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Turning Around Malheur Refuge One Carp Carcass At A Time

Devan Schwartz

What could be the largest carp removal project in history is underway at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Southeast Oregon.

EarthFix’s Devan Schwartz reports on the attempts to curb the invasive fish that has destroyed bird habitat for decades.

Minnesota fishermen are pulling in thousands upon thousands of carp from Malheur Lake, the main feature of the national wildlife refuge.

Tim Adams tosses carp from net to boat.

Adams: “There’s definitely a huge carp problem out here. I mean, there’s a massive amount of fish. We’re the carp guys I guess, so to speak.”

Adams isn’t just any carp guy. He stars in a reality show called Bottom Feeders on cable television’s Outdoor Channel.

It’s about fishermen who remove invasive carp by the net full to help restore Midwestern lakes and rivers.

Adams and his crew traveled nearly 2,000 miles to test their method of carp control in the high desert country of Eastern Oregon.

The $35,000 they were paid came from U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Oregon Wildlife Heritage Foundation and Pacific Foods.

Adams: “It’s just a matter of how much money you’ re willing to spend to change this back to the way it used to be.”

Linda Beck, the refuge’s fish biologist, helped design the project.

She says the carp population is more than a million — how many more, nobody knows.

Beck: “Whether we have one million carp or we have ten million carp, we just have a big problem.”

Beck says the common carp was brought in as early as the 1920s, likely as a reliable food source for people in this arid region.

Credit Devan Schwartz / Earthfix
The invasive carp on Malheur National Wildlife Refuge have been a problem for decades and refuge staff are seeking solutions that could include commercial fishing.

By the 1950s, carp were recognized as an ecological wrecking crew.

Over the years, the refuge has thrown everything they could at the carp problem. From dynamite to poison. All to no avail.

Schwartz: “What makes the carp so hard to eradicate?”

Beck: “Carp are so hard to eradicate because they’re the perfect invasive species. They’re kind of like the feral pig of the waterway.”

Carp are aggressive bottom-feeders that eat almost anything: fish eggs, waterplants, insects, seeds. They’ve stirred up sediments so severely that sunlight can’t penetrate the water and hardly any vegetation can grow.

The fish can withstand extreme heat and cold, and can survive even with very poor water quality. A single adult female can produce a million eggs.

Carp have overrun Malheur Lake so badly other animal and plant species struggle to survive.

That’s bad news for the birds this refuge was formed to protect in 1908.

Bucy: “You have this isolated little marsh in Southeast Oregon that is extremely significant for populations of waterfowl all up and down the Pacific coast.”

David Bucy is an avid birder from Corvallis. He’s working to develop an interpretive outreach plan for the refuge.

Bucy: “The birds are disappearing, they’re going away, and that would be pretty sad.”

Bucy points out one of the few remaining patches of reeds. Rather than the polluted open water that is Malheur Lake today, he says it should be a giant marshy wetland. That’s what’s needed for waterfowl and other migrating birds along the Pacific Flyway.

Refuge manager Chad Karges says testing the viability of commercial fishing this summer is an important step. If this is their solution, it will have to be scaled up to deal with the millions of carp.

Karges: “Managing carp at the scale we need to manage carp here has never been done anywhere in the world before."

In the Midwest, carp fishermen typically sell their catch to nearby processing plants.

Bringing the fish all that way from Malheur isn’t going to happen.

Karges says that’s too far to ship the fish so they would need a more local solution.

Building a processing plant in central Oregon would be one option — or else finding a coastal fishing operation willing to take carp.

Karges: “We’re working with some of the top carp researchers in the world. They think it’s doable.”

Fish biologist Linda Beck is also confident they’ll, eventually, find a solution.

Beck: “My vision is within 10 years to really have the lake cleaned up and have a lot of submerged aquatic vegetation and have millions of more birds.”

The fisherman Tim Adams doesn’t think carp could ever be fully eliminated from the Malheur refuge.

But if the right time, money and sweat are put into the operation, he says they could be reduced to a manageable level.

Adams: “We’d be up for the challenge.”

Perhaps a future episode of Adams’ show Bottom Feeders will feature him pulling carp not from one of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes but from a wildlife refuge in Oregon.

Copyright 2014 Earthfix