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Utah Lake is overrun with carp

Harvesting 'bullies' could aid endangered suckers

OREM — Holy carp, there are a lot of fish in Utah Lake.

Millions, in fact.

Although it's difficult to reach an exact figure on the moving aquatic wildlife, a recent study indicated there are almost 7.5 million grown carp in Utah Lake.

But there's something fishy about the situation because the millions of common carp are quickly becoming the majority — approximately 74 percent of the lake's population. And they eat the food and babies of their scaly neighbors, the endangered June suckers.

The June suckers, one of 13 fish native to the lake, have been listed as federally endangered since 1986. Despite the money being spent to protect them, foreigners — such as the carp and white bass — are becoming the bullies in the lake.

Big bullies.

During a daylong symposium Thursday at Utah Valley State College, an environmental group shared its discovery that the average weight of the quick-reproducing carp is about 5.3 pounds. That translates to almost 40 million pounds of fish splashing through the lake. And that's just the carp.

"How do we handle (40) million pounds of carp?" asked Richard Valdez of the environmental group SWCA. "That becomes the question."

The carp are linked to the preservation of the June sucker, which has been declining in population as non-native fish have been introduced into the lake and human influence on the lake has increased.

Officials see the June sucker as indicators of the health of the entire ecosystem, and if the suckers die off completely, an important link in the chain will be broken.

So to help the June sucker, one idea is to start harvesting the carp — en masse.

The price tag for such an endeavor: some $6.6 million over six years.

Such a harvesting would decrease the carp population by 75 percent. If done according to plan, 33.1 million pounds of fish would be gone from the lake.

And it would cost 20 cents per pound to do it.

But along with getting rid of the competition, lake lovers want to know more about the fish they're working to protect.

Todd A. Crowl, a professor at Utah State University, presented work by his graduate students about the June sucker and its friend, the Utah sucker.

His research team placed radios in the fish and tracked them for a year to determine where they went. He said their results showed the fish headed to the lake's west side during the fall, then east for the winter where it's warmer, thanks to river feed-ins.

That information is important, he believes, because it helps those working on lake preservation know what areas are home to the most fish at certain times of the year.

But fish aren't the only concerns the lake is facing.

"First, Utah Lake is really shallow," said Dick Osgood, from Minnesota-based Osgood Consulting, "It's so shallow the fish are sunburned."

He also mentioned the conflicts between the various jurisdictions, plus other issues, such as the June sucker preservation, water diversion, water quality and future development.

In order to best address those issues, the governments, groups and interested parties must have "a clear vision and a sound development strategy," he said.

"We can work together at the various levels if we're organized enough and driven enough," said Reed Harris, director of the June Sucker Recovery Implementation Program.