In the Beginning
Tragedy of the White Amur
Trouble with Fishing
“Eat ’em to Beat ’em?”
The Glorious Gate
At Home in the Great Lakes
About the Author
We first crossed paths in 2012. Through the haze of research, travel, interviewing and reporting that has marked my time since, I can’t recall how I first heard about Asian carp. It feels as though they’ve always been in the ether. In early 2012, I was reporting for the Toronto Star, one of Canada’s largest newspapers, covering energy and the environment at Ontario’s legislature. I read somewhere of a grand, $18 billion plan from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to hydrologically separate the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River watershed by severing the aquatic links in Chicago. No simple redrawing of continental maps, the Corps’ scheme aimed to reset nature to how it once was.
I was baffled. Why was America’s largest civil engineering firm being charged by Congress to investigate ways of tinkering with a Midwest waterway? The short answer (because of a fish) left me with even more questions. And what, I subsequently wondered, had transpired over five decades so that this nuisance fish, introduced to the United States in the 1960s to eat aquatic weeds and clean aquaculture ponds, was now threatening the Great Lakes with ruin after disrupting freshwater ecosystems as far south as the Gulf of Mexico? Big projects fascinate me — like a child’s curiosity with fire trucks or dinosaurs — and this project felt big.
My first feature for a print publication appeared in This Magazine in the summer of 2012, for which I had frantically studied the Asian carp catastrophe, interviewing biologists, government officials and the heads of binational agencies. After the story was published, I watched the situation continue to deteriorate. The Great Lakes and Mississippi River Interbasin Study (GLMRIS), for which that $18 billion plan was conceived, had been delayed; bills before Congress and the Senate to tighten rules regulating the import of invasive species had stalled; and in 2013, Chicago sanitation officials dumped stormwater the city’s sewers couldn’t handle directly into Lake Michigan to mitigate flood risks, water that may have contained Asian carp. After these missteps, miscues and years of inaction, the Corps finally released their study in January 2014 to much fanfare.
Yet the shortcomings of news coverage accompanying the Corps’ report soon became obvious. Beyond notable exceptions from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Dan Egan (whose wonderful book The Death and Life of the Great Lakes includes a chapter on the carp menace) and John Flesher from the Associated Press, most media accounts of Asian carp’s American odyssey were content to chalk their origin up to carelessness on the part of Southern aquaculturists, or, if charitable, to Mother Nature in the form of flooding in the early 1990s that let loose this scourge. But from what I had gleaned in researching my article for This, so much of Asian carp’s American history appeared uncomfortably reductive. The Army Corps, after all, doesn’t propose spending $18 billion in taxpayer money for nothing. What was being omitted from these oversimplified narratives?
I aimed to find out.
• • •
Their takeover was dramatic. In the first years of the twenty-first century, researchers estimated that bighead carp, one of four Asian carp species now in American waters, comprised 97 percent of the Mississippi River’s biomass. Havana, a hardscrabble town of 3,000 people in central Illinois, gained minor fame as ground zero for silver carp when their stretch of the Illinois River was found to contain more of the invasive fish per square mile than anywhere else on the planet. In rivers they occupy, Asian carp are often the only fish longer than 16 inches, suggesting many competing native fish fail to reach adulthood.
Within a decade of their introduction in 1963, grass carp spread to 32 states with the enthusiastic support of government agencies, private interests and academia. Silvers and bigheads, introduced in 1972 and sometimes lumped together under the moniker “bigheaded carp,” have moved effortlessly through the Mississippi watershed, following the Big Muddy and its tributary rivers like an interstate highway through the South and Midwest. By 1978, grass carp had spread 2,800 miles from their port of call in Arkansas, becoming what some believe to be the fastest spreading exotic species in North American history. “Their population exploded,” says Matt O’Hara from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR). “We saw our first fish in the early 1990s. Within a few years, there were fish everywhere.” Steve Butler, a biologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, tells me he’s witnessed “billions of little, tiny silver carp everywhere” on the Illinois. “As far as the eye can see, it was solid spawning carp.” Researchers believe one spawning season can increase the silver carp population by a billion fish. Or more.
Bigheads strike a prehistoric pose, as though forgotten by evolution. Large, wide-set eyes sit low on bulbous heads, their mouths hanging in a perpetual frown. In rare cases, bigheads reach 140 pounds and 7 feet in length, though 40 pounds and a length of 28 inches is standard — still big by American freshwater fish standards. Silver carp also sport frowning mouths and scaly heads, heads that are, comparatively speaking, less bulging than the aptly-named bighead. They shade from silver and caramel-colored to olive green and can grow to 100 pounds, though 30 pounds is routine. Both silvers and bigheads share many physiological traits with the common carp found in waterways across the continent. Common carp aren’t native to North America, yet they predate anyone currently living and are thought of by many as naturalized. This European cousin of Asian carp was first introduced to North America from Europe in the mid-nineteenth century and spread by human hands with unthinkably reckless abandon (imagine tossing live fish from trains into rivers and streams that early transcontinental railways passed by).
There is a fourth member of the Asian carp family — the black carp. They are equal to grass, silver and bighead carp in their voracious eating habits, though they eat snails and molluscs, including numerous endangered North American mussels. An average black carp weighs in at 35 pounds, though they too are capable of reaching tremendous sizes. As best we know, they arrived in America accidentally in a shipment of grass carp in the early 1970s before fish farmers began importing them specifically in the 1980s for grub control. But unlike other members of the Asian carp family, black carp have been found in the wild in small but growing numbers only since the mid-1990s and have been subjected to significantly fewer studies on everything from reproduction and feeding habits to geographic spread. Subsequently, researchers can largely speculate on what destructive power they may wield, but preliminary research shows reason to worry. Currently, there is little I can add to their still-unfolding story.
The more I scrutinized bigheaded carps the more remarkable I found the functioning of their bodies to be. Both species are filter feeders that consume throughout the water column, from the surface of the water to the riverbed. They eat while breathing, a common trait for filter feeders, though in the plankton-rich waters of the Mississippi, it’s proven an especially successful physiological trait. Gill rakers, a crescent of spongelike cartilage just inside their mouths, usher even the smallest phytoplankton and other organic matter into their gaping maws.
Duane Chapman — one of the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) leading Asian carp experts — suggests that what sets Asian carp apart from other specialized feeders is their adaptability. “This is an unusual thing,” he says. Specially trained eaters tend to be the best at performing one task especially well. Think of the sword-billed hummingbird. With its thin beak, longer than its entire body, this South American bird can access nectar stored in a passion flower’s narrow petals that other birds cannot reach. Grass carp have the unique ability to take waterlogged aquatic plants, a low-value food source that few fish eat well, and obtain all their nutrients from it. The specialized traits of bighead and silver carp are far more dangerous to the health of the Mississippi’s and Great Lakes’ watersheds. Microscopic organisms are their primary food source, the same phytoplankton that also serve as the predominant source of nourishment for most of North America’s juvenile (and many of its mature) native fish. Yet when phytoplankton are scarce, native fish will starve while bigheads pivot to target zooplankton and detritus to survive. Silver carp can even live on algae and bacteria. And because Asian carp consume upwards of 20 percent of their weight each day, both species have fundamentally altered the structure of phyto- and zooplankton communities throughout the continent. This may have enormous consequences for species dependent on the resources these invasive fish insatiably consume. Aquatic North American ecosystems may never be the same as native fishes, and the complex web of predators and prey they interact with, struggle to adapt to life in rivers stolen by Asian carp.
Breeding populations of both species now swim approximately 76 miles from Lake Michigan, while solitary bigheads have been captured in Chicago’s Lake Calumet, a stone’s throw from the Great Lakes. Grass carp, meanwhile, are turning up in commercial fishing nets in Lake Erie and Lake Huron with increasingly regularity.
• • •
In October 2003, 35-year-old Marcy Poplett was on her jet ski when she was struck in the face by a jumping silver carp with such force that it knocked her unconscious. She fell into the Illinois River near Peoria and awoke facedown moments later. Her eyes pooled with blood; her lungs coughed up murky river water. Moving in and out of consciousness, her life jacket keeping her afloat, she heard five blasts from a nearby barge, a warning to get out of the way. But unable to move and watching her Sea-Doo drift slowly away, Poplett passed out. Mercifully, a family of nearby boaters spotted her listless watercraft and rescued her. But the interaction left Poplett with a broken nose and foot, cracked vertebrae, a concussion and a black eye.
Poplett’s run-in wasn’t an isolated incident. As silver carp have proliferated throughout the Mississippi watershed, stories of their violent interactions with boaters have grown more frequent. In Pleasant Hill, Missouri, 19-year-old Jordan Fiedler had his nose fractured by a leaping silver carp in August 2015. It also shattered his brow and both eye sockets. “I knew something was wrong when I felt my nose and it was way over here,” Fiedler told FOX 2 News St. Louis, pointing to a spot on his face his nose shouldn’t have been. On a canoe trip outside Thibodaux, Louisiana, a local man paddling his kayak beside my canoe recalled how his teenage daughter had been hospitalized the previous summer after a silver carp struck her. They were waterskiing on a lake near the family cabin. “We knew the risk, but we went out anyway,” he told me. “We don’t go as much anymore.”
This visibility has put Asian carp center stage in almost any discussion about invasive species in Canada and the United States. The New Yorker and The Atlantic, among other national publications, have joined countless local newspapers and TV and radio station affiliates of national broadcasters in covering the evolving carp crisis. The latest news on controlling, eating, fishing or the spread of Asian carp remains breathlessly reported on throughout the Midwest and Great Lake states (and into Canada). Amateur videos of jumping carp, meanwhile, have gone viral, spreading macabre images of projectile fish that would be funny were they not so frightening.
One video from Indiana Outdoor Adventures has been viewed over 5.9 million times since its posting in October 2010. “There’s some good hang!” shouts host Troy McCormick, squealing in delight as he ducks to avoid slimy missiles on the Wabash River. Over four minutes of footage, McCormick’s and co-host Mac Spainhour’s happy-go-lucky demeanors fade as the threat of injury grows. “Ow! They smashed my finger,” McCormick yells, lifting his knees to his chest and shaking his hand to cast away the pain. “Nailed me right in the back,” Spainhour moans off-camera. “You’re afraid to turn around,” McCormick says darkly. All the while, fish thump like thunder. Nineteen silver carp died in the video, a sliver of the total silver carp in the Wabash, suffocating on the gunmetal bottom of the YouTube host’s boat.
The effects of aquatic invaders are often difficult to discern, especially when we cannot see firsthand the devastation they cause below the surface. But silver carp’s propensity to jump has viscerally demonstrated how out of control the carp problem has become. Throughout the course of researching this book, many I spoke to claimed the fish’s jumping habit is the primary reason society continues to pay such close attention to Asian carp. Unlike many other aquatic invasives, we can see them.
Fighting invasive species is expensive. In 2006, researchers from the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research at the University of Windsor found the cost of just 21 nonindigenous species to Canada to be between $13.3 billion and $34.5 billion. Two years before, Cornell University evolutionary biologist David Pimentel updated a previous estimate of what nuisance species cost the United States. No easy task, given that over 50,000 non-native species (including relatively benign additions like corn, wheat and poultry) have arrived in America and its territorial possessions since 1776. Still, Pimentel figured that invasives cost the U.S. roughly $120 billion annually, a figure he calls conservative since no monetary value was assigned to intangibles like species extinction, aesthetics or biodiversity loss. While Pimentel’s figure is contested, with so many invasive species already in the country, he noted, not all have to be harmful “to inflict significant damage to natural and managed ecosystems.”
After decades of relative inaction, tens of millions of U.S. and Canadian federal dollars began pouring into resource agencies and research institutions, aiming to fund science and technology that would curb the carp problem. This research wave got rolling in December 2009 when a controversial study from Indiana’s University of Notre Dame catapulted Asian carp to the front page of newspapers by suggesting the fish had somehow spread past the electric barriers erected in the Chicago Area Waterway System in the early 2000s. Google searches for “Asian carp” spiked in Chicago, Michigan and Wisconsin within days of the report going public. Anxious Midwesterners went online for guidance to understand what, exactly, Asian carp were. What they found was reason to worry. Some latched onto the finding as proof that America was running out of time to protect the Great Lakes. Soon after its release, the Notre Dame study became the focal point of lawsuits between the states of Michigan and Illinois, in which Michigan sought to force Chicago to close its locks separating the Great Lakes and Mississippi basins. This set in motion a chain of events that led circuitously to the Asian carp frenzy that’s overtaken North America — and, ultimately, to this book.
• • •
I conceived of Overrun as an environmental travelogue, a journey along Asian carp’s invasion pathway. As I followed their trajectory, the story would move ahead in time, beginning with their introduction to the United States. I largely stuck to that format but fragmented the project into separate research trips: Illinois and Indiana, Arkansas and Louisiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Much of the field reporting for this book was done in clusters with follow-up interviews conducted via telephone, though the timing of events has been structured to ensure the story unfolds largely as the crisis did.
My focus broadened as I attempted to capture something of the vast geographic sprawl of Asian carp’s story. Some eight dozen interviews I conducted in diners, libraries, canoes, powerboats, laboratories, fish farms, wetland preserves, city halls, taco bars, fine restaurants, processing plants and the banks of bubbling creeks occurred in 10 states and provinces stretching from the Gulf Coast up the Mississippi River to the Great Lakes. But the scale I hope to convey isn’t just about physical space as observed on a map. Asian carp have manufactured a crisis that is as much social, economic and political as it is environmental, having roped in biologists, chefs, fishmongers, lawyers, fishers, shippers, economists, resource officers, bureaucrats, aquaculturists, politicians, engineers, authors, presidents and a czar.
They argue in these pages whether we can eat Asian carp to solve the crisis, whether aquaculturists are to blame for their escape, if hydrologic separation in Chicago can stop them and whether the Great Lakes deserve the attention and money they have received. We talked, not always graciously, while swatting mosquitoes, chucking dead fish, trying not to vomit, balancing on canoes, running from the rain, driving through ancient river valleys cut by glaciers, walking trails atop North America’s newest subcontinental divide and (of course) eating silver carp. The people in this book — those I had the pleasure to meet and those I encountered only in books — represent a wide array of Americans and Canadians mobilized in the Asian carp contest currently underway.
This book chronicles my dispatches from the Asian carp crisis and often captures the surprise I felt at the connections between today’s events and those of the past. Uncovering how the glaciers that formed our continent’s topography dictate where bigheaded carps pose the greatest threat to the Great Lakes, say, or learning the role of Reaganomics in scuttling a program to find uses for silver and bighead carp, has brought unexpected joy. Because if you scratch even lightly beneath the surface of this five-decade-long struggle, I discovered, you’ll find a story as complex as any environmental issue in North America today.
We haven’t been short on ideas in response to this calamity. One contest sponsored by the State of Michigan in 2018 awarded $200,000 to an atomic physicist for his proposal to stop Asian carp from advancing through the Chicago waterway system by employing underwater propellers and stinging bubbles. More than 350 entries from 27 nations answered the call when Michigan governor Rick Snyder announced the contest to solicit ideas for halting the carp in 2017. Meanwhile, we have poisoned them, eaten them, shot them with arrows, fenced them in with electric and wire fencing, caught them, deprived them of oxygen, shipped them to China and scared them with acoustic booms. We have invested in state-of-the-art technology while others argue antiquated methods are more effective. We have proposed pilot projects allowing licensed Illinois hunters to blast at jumping silvers with shotguns firing federally approved ammunition. And in Fort Wayne, Indiana, we have reshaped the earth into a massive berm to protect Lake Erie from fish lurking in the Wabash River 24 miles away.
Still the results of our labor remain inconclusive. Asian carp inch closer to the Great Lakes, albeit slowly, no matter what we seem to do. Is this the low point in the narrative? Are we debating who should conduct CPR while the Illinois River chokes to death, hesitant to implement the big and costly projects needed to stop bigheaded carp? Or should we think nimbly and work to approve flexible and cost-effective alternatives?
These nagging questions and anxieties are one side of this story, but the Asian carp narrative contains soft victories we shouldn’t ignore. We have looked at new tourism, resource extraction and food-processing business opportunities; we used Asian carp to inject cash into economically depressed parts of America; we fed them to those in need and to those in need of $140 prix fixe dinners; we learned to laugh at them and ourselves as they hurtled into “redneck” boaters wearing football helmets and wielding baseball bats and we developed environmental DNA testing to monitor them, technology that promises to revolutionize how we track the survival of the world’s most endangered species, as well as those on ecological Most Wanted lists.
North America’s collaborative approach to managing the Asian carp crisis has become the largest cooperative ecological endeavor undertaken on the continent. State, provincial and federal agencies have made common cause with environmental nonprofits, academia, industry organizations and community groups to tackle a problem falling under no single agency’s (or country’s) jurisdiction. America’s Asian carp czar, John Goss, cannot recall another instance in his decades of work on multijurisdictional environmental matters in North America where both countries have collaborated so completely. Most organizations typically stay in their own lane, says Kevin Irons from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, rarely deviating to observe how other agencies handle comparable problems. All that changed when Asian carp ballooned from a Midwest oddity to an international priority. “We’re in the field together — that’s the jewel in all of this,” Irons says. “We’re growing expertise throughout the region. We’re building beyond carp.”
• • •
Overrun will explore how exactly we got into this mess. Because only when overtaken by a highly visible nuisance species did we rediscover the worth of the waterways snatched from us. Only when faced with the threat of losing our degraded rivers forever did we rouse to save them. More than that, Asian carp have given us a unique opportunity to better learn how to manage invasive species in a holistic way, crucial in a warming, increasingly global future in which humans will continue to wrestle with the lingering effects of contaminated ballast water, poorly considered biological control plans, urban sprawl and agricultural pollution. These old worries interact with invasives in unpredictable new ways.
Moreover, we’ve learned to jointly manage the Great Lakes and appreciate them as one of the greatest treasures the United States and Canada share. And that when programs aiming to safeguard the ecological health of the Great Lakes come under attack, as they have in recent years, there is now overwhelming bipartisan resolve to say, “No!” and fight back.
Our prolonged struggle against Asian carp hammers home (as if we needed more reminding) that our collective behavior and individual actions have unimaginable consequences for the natural world. Perhaps equally worrisome is that our best and brightest cannot engineer a solution to our shared catastrophe and keep more than 180 nuisance aquatic species already present in the Great Lakes from going the other way and entering the Mississippi River system. Few know the names of these species, though they may soon. Aside from charismatic outliers like pythons in the Everglades, walk-on-water snakehead fish in New England or Japanese kudzu “eating the South,” few have retained our attention over extended periods of time. Yet Asian carp have captured our collective imagination over successive generations. Why? We’ll explore some of these reasons together throughout the book.
The televised, larger-than-life manner in which silver, bighead and grass carp have always been portrayed by American media reveals something profound about our complex relationship with all invasive species. Our fascination stems, in some part, I think, from a desire to expunge the guilt we feel for having let the natural places we love, and purport to treasure, go to shit. We see our ruinous handiwork in the spread of invasives and sense the shame in our hubris, ignorance and failed best intentions. And so it’s here, at the intersection of science, politics, economics and the ecology of Asian carp in North America, that we can discover how a single unwelcome fish has changed how we think about invasive species, binational and bipartisan cooperation on the environment and the fate of our rivers and Great Lakes.
There is no alternate timeline in which Asian carp are removed from North American waterways. Far from giving up, now is the time to seize the day (this is as close as I get to a carpe diem pun, I promise). But before we do anything, we must ask ourselves: Do we have the stomach for a protracted and expensive battle against Asian carp, one where success will be measured in poundage removed and not eradication?
There can be victory over Asian carp in some distant tomorrow, I believe; though victory may not look like what we imagine today.
In the Beginning
Little rock, AR — The man is grainy in the black-and-white photograph, standing on a clapboard dock, his back hardwood straight. There’s a pile of debris where squat, wooden paddles form a makeshift step to a wobbly pier where a rickety wooden chair rests. Discarded boards are laid in the swamp beside an ancient dinghy, a boat launch of sorts. He stands in white shirtsleeves and loose trousers, in contrast with his dark tie and hat, hands on hips angled towards the camera. Another man, his face blurred in motion, looks out over the trees half rotted from rooting in standing water. It is 1955. It is the beginning.
James Miller Malone Sr., a judge in Lonoke County in the northeast corner of Arkansas, had bought this $200 parcel of land two years before. Using equipment he acquired in a side business buying and selling heavy machinery, Malone Sr.’s ambition, when he wasn’t running for governor of Arkansas, as he did in 1946, was to build a lake where people paid to fish. Responsibility for the project would ultimately fall to James Miller Malone Jr., the judge’s boy, born in a Little Rock hospital on September 30, 1926, to Adele Willson Malone. In photographs, the younger Malone is identifiable by his wide, genuine smile half-concealed by an imposing dark mustache that grayed as he aged. An intensely curious man, Jim Malone, as he was called, had driving passions for politics and writing. After finishing high school in 1944, he joined the navy and served two years on an auxiliary repair ship before being set loose in Millington, Tennessee, with the war’s end. Like millions of other young men home from war, Malone Jr. used the G1 Bill to attend the University of Arkansas in 1947, graduating two years later with a Bachelor of Science. Following his father’s interests, he drifted into politics, stumping for Governor Sidney McMath in 1950 before speechwriting for Arkansas governor Orval Faubus from 1954 to 1956.
After constructing his father’s fee fishing lake in the years after 1955, the younger Malone turned to rice production, borrowing money to sink two wells that helped him forge 160 acres of rice beds on his land. When a Washington decree on rice acreage shrunk his fields from 160 acres to 51, Malone protected his investment by raising golden shiner minnows on 25 acres as bait fish for Arkansas’s fledgling fish-farming industry. It was that or risk losing everything.
He didn’t know it then, but Malone’s desperate shift from rice production to fish rearing reshaped the direction of both his life and North America’s ecological landscape.
Entrepreneur, savior, environmentalist, despoiler, short-sighted capitalist: Malone’s attempts to exploit the potential he saw in Asian carp, grass carp especially, would see him labeled with all these monikers and more. He foresaw a time when grass carp would keep unimaginable quantities of chemical herbicides out of the environment while taxpayers saved millions of dollars on pesticides bought to control aquatic weeds. By 1974, Malone himself was spending $18,000 each year (over $92,000 today) to control unwanted aquatic vegetation on his farm alone; his neighbor, fellow commercial fish producer Leon Hill, spent $20,000 annually on chemical controls. Malone became grass carp’s staunchest defender when public opinion turned against them, a protective role he dutifully maintained despite the eventual opposition of biologists, the federal government, sport fishers and the media. His involvement with all Asian carps took Malone before Congress to testify on the importance of maintaining a sterile grass carp certification program, while his research on fish genetics ushered him to the forefront of that growing movement, all of which elevated his stature in an expanding aquaculture world.
I witnessed the global extent of his influence in the pages of his office guest book. Hundreds of entries from dozens of countries were recorded in the ledger between 1975 and 2001, names written in reds, blacks and blues, from perfect mid-century cursive to choppy block letters printed in an unsteady hand that reminded me of my late grandfather’s penmanship. For decades, Malone worked on grass carp spawning with a veritable fisheries League of Nations, and his guest book reflects this: Nigeria, Colombia, New Zealand, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Holland, Egypt, Bangladesh, West Germany, Pakistan. Visitors from around the world came to Arkansas to meet the man who spoke grass carp.
But naysayers in his own backyard saw those same fish as an ecological menace worthy of science fiction. Relentlessly harangued for his work, Malone waged a near-constant battle, spending decades rebutting critics, combating those who feared the effects grass carp and their larger cousins, the silvers and the bigheads, were having on aquatic ecosystems. Despite the opposition, he built a family business around grass carp and its weed-eating abilities regardless of the potential for ecological destruction many biologists believed the fish posed. In the early days of their importation and breeding, Malone convinced states to employ grass carp in place of chemical poisons to remove aquatic weeds while establishing the “World’s Largest Hatchery of Chinese Fish.” In doing so, he unwittingly facilitated their spread throughout America, in addition to playing a leading role in transporting silver and bighead carp to Arkansas, the two species currently tearing across vast swaths of America. Intently focused on the potential of sterile grass carp to rid America of pesky weeds, Malone never accepted the blame.
At the behest of his longtime friend Jim Johnson, a segregationist Arkansas Supreme Court justice, Malone donated a lifetime’s worth of papers, correspondence, transactions and press clippings to the University of Central Arkansas (UCA) near the turn of the century. His collection spans more than a dozen boxes of material, the daily bric-a-brac of a man who, unexpectedly, found himself at the center of an ongoing controversy he didn’t live to see the end of. One spring day I called UCA archival director Jimmy Bryant to ask about Malone’s papers. “I knew what collection you was after the moment I heard where you’re from,” Bryant told me; there wasn’t much else a Toronto writer would want from his stockpile. I booked a flight.
• • •
August 1963. Shao-Wen Ling, a Malaysian fisheries biologist with the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, was received as a special guest of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) at their Fish Farming Experimental Station in Stuttgart, a small town in Arkansas’s Mississippi River delta. The state was overrun with aquatic vegetation, consuming waterways that counties, municipal governments and private industry needed clear. Four years earlier, Ling had suggested grass carp could eat up America’s nuisance aquatic weeds. Now, surrounded by officials from USFWS, Auburn University and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC), Ling counseled his American colleagues to strike a deal with Malaysia to ship grass carp fry to Arkansas. The U.S. officials in attendance had heard of grass carp’s insatiable appetite, but few beyond Auburn University’s Homer Swingle, who had been singing grass carp’s biological control praise since 1957, had any notable firsthand experience with the fish.
The August meeting concluded with a promise to import grass carp fry for an in-lab study, leaving the USFWS to work out the logistics with Malaysian authorities. Despite the fact that it was his recommendation, Ling added a cautionary note. “The unforeseen danger of careless introduction of exotic species could be tremendous,” he warned. Grass carp “should be able to adapt to American waters well. But the possibility of having it become another major problem fish like the common carp is so great that unless the fish can become acceptable . . . its introduction should not be done hastily.”
The Americans didn’t deliberate long. On November 16, 1963, less than a week before President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas, 70 fingerling grass carp weighing less than a nickel each arrived in Stuttgart, bound for four lab aquaria and a tenth-acre pond. Less than six months later, Auburn University’s Agricultural Experiment Station received a dozen grass carp from Taiwan. Initially, Auburn researchers kept the fish in plastic-lined pools topped with netting to prevent the carp from leaping out and suffocating on the laboratory floor. It was at Auburn that the first recorded instance of an American being struck by a leaping Asian carp occurred when a grass carp jumped a seine net and knocked the son of Homer Swingle, future head of Auburn’s Department of Fisheries and Allied Aquacultures, to the ground.
Learning to spawn grass carp in-hatchery was the first challenge American researchers faced. Yet the artificial reproduction moved at breakneck speed. The first grass carp produced in America were bred on May 19, 1966, when Fish and Wildlife Service agents spawned 8,000 fry shared 50/50 between the Stuttgart facility and the nearby Joe Hogan State Fish Hatchery, run by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. Not to be outdone, Auburn spawned 1,400 fry weeks later and a whopping 100,300 fish by 1968. Astonishingly, so lax were the rules regulating exotic species that two-thirds of the one hundred thousand-plus Auburn fry were given to “various persons” operating beyond university control. The interstate brinksmanship continued when the AGFC teamed up with Fish and Wildlife staff to produce 3.1 million grass carp at Stuttgart in 1972.
There was now no question that U.S. biologists had mastered the art of spawning grass carp. In fact, by the late 1960s, Swingle ordered one of his Auburn graduate students, James Avault, to fry up all the grass carp the university had received in their 1964 shipment as a sort of taste test. “Go ahead and cook them,” Swingle told Avault. “I’ve got more coming.” Research continued into their effectiveness at eating invasive weeds as word spread of the grass carp’s inextinguishable appetite. Scientists found themselves unable to temper expectations among state and private-sector resource managers or to resist the pressure from government bodies desperate for solutions to their aquatic weed problems. By the time Arkansas reared over three million fry, grass carp had been legally couriered from private hatcheries to 16 states, doubling to 32 by 1977. Fertile grass carp swam freely from California to New Hampshire, Oregon to Florida. Twelve years after the first spawn in 1966, Americans transported grass carp 1,100 miles south, 2,000 miles west and 2,800 miles northeast from Stuttgart, making grass carp one of the fastest spreading exotic species in U.S. history.
The United States wasn’t alone in falling for Asian carp. Once commodified, the fish was traded among Eastern and Western nations for culturing as food and weed control. China, the world’s single largest producer, spearheaded the global trade of Asian carp beginning in the 1960s. The origin of almost all carp species at the time could be traced to China in less than six degrees of separation, from all corners of the world. Follow the lineage: Peruvian officials received their grass carp from Israel, who were introduced to them from the West Germans, who got theirs from the Hungarians, who — along with the Brazilians, Soviets, Japanese and others — got their fish from China. Trading took place without Chinese involvement too: Mexico got carp from Cuba, Indonesia from Japan, England from Austria. After 1962, most nations were culturing Asian carp.
• • •
For a brief moment in the 1960s and early 1970s, America fell in love with grass carp. Their potential to rid irrigation canals, golf courses, public lakes and streams of choking aquatic weeds appeared boundless. They were an ecological solution as perfectly tailored to the decade’s environmentalist fashion as bell-bottoms and silk cravats.
Optimism for grass carp’s success became deeply rooted in reputable science once the first U.S. study emerged from Auburn University in October 1965. There was “little or no information about it in the United States since its recent introduction,” said Auburn fisheries biologist James Avault. Gathering a dozen aquatic weeds known to choke Southern waterways, Avault spent 12 weeks watching how quickly grass carp consumed vegetation and what varieties they preferred. Filamentous algae were always the first to go, he reported, and while it would take longer, the more undesirable alligator weed and water hyacinth were eventually gobbled up too. “The grass carp appears to be one of the most promising fish species for biological control of aquatic weeds.” He was particularly enthralled by their hardiness and cold-water tolerance.
Academic journals were swimming in papers from America, West Germany, Sweden, the Soviet Union and Romania suggesting native fishes grew faster and survived longer in water stocked with grass carp. Whole ecosystems benefited. “Freed from weed infestation, pond waters are better aerated, sunlit and warmed,” wrote Barry Pierce, a biologist with the Sea Grant College Program at the University of Hawaii. With less space consumed by underwater weeds, habitable niches for surface-dwelling fishes increased, decluttering lake and river bottoms. Grass carp feces were also cited as food for bottom-feeders. Swedish researchers found that water stocked with grass carp often had more oxygen in it, resulting in heightened zooplankton and microfauna levels in Swedish lakes. And since their teeth evolved to eat only plant matter, grass carp didn’t compete with native and game fish for food. So perfectly did grass carp squeeze into a vacant place in America’s riverine ecology that their import felt miraculous.
Miraculous indeed. “No bird or plane, it’s a white amur!” noted the National Observer, which ran a feature with cover art depicting a crudely drawn, human-sized grass carp donning Superman’s crest and cape. “It’s tastier than red snapper!” the Observer claimed. “It’s trickier to catch than trout! And can hurl itself through the air farther than a tarpon!” These superfish, the article claimed, could clean up Lake Erie’s algae problem, and, in time, become so prodigious at eating aquatic weeds that an elaborate “Rent-a-Fish” industry could spring up to ferry them around the nation, sewing clean water seeds like a Piscean Johnny Appleseed.
The Observer wasn’t alone in praising grass carp, which many, including Malone, often called “white amur.” “Amur are so big and they eat so much so fast, a person needing a pond cleaned out may have to rent himself a fish for a few days,” said Charles Walker, an executive in Washington’s sports fisheries bureau. The trade magazine American Farmer called grass carp “ecology’s helper,” claiming the fish “slurps in weeds like a hay baler takes in alfalfa.” They may even surpass beef as a protein source in American diets, Mechanix Illustrated claimed.
The craze accelerated rapidly. Grass carp had been shipped to private companies in Louisiana, Oklahoma, Maryland and Texas by 1972; soon after, the fish were turning up in waters throughout the South and Gulf Coast. Tax dollars flowed by the barrel towards Asian carp research throughout America in the years between 1972 and 1985. The Department of Agriculture’s Fish Farming Experimental Station in Stuttgart and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service led the charge. In a sign of things to come, by the mid-1970s the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began holding meetings on the effectiveness of grass carp at weed control. The Corps shelled out $1.3 million in 1976 to study what influence five thousand-plus grass carp would have on aquatic vegetation in Florida’s Lake Conway.
Before that change of heart began, universities and state agencies got in on the action. Memphis State in Tennessee (now the University of Memphis) investigated chromosomal mutations in grass carp, while Clemson in South Carolina experimented with carp control of phytoplankton. They joined Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Oregon State in the Pacific northwest and the University of Florida in Gainesville in studying the hot new thing in fisheries science. Shipments of grass (and later silver and bighead) carp headed to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), California irrigation districts and the South Carolina government. As late as 1983, Senators were applauding the TVA for its use of white amur for hydrilla control. One Senator even read a poem on the Senate floor: “Don’t go near the water, friend / The grassy-carp is loose / Yesterday, it ate my dog / Today, it ate my goose.” Silver carp would arrive in commercial ponds at the University of Hawaii on Oahu’s north shore for algae control. And on the recommendation of the National Academy of Sciences, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission gifted 100,000 grass carp fry to Egypt in 1976 to clean coontail-infested irrigation canals; an AGFC research contingent was also deployed to Sudan to troubleshoot the African nation’s faltering grass carp program.
The Bureau of Reclamation, meanwhile, funded silver carp stocking in Colorado into the Clinton administration.
• • •
In the late 1960s, the future looked bleak for Jim Malone. After a Washington decree forced Malone into raising minnows, an errant crop duster flying over a neighboring field doused his land with pesticides, destroying his entire stock of fish. When the federal restrictions were later lifted, few would have held it against Malone if he had given up on fish culturing and returned to harvesting rice. He did cover 800 acres with the crop. But something about the potential of the white amur nagged at him. As his rice took root, Malone dedicated 20 acres at the center of his property to maintaining a broodstock of grass carp. As the rice gradually sucked the contaminants from his land, Malone succumbed to his foreign-fish fascination and ditched the low-paying rice crop to raise grass carp full-time.
Not just grass carp. Word spread like floodwater throughout the American aquaculture community that grass carp was routinely cultivated alongside two closely related species to great effect in China. While grass carp ate troublesome aquatic vegetation, silver and bighead carps filtered excess algae from the water column. “We came to recognize the polyculture of carps as miracle fish,” wrote Illinois Natural History Survey biologist Homer Buck, an acquaintance of Malone’s. The fish were “completely compatible,” Buck wrote to his fisheries colleagues, “complementing each other in their feeding habits.” While grass carp had proven itself effective at eliminating duckweed, eelgrass, needlerush and a host of other aquatic weeds in multiple studies conducted at Auburn, silver carp gobbled up phytoplankton and bacteria while bigheads ate untold volumes of zooplankton. Raise them all together and the result was a “great synergistic complex,” Buck wrote. His own research at the Sam Parr Biological Station in central Illinois found silvers and bigheads raised together and fed nothing but hog manure and sunshine yielded over 3,000 pounds of fish protein per acre in six months. Catfish, in comparison, yielded just 1,000 pounds per acre over the same period on an expensive high-protein diet.
Malone was intrigued. After consulting the academic literature and researchers like Buck in both America and China, he placed a $3,500 order for ten thousand silver and bighead carp fingerlings from the Yuan Hu Chang Fishery in Taipei, Taiwan. It was the first private purchase of Asian carp in American history. On August 22, 1972, silver and bighead carp, along with fifty thousand grass carp fingerlings, arrived in one hundred cartons at the Little Rock airport on Flying Tiger Line.
The new fish wouldn’t remain in Malone’s possession long. Within months of their arrival, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission suggested Malone turn over his stock of silver and bigheads for a period of three years. The commission’s superior facilities and knowledgeable staff offered Malone the prospect of advancing the fish’s value far faster than he could have managed independently. After months spent considering the offer and haggling over fine print, Malone agreed to the transfer in January 1974. By March of that year, roughly 2,500 adult and juvenile silver carp and 1,200 bighead carp were relocated to the Hogan hatchery. The contract included a proviso that Malone would have final say on all sales of silver and bighead carp from his stock to academic or government researchers. And under no circumstances could any recipient of Malone’s fish sell them for personal profit.
He had reason to worry about containing his investment. Rumors hung like summer haze around Lonoke that grass carp held at state hatcheries and enclosed lakes and ponds had escaped into open rivers connected to the Mississippi. Ecologists and fisheries managers quietly grumbled about the impact the fish could have on aquatic ecosystems unaccustomed to the presence of an enormous, fast-breeding, voracious herbivore. But escape wasn’t the only avenue into public waters for grass carp. American researchers, overcome by the enormous potential of these “miracle fish,” put them to work as quickly as possible. Any risks, they felt, were minimal — and any damages manageable.
• • •
Drew Mitchell and I met at a coffee shop near his home in Little Rock, Arkansas. For more than 34 years, Mitchell worked as a fisheries biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in and around the Fish Farming Experimental Station at Stuttgart. Much of his early career centered on spawning grass carp. Mitchell recalled how, just before his retirement in 2011, the Asian carp saga had played out before his eyes, but he wasn’t sure the version of it he heard on the evening news was entirely accurate. Working with aquaculture expert Anita Kelly from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, Mitchell and Kelly decided to challenge the well-worn myths about Asian carp’s arrival and spread throughout America.
“Commercial fish producers were getting the brunt of the blame for the presence and release of Asian carps into the wild,” Mitchell told me, settling deep into a plush red booth. His salt-and-pepper hair spilled onto his forehead, narrowly missing the rims of his trifocal glasses. He gestured widely with his hands while speaking, clanging a coffee mug or salt shaker against the table to convey gravitas. Grass carp’s expedition into the wild didn’t begin at private hatcheries, Mitchell believes, but at Stuttgart, the federally operated fish-farming station that employed him for decades. The facility, now called the Harry K. Dupree Stuttgart National Aquaculture Research Center, once dispatched its wastewater into ditches draining into La Grue Bayou, three miles away. From there, the La Grue wanders southeast for 30 miles before emptying into the White River in the White River National Wildlife Refuge. Fifteen curling, circuitous miles south of the refuge, the White’s unhurried flow chances upon the mighty Mississippi. From here, Asian carp hacked into the Mississippi’s 1.2 million square mile drainage basin, North America’s largest watershed, fourth largest in the world.
Eastern Arkansas’s physical geography played an important role in the journey that’s taken Asian carp to Chicago and beyond. Lonoke is tailor-made to flood, anchored, as it is, by clay-heavy soils. When it dries, aggregate orbs manifest near the surface, forming spheres resembling shotgun rounds. Hence the soil’s nickname — “buckshot.” Water infiltrates the low, flat soil slowly, retaining its moisture. Arkansas’s Mississippi delta is crisscrossed with bayous continuously feeding water into nearby streams. It’s the basic hydrologic connection that, on a basin scale, sends 593,000 cubic feet of water into the Gulf of Mexico every second.
Feral grass carp were first caught by commercial fishers in 1970, Mitchell and Kelly report. After careful study, the captured fish were found to have spawned four years earlier, the first year Fish and Wildlife officials at Stuttgart successfully cultured grass carp. Is this proof the escaped fish are Stuttgart originals? Is it purely coincidental? Mitchell doesn’t believe the 1970 finding exonerates fish producers from their role in releasing Asian carp, but “there is just a lot of corroborating information” that suggests the true culprit is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, he told me. When I asked if Asian carp had escaped from Stuttgart during his tenure, Mitchell was unequivocal. “There was not only a release of fry,” he said, but the clear release of grass carp between 7 and 11 inches long, “fully capable of survival,” into La Grue Bayou or the nearby Little La Grue stream below the Stuttgart station.
In their muckraking article, Mitchell and Kelly argue that it’s “highly likely” newly hatched carp fry escaped through holes in a wire mesh screen (called a “saran”) that should have prevented their passage into drainage ditches. In person, Mitchell claimed the faulty screen escapes weren’t the half of it. He said that Mayo Martin, a Stuttgart employee at that time and a key player in orchestrating the first Malaysian shipment, told him years later the government’s spawning efforts were so successful that grass carp fry quickly filled tanks to the brim, spilling fish onto the floor and into overflow pipes. These pipes led to drainage ditches that flowed to La Grue Bayou and the Mississippi River beyond. “Frankly, the saran screens are not even important,” Mitchell told me. So lax were Stuttgart’s control measures that fish farmers in the region were told they could collect free grass carp from ditches and bayous adjacent to the porous Fish and Wildlife station. “One of those farmers I talked to said in ’73 or ’74 he collected 20 or so grass carp below the Stuttgart station,” said Mitchell. He was also told that USFWS staff significantly underreported the number of grass carp they spawned.
Feral grass carp were detected in the Illinois portion of the Mississippi River by 1971, fish born in the first class spawned at Stuttgart. These carp were part of an influx of white amur found wild that year; until that point, any free-swimmers caught by fishers were considered escapees, one-offs bred in captivity. Yet their presence in the wild, however they got there, struck some as fortuitous. If grass carp escaped from state and university hatcheries already swam freely in open waters, eating nuisance aquatic weeds, why shouldn’t the state stock them intentionally? If a biological control for troublesome aquatic weeds actually existed, some mused, it was grass carp. Full stop.
The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission was getting antsy. Having worked with grass carp for almost a decade, it was clear to commission staff that the species excelled at eating underwater plants. Studies at Stuttgart, Auburn and the U.S. Bureau of Sport Fisheries in Warm Springs, Georgia, attested to this, as did extensive foreign studies from Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Global research was overwhelmingly supportive of deploying grass carp to control aquatic weeds. In Czechoslovakia, the fish eliminated over 80 percent of aquatic vegetation; grass carp performed admirably clearing weeds near water intake pipes around a hydroelectric plant in the Waikato lakes region of New Zealand; and in the Soviet Union, they cleared both hard and soft plants in the cooling water reservoir of Moscow’s Klasson Power Station. Grass carp could eat every last root of targeted aquatic weeds with no ill effects on the environment, commission studies suggested. Some reports even argued that grass carp stocked in shared lakes helped sport fish like bass, sunfish and crappie grow faster and stronger.
Arkansas had heard enough. Convinced of grass carp’s many virtues (and few vices), on March 20, 1972, the AGFC’s official policy on grass carp stocking and distribution was modified to reflect their get-’er-done attitude, a move that ultimately paved the way for grass carp’s spread throughout the Mississippi basin. Public waters, large community lakes and private ponds became fair game. Anyone possessing a fish farmer’s permit, in fact, was now entitled to stock grass carp, hundreds of thousands of which were cultured at the Joe Hogan State Fish Hatchery in Lonoke, a few miles from Jim Malone’s farm. It was open season on open waters.
Updating their stocking policy was not a decision the AGFC made lightly. Both Arkansas bureaucrats and the commission reached their decision after careful scrutiny of the available scientific literature. Reports from U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the Bureau of Sport Fisheries, the Department of Agriculture, Auburn University and other state governments, not to mention foreign research from a dozen countries, all influenced Arkansas’s decision to permit grass carp stocking. This doesn’t mean the policy was correct. While made hastily, the decision was backed by timely (though, in hindsight, questionable) science.
Arkansas Game and Fish Commission biologist William Bailey was unapologetic about the decision. In a 1972 speech to the American Fisheries Society, he readily acknowledged that the commission’s stocking policy became “more aggressive” once grass carp were caught swimming freely throughout Arkansas. “We must make the most of the situation as it is,” he told conference goers. Bailey knew that grass carp could spread beyond the state but saw the risk as one worth taking. “Since 1970,” he told the Fisheries Society, “we, in Arkansas, have known without a doubt that the white amur was already introduced, for better or worse, in the Mississippi River system, which gives it access to practically every stream between the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains.” There’s much we don’t know about how they behave in open waters, he added, but “we will never know what effects the white amur will have in the wild until we place it there.”
I asked Drew Mitchell if he or other fisheries employees with Fish and Wildlife or the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission had realized they were playing with fire. He hesitated. “I’m not sure how to answer that,” he said after a long pause. He tapped his empty coffee mug on the tabletop. “Were they aware of the consequences? Fish and Wildlife employees, I don’t think, reasoned out the full gravity of the potential of those consequences.” He looked at the mug grasped in his fist, all knuckles and taut pink skin. “That’s about all I have to say on that.”
• • •
Arkansas came out guns blazing. The state had been stocking grass carp in Lake Greenlee, a 300-acre topographically isolated watering hole near Brinkley, as far back as June 1969, almost three years before the March 1972 policy was officially adopted. Within nine months of the state’s aggressive policy taking effect, the AGFC had introduced 290,992 grass carp into 54 lakes and ponds across Arkansas, ranging from small ponds a few acres in size to the 6,700-acre Lake Conway north of Little Rock. All had open access to the Mississippi watershed. The number of fertile fish placed in each waterway was highly variable, ranging from 1.5 to 182 fish per acre. This stocking rate ultimately determined whether the fish scattered throughout Arkansas lived or died. Early reports indicated that, in some instances, overstocking led to grass carp lunging towards riverbank greenery or picking wetlands clean in search of food. By 1978, grass carp were intentionally stocked in 115 lakes in Arkansas, waterways covering an area the size of Cincinnati, and, with the Natural State’s love affair with grass carp in full swing, the fish had traveled (with government acquiescence) some 1,100 miles throughout the lower 48 states, all from their home base in Lonoke County, Arkansas.
Scott Henderson, a career fisheries biologist with the AGFC, later told an Asian carp conference in Florida that public and resource agency approval for stocking grass carp in open systems throughout America was growing. “Almost without fail,” he told the crowd, “those who have had experience with the fish in actual field trials have opinions ranging from ‘advocate’ to a ‘proceed with caution’ approach. But none that I am aware of are among those still adamantly opposed to their use.”
Yet opposition to grass carp grew in near perfect unison with public and private demands for the fish. Henderson wasn’t alone in believing the increasingly loud voices calling for a halt to grass carp stocking based their fears on “sensationalism . . . very loosely tied to factual information.” But as the 1970s concluded, these contrarian voices grew impossible to ignore.
• • •
Jimmy Bryant from the University of Central Arkansas archives suggested I call J.M. Malone & Son since the family farm was still in operation. With his sister Beverly, James B. Malone (who I’ll call Jim B. to differentiate him from his father) has run the business for almost 30 years. When Jim called me back, his voice was guarded and thick with an Arkansas drawl. I was welcome to stop by the farm tomorrow to talk about his father, he said gravely — but if I started pointing fingers he would end the interview quick. “We’re not to blame for Asian carp escaping into the wild, that much I can tell you.”
The following day I awoke with the sun. Heading south, I drove rural roads hugged by cotton fields and bottomlands. These low-lying marshes, littered with bald cypress, their bulbous bottoms jutting skyward, are ubiquitous in the South, like Spanish moss. Swamp encroached on the road, the land so flat the rumor of rain could have flooded the highway. The air sagged.
Jim B. greeted me outside his office with the shy yet enthusiastic help of a copper-colored Boykin spaniel named Ben who snaked figure eights through my legs. He led me into his office that was outfitted with lush leather couches surrounded by dark-stained walls. A pair of stag heads was mounted behind his desk, their glassy eyes staring out. Trim at 57 years old with a thick mop of silvery hair, Jim B. seemed to sense that my days in the archives pouring over his father’s papers suggested I wasn’t assigning blame so much as making sense of why Malone staked his career and reputation on grass carp. Jim had turned down media interviews before. Too often he felt their intent was to scapegoat his father for all environmental ills that followed Asian carp’s arrival. He wasn’t having it. “Farmers didn’t pull their screens off their pipes and drain the fish into the bayou,” Jim B. told me, since “that’s profit going down the drain.” In a competitive market where every fish reared is sold, why would producers let grass carp fingerlings slip past? It’s throwing money away. Common practice, he said, was to net every fish from a pond and reset it for the next batch. Jim B. conceded that some fish did escape from aquaculture farms. But, he quickly pointed out, much like Mitchell did, “I know of places where it came from that had nothing to do with farmers.”
By the time the elder Malone received bighead and silver carp at his Lonoke property in 1972, the outcry against the pioneering grass carp had spilled over from the isolated preserve of university biology departments to the broader public sphere. Headlines that had recently trumpeted its almost unnatural ability to consume aquatic vegetation began asking if grass carp were less a superfish and more a scourge. “Vicious Tales Bedevil White Amur, a Fish Once Thought to Be Savior,” noted the Wall Street Journal, while Florida’s St. Petersburg Times contended “Asian carp seen as possible threat to freshwater fish.” The Sarasota Journal called the white amur “Florida’s Imported Pain in the Grass” while Connecticut’s The Day reported that the Nutmeg State had issued a “death sentence on Asian carp.”
Popular media coverage throughout the 1970s grew increasingly hysterical. Louisiana’s Shreveport Times wrote that “grass carp may very well constitute the most alarming situation in the history of fisheries research.” The United Press International wire, meanwhile, wrote that “grass carp could decimate the coastal rice industry.” Orlando’s Sentinel Star reported the fish “prefers animal rather than vegetable food,” despite grass carp lacking the necessary teeth for mashing animal flesh. Alabama’s Anniston Star observed that “those handling [grass carp] always wear a baseball catcher’s mask for protection. One death has been attributed to the fish.” This fable was furthered by the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Sunday edition, which claimed fencing masks worked well if no catcher’s mask was available. On the other side of the fence, Farm Pond Harvest, an aquaculture industry trade magazine, featured a piece from Richard B. Thomas in 1978 on the potential of Asian carp to clean hog manure lagoons that reached new levels of absurdity. Thomas claimed grass carp could live for an astonishing 150 years on a diet of grass clippings. He also argued that grass carp were the predominant species in Lake Erie (they weren’t), where they had begun breeding with escaped goldfish (they hadn’t).
It’s tempting to dismiss the public’s concern over grass carp as misguided, as many in the aquaculture industry did. But among the questionable reporters were those like Mel Ellis. Writing for the Associated Press in February 1973, Ellis noted it would be years before anyone could sort through the grass carp controversy to determine if the imported fish was angel or devil. But one thing was clear even then: “It is obvious, of course, that no plant or animal should be intentionally introduced until it has been thoroughly investigated by a board of responsible scientists.” And with the purposeful spread of grass carp inaugurated with Arkansas’s policy shift, the public didn’t sense any such investigation had been done. Ellis expected that Americans may live to rue that late winter day in 1972 when grass carp were sanctioned by mid-level Arkansas bureaucrats.
The righteousness of the public’s reaction took many in the Arkansas aquaculture community by surprise. They saw in grass carp an astonishing tool for controlling nuisance aquatic weeds, this troublesome collection of plants that was universally despised by fishers, boaters, farmers, irrigation managers, municipal water workers — essentially everyone. From speeches, internal memos and insider trade magazine articles, it’s clear the pro-grass carp congregation felt theirs was the one true religion. Members of the aquaculture community, many armed with degrees in biology and fisheries research from American institutions, had bibles of facts at their disposal. And their opposition came from the public, often misinformed by newspaper reporters, who relied on hearsay and rumor, or so aquaculturists believed, to inform their outrage.
Ignoring the media was easy. It was far harder to ignore the mounting anxieties of state agents that aquaculturists were actively courting to buy their fish. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department called the biological risk of stocking fertile grass carp “too great,” while Alabama’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources refused to recommend the public use of white amur — or even tell interested consumers where they could purchase them. The department stated, “We do not recommend the use of white amur by members of the public under any circumstances.” In the Sunshine State, Dr. E.O. Frye from Florida’s Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission criticized grass carp for failing to eat invasive weeds and impairing largemouth bass and bluegill spawning. Frye stated, “The grass carp is just not living up to the glowing words of its proponents.”
The elder Malone had his own theories as to why state biologists fretted over wild grass carp. He felt they had an ax to grind with aquaculturists, opposing anything fish producers supported. Malone maintained a sometimes-unhealthy suspicion of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service throughout his career, convinced the federal agency formed a “cadre of opposition” to grass carp existing “beyond the bounds of rationality,” perhaps, even, beyond the “American standards of freedom, justice and fair play.” The Stuttgart station, the backbone of America’s grass carp program, was a “stepchild” of USFWS, he wrote, “permanently ignored and underfunded” to stymie white amur’s chances of success. Malone also alleged that international petrochemical companies, whom he refused to name in his correspondence, were pressuring the Department of the Interior and the USFWS to suppress research and cease all public and private studies on applying grass carp for weed control. “Restriction of the white amur obviously is essential to the production and sale of squatic [sic] chemicals,” Malone published in Farm Pond Harvest, linking grass carp’s treatment to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s historically “unhealthy relationship” with the petroleum industry dating back to the Teapot Dome scandal of the 1920s. Later in his career, Malone confided to a friend that at a zebra mussel conference in Wisconsin, a “federal employee” from the Fish and Wildlife Service had approached his booth and stated coldly, “We’re going to put you out of business.”
As Malone tried desperately to convince the American public that grass carp were biologically and reproductively safe to distribute throughout the country, state agency support waffled as they pinned down their fears. It was a laundry list of known-unknowns and unknown-unknowns, since academic studies at the time had failed to track their ecological impacts in open waterways. But reasonable hypotheses suggested that lakes and streams denuded of vegetation by poorly stocked and hungry grass carp would invariably stress existing fishes, since reduced vegetation would compromise the spawning abilities of native and game fish, jeopardizing future generations. Juveniles and forage fish would lose habitat and protective cover from predators, and the effects would be felt throughout the aquatic food web. Invertebrates, mammals and waterfowl would face stiff competition for phyto- and zooplankton, staples of underwater diets. Weeds necessary for wetland waterfowl as food and nesting material could be eliminated if too many grass carp were stocked. Meanwhile, researchers also feared that parasites from the fish’s native range in China may have immigrated to America with the earliest fingerlings.
The anxiety resource officials felt towards grass carp rose as they gleaned more about the species’s physiology and behavior. Some speculated whether the ineffectiveness of grass carp’s short intestinal tract would encourage hazardous algal blooms. Grass carp, similar to other herbivores, from giant pandas to Canada geese, must eat huge volumes of plants to get the nutrients they require. In much the same way parks are blanketed with half-digested green droppings after Canada geese pass through, biologists suspected that waterbodies with too many grass carp could witness an explosion in blue-green algae that would not only stymie the growth of phytoplankton but could carry potent cyanobacteria-produced liver toxins. When phyto- and zooplankton populations crash, food becomes scarce for many fish species. “The danger of this type of destruction is what bothers ecologists most,” wrote Jon L. Hawker in the Missouri Conservationist in the early 1970s. “Before committing themselves to any kind of releasing program, they must be certain that there is not the slightest chance of harmful effects, otherwise an already overtaxed environment might suffer a blow which could alter it forever.”
Based on fears that stocking fertile grass carp would induce population explosions countrywide, many states began banning the stocking and importation of grass carp. Between 1972 and 1974, governments served notice to Malone and other grass carp producers that laws had changed, with new rules in place making it illegal to ship fertile grass carp. He was blacklisted, prohibited from advertising his services in national publications distributed in states where white amur were suddenly taboo. But tut-tutting naysayers weren’t simply scaremongering. By the early 1980s, irrefutable evidence of what could go wrong when grass carp ran wild began to emerge. More than 270,000 of the fish stocked in Lake Conroe north of Houston moved into Texas’s Trinity River basin, destroying wetlands all the way to Galveston Bay. Things got so dire that conservation scientists erected fencing to keep grass carp from cordgrass they had planted to curb erosion and protect against floods.
Yet as the controversy surrounding grass carp grew, the elder Malone never wavered. He used a feature in Farm Pond Harvest, ostensibly to discuss his recent escapade shipping grass carp to clean the Panama Canal, to lash out at critics. Malone had flown in a military grade C-130 cargo plane and bounced down jungle highways in Panamanian military jeeps to off-load 230,000 fingerling grass carp into Laguna Bay, the fish released from a wooden crate dangling hazardously below the belly of a Huey helicopter. It was a hell of a story. His teenage son, meanwhile, was almost kidnapped during the excursion. Sleep-deprived after 72 hours transporting the fish from Arkansas to Central America, young Jim B. accepted an arranged ride from a driver sent to take him from his hotel to an elementary school where the grass carp fingerlings were being housed. “I get in the car and I just immediately go back to sleep. And when I wake up I see the lights of Panama are getting dimmer,” he told me, lowering his voice. “And I say to the driver, ‘Paradisio Elementary School.’ And he didn’t say anything. I asked him three times before I knew I was in trouble.” Leaning forward in his leather desk chair, Jim mimed reaching up and grabbing his long-ago would-be assailant by the ears. “I yanked his head back and said, ‘I will break your damn neck.’ And he said, ‘I’ll take you Paradisio Elementary School.’ And he turned the car around and drove me back. I have no idea where he was taking me,” Jim B. said, the braggadocio emptying from his voice. “But I was scared to death.”
“Adventure in Panama,” as the older Malone titled the piece, was not an inappropriate epithet. And yet the article is pure Jekyll and Hyde. Beyond the action movie caper are words hurled in a kind of rearguard action against the “knee-jerk emotionalism” of the anti–grass carp crowd, characterized by “exaggerations, half-truths, downright lies, misrepresentations and appeals to selfishness and fear,” Malone wrote. He accused the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of suppressing research favorable to grass carp, promoting studies that purposefully confused the issue for the public and threatening to withhold funds to scientists advocating for grass carp. I was sad reading “Adventure in Panama.” It’s clear that Malone took immense pride in the role he played in ridding the Panama Canal of hydrilla while spreading the gospel of grass carp. Yet his sharp digressions and inability to turn down an opportunity to prove his denigrators wrong revealed the exasperation of a man seemingly tired of continuously justifying his life’s work.
• • •
State bans on grass carp increased, though the decision to restrict the fish wasn’t always unanimous. After initial stocking of grass carp began in 1970, Florida’s Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission reversed course and moved to eradicate them from public lakes in 1974.