in the Mississippi River Basin reported to the USGS Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Database as of November 30, 2022. This map is not a complete representation of species abundance or distribution. This data includes incidental public gatherings and reports from federal and state agencies. There are limited sampling efforts targeting black carp, and the likelihood of individuals catching them in the major rivers where they live is currently low.

In addition to the main trunk of the Mississippi, the black carp’s range also includes most of its tributaries: the Cumberland, Illinois, Kaskaskia, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, Wabash, and White Rivers.

Parsons said management of invasive species in the Mississippi will require a collaborative and multifaceted approach to effectively contain the existential threat posed by the common carp.

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

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