Those who have been out on Moon Lake this year have probably noticed there are some undesirables wreaking havoc on recreational boaters.
Since the spring, cascades of large, invasive fish -- the silver carp (which is a species of Asian carp) -- have been raining down on unsuspecting recreational boaters when agitated by the noise of boat motors.
According to Randy Sewall, president of the Moon Lake Improvement Club (MLIC), “A silver carp can jump out of the water as high as 10 feet. They are capable of just jumping up and flying into a boat and some of them weigh between 20 to 30 pounds.”
Although disconcerting and sometimes dangerous, the presence of the silver carp roiling on the lake surface is not nearly as serious as their impact on the fishing industry of Moon Lake if the invasive Asian carp population remains unchecked.
Three of the four types of Asian carp -- grass carp, bighead carp and silver carp -- are in Moon Lake, according to Sewall.
“It had gotten to the point where many of us were concerned about it,” he said.
How serious is the problem?
A paper on Asian carp published by the Aquatic Nuisance Species Tasks Force says, “Today, the Asian carp have spread throughout the Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri and Illinois rivers and their tributaries.”
At present, millions of dollars and volunteer hours are being spent to keep the Asian carp out of the Great Lakes. And that effort has spread south.
On Aug. 10, the MLIC set up an appointment to talk about the problem of the Asian carp on Moon Lake with the Mississippi Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Parks (MSDWFP) at Kathyrns restaurant on Moon Lake.
Of the 50 to 60 people at the regular bi-annual meeting of the Moon Lake Improvement Club were representatives from the Moon Lake homeowners association, property owners, and recreational and commercial fisherman.
“In a matter of four years, they (the Asian carp) can ruin a lake by completely wiping out the game fish,” Sewall said. “They eat up all the plankton, to the extent that when indigenous game fish, like bass and crappie, spawn, there is not enough plankton to support their offspring. They’ve got to go.”
According to Dennis Riecke, of the MSDWFP in Jackson, the Asian carp are planktivores, meaning their diet consists of microscopic plankton, which they filter through their gill rakers. The silver carp, more so than its cousin the bighead carp, have smaller gills and, therefore, their gill rakers can utilize a smaller-size plankton. That is why the silver carp are outcompeting the bigheads. And that is why they are also outcompeting every other species of fish who, in the juvenile stage, are also planktivores.
What can be done?
Commercial fishing is not legal on Moon Lake. However, as of 2015, Moon Lake has been specifically written into the Special Commercial Fishing Rule that authorizes a special commercial fishing season from Oct. 1 – Feb. 28 for the purpose of decreasing the population of Asian carp in Moon Lake.
Other options include electronic barriers at the Yazoo Pass or constructing a gate at the Yazoo Pass, which would close when the Coldwater River levels rise.
Moon Lake does not connect with the Mississippi River in Coahoma County, but drains at the Yazoo Pass into the Coldwater River to the Tallahatchie River to the Yazoo River
, which then drains into the Mississippi River at Vicksburg.
Flooding in 1975, 2011 and 2016 caused the Coldwater River to back up and allowed more carp to access the Yazoo Pass and, from there, access to Moon Lake. Moon Lake water levels are controlled at the Arkabutla Lake dam.
However, the electronic barriers and gate construction options are both cost prohibitive for Coahoma County and the MLIC at this time and have significant limitations and environmental concerns.
As of right now, Sewell said, there is “no cure except catching them.”
Financial incentives offered to fishermen
The MLIC has contributed financially to tackling the problem. The club agreed to incentivize commercial fishermen from Kentucky and Illinois this season by paying them 10 cents per pound of Asian carp they catch, in addition to what they receive from the buyer of their catch.
These fishermen have contracted with Moon River Foods, Inc. in Indianola to buy the catch.
Stan Wagner, the fish intake manager for Moon River Foods, says the Asian carp has been tested and certified to be of very good quality with high quantities of omega fatty acids. Wagner describes the Asian carp as the “cow of the fishes because their diet consists of sifting plankton.”
In November, an initial 60,000 pounds of Asian carp were caught and processed. The MLIC has agreed to pay the fishermen an additional $5,000 (at 10 cents per pound) up to 50,000 additional pounds.
Wagner is adamant that the combined 110,000 pounds of biomass removed from Moon Lake will go a long way in decreasing the competition for the hatch and will make a difference in “getting them off the competitive food chain. The Asian carp continues to keep the pressure on the hatch.”
Lance Freeman, a 23-year-old commercial fisherman from Benton, Ky., is heading up a two-man team that has already caught 70,000 pounds of Asian carp in the past five weeks. Freeman, who has won multiple awards in sports fishing and happens to hold the 2011 World Bass Fishing title, said, “A nickel more will get a fisherman’s attention; a dime more will get them to work.”
Before he puts his boat in at Moon Lake, Freeman has already invested days of work and preparation.
“It takes an entire day to tying 300 feet of netting,” Freeman said.
Once he’s ready to fish, he’ll lower 3,000 feet of net into Moon Lake. Freeman uses a special fishing net called a gill net, which is hung vertically so that the fish get trapped in it by their gills. Gill netting allows Freeman to target the species he wants to go after.
“You are tearing up your gear when you fish. These fish are so aggressive,” Freeman said. “You can’t buy a good net. You have to buy everything piece by piece if you want to build it right.”
He estimates that each net cost about $300 in raw material, excluding the tertiary cost of durable goods needed to complete each net.
Educated as an engineer at Murray State University, Freeman said, “It’s all about your technical mind skills. There are so many variables. What works here at Moon doesn’t work at home (at the Land Between the Lakes in western Kentucky). What works at home, doesn’t work at Moon.
“They are one of the smartest fishes I have ever encountered. They will run the entire net to look for the any holes.”
Freeman said he never puts any more than two people on a boat and emphasizes that it is very dangerous work. Gil netting allows Freeman to target the species he wants to go after.
Wagner said of Freeman, “He’s young, but I don’t care because his work ethic is so good. I hold him in high regard.”
Freeman enjoys the financial benefits provided by the MLIC. On a recent day, he and his crew worked six hours and made $2,000.
“I know I can get paid every day in Mississippi,” he said. “There is a subsidy program for commercial fishing in Kentucky, but you have to jump through so many hoops to get it. The MLIC made it right for a fisherman to want to come down here. It makes it so much more enjoyable not to have to jump through hoops. The communication is so easy between the MLIC, (myself) and Moon River Foods. Everybody’s winning.”
Freeman said he plans to return for the October 2019 special season if the money is there.
“Until it gets to the point where it is not profitable, I will be there. At an extra 10 cents a pound, it is such a difference,” he said.
Is Asian carp good to eat?
The upside of the Asian carp situation is that there is a “big market for those fish,” according to Sewall.
There is a commercial market for the Asian carp to be sold as protein products, pet food and for human consumption. The Asian carp is an orangish fish with distinctive red meat on the sides.
Riecke said, “You have to cut that red meat off the side and it is boney. You’ve got to know how to prepare it.”
Sewall is a fan of the fish.
“I’ve eaten it. It’s excellent and they are serving them in restaurants in New York, New Orleans. They also are good to use in a crab meat patty. From what I understand, they are one of the cleanest fishes to eat because they don’t eat any other fish,” he said. “It’s just a good, clean, white meat.”
However, the challenge for the Moon Lake fishermen is that if they don’t deliver the fish to the processing plants at a certain temperature, they cannot be used.
“Down here, it is harder to maintain a cool temperature and it is expensive to use beds of ice, refrigerated trucks or coolers,” Sewall said.
Wagner said that all Moon River Foods sells is “food-grade” (sufficient quality to be used for food production) and notes “the demand (for Asian carp) is starting to pick up more and more domestically.”
Still, Wagner admits that if he had his preference, there would be no Asian carp population in the freshwaters of the U.S. He laments about the effects the invasive species is having on the indigenous bass and crappie populations.
“Their (Asian carp) growth rate is phenomenal. The rate of gain on these fish is simply amazing. If people could stick their heads under the water, it’s pretty devastating,” said Wagner, who said a 77-pound Asian carp was recently pulled out of Moon Lake.
Even though he doubts it would ever happen, Wagner does have the “pipe dream” of taking Moon Lake’s problem fish and turning it into good for the community.
“I would love to be tied into the food banks. Asian carp is a very cheap, high-quality protein source. It can be minced up to make fish patties or fish hamburgers for pennies on the dollar,” he said.
How did the Asian carp get into Moon Lake?
Moon Lake covers 2,300 acres and is owned by the state of Mississippi and open to the public. In 1852, Moon Lake was cut off from the Mississippi River when engineers built the levee.
In 1962, the Moon Lake Improvement Club was formed. As a youngster, Sewall can remember attending the club with his parents.
Sewall said the Asian carp were imported in the early ’70s to farm ponds on the Arkansas River directly across from Rosedale, Ms.
, as part of a government grant project to naturally keep catfish fisheries clean. However, due to massive flooding in 1973, which overflooded the levees on these ponds, the Asian carp got into the Mississippi River.
Subsequent extensive flooding in 1975, 2011 and 2016 allowed more carp to access the Yazoo Pass and, from there, access to Moon Lake.
According to Sewall, the latest crop of unwanted guests acquired access to Moon Lake in the spring of 2018. He said as the Coldwater River rose, the Asian carp could be seen spilling over the Yazoo Pass.
“Those fish getting into Moon Lake had to come from the Mississippi River up through Vicksburg,” Sewall said.
No matter where they came from, the people and boaters of Moon Lake are ready to be rid of the carp.
“People are getting tired of the flooding and the fish,” Sewall said.