GOSHEN BAY — Commercial fishermen in a small fleet of custom-built boats are plugging away at an unfathomable task: removing 40 million pounds of carp from Utah Lake.
Daily they take a fishing net the length of three football fields, trap more than 3,500 carp and scoop them into one of their flat-bottomed boats until it is almost swamped. They pull the boat close to the shore and use a motorized conveyor to load the fish into a massive trailer. From there the fish are mostly used for compost.
Fishing efforts slow down when the weather is best because other motor boats on the lake scatter the fish — and because fishing nets tend to catch motor boats. Otherwise, the carp fishing continues.
Even when the lake is frozen over, fourth-generation fisherman Bill Loy Jr. and his men cut holes in the ice and use a remote-control "submarine" to guide the net's ropes between holes. Loy said some of his best catches come through the ice.
Loy gets 20 cents for each pound of carp he pulls from the lake. His fishermen have had their hands on seven million pounds of carp since the removal initiative began almost two years ago as part of the June Sucker Recovery Implementation Program.
The amount of work Loy's fishermen have to do is compounded by the fact the estimated 40 million pounds of carp in the lake is just a count of the adult fish and does not include the young that will grow up before the eradication initiative is finished.
That repopulation is one reason the eradication project does not have a firm completion date, though officials overseeing the project estimate the fishermen need to pull at least 5 million pounds of carp from the lake each year to stay ahead of the births of new fish.
It is perhaps ironic that the deliberate, state-and-federal-government-sponsored program to "extinct" the carp from the lake came about because the June sucker itself is under threat of extinction from other fish.
The second irony is that the federal government put carp in the lake in the first place.
The U.S. Bureau of Fisheries hauled barrels of live carp on trains and planted them in lakes around the country in the late 1880s. By about 1911, the bureau printed posters titled "Eat the carp!" that it circulated to promote the idea that planting the carp was a good idea.
In a most noble presentation, a flier from the time pitches the worth of carp, converting "useless vegetation and small animals into meat." It then claims that 43 million pounds of carp were marketed previously in a single year, mostly in the Midwest. "Somebody ate those 43,000,000 pounds of carp. Therefore the carp must be good to eat."
In the greater Utah Lake ecosystem, "small animals" turned out to include the now-endangered June sucker, even though young suckers are more likely to be eaten by white bass; and the "useless vegetation" includes lake-bottom plant life where the June sucker's young found refuge from predator fish like the white bass.
Mike Mills, a fish biologist with the Central Utah Water Conservancy District, said carp have been the dominant fish in the lake since the 1930s. Restoring the lake-bottom vegetation the carp eat is considered an essential part of the June sucker rehabilitation project, so the carp must go.