Why Carp are the Brussels Sprouts of American Fisheries

If the common carp was a vegetable it would be the Brussels sprout. The dark green plant has been domestically cultivated since the days of ancient Rome. The small ball of leaves took its common name for its popularity on the table in the European city. No discernable reason exists to eat the vegetable that smells of sulfur. Yet the “cabbage cultivar” made its way to America in the 1800s with French settlers landing in Louisiana.

You either like Brussels sprouts or you don’t. And so it is with the common carp.

It is the greatest fish transplant attempt ever taken on or it is the worst of ecological disasters. The fish is either a nuisance or great sport on the end of the line. The golden fish with leather lips and big scales might have been your gateway to becoming an angler and conservationist. This one thing is irreducibly true, common carp are just that—common.

The Swedish medical doctor, Carl Linnaeus, who named you Homo sapiens, also penned a name for science on the common carp. In his 1758 edition of Systema Naturae,  he called it Cyprinus carpio to fall in with other members of the minnow family, the Cyprinidae. The nomenclature comes from the birthplace of the Aphrodite, or Cypris, the goddess of love and beauty, the Island of Cyprus. The common carp is one of hundreds of minnow species worldwide and among the largest-growing of them all. The common carp is certainly the most widely distributed of minnows—if not all of freshwater fish species owing to its natural attributes and the works of people. When Linnaeus set a name to the common carp it had already been transplanted into Europe for food.

The big minnow had been domesticated by the time the fish arrived in the U.S. The common carp was probably established in the Hudson River basin by 1850. But the decade of the 1880s has been fixed as the most successful effort, one that tipped the scale in favor of the invasive minnow to take hold in American waters.

An Invasion Fueled by Food

With Spencer Baird leading the early U.S. Fish Commission, common carp had its adherent. Baird knew that the fish was a delicacy in Germany. He reasoned that the fish would be happily received in America given they had been cultivated in the Old World for a good long time. Baird believed that common carp could feed the people—that the fish could be grown for much less cost than bovine or fowl on lands more suited to water than grains.

Baird cultured common carp in the capital city in ponds at the base of the Washington Monument. He made fingerlings available to congressmen to send to their constituents back home. Railroads that veined over the land sent common carp to new waters.

The fish may have been suitable for Europeans, but the populace in this republic resisted. Even recipes published by the Fish Commission couldn’t sway sentiment. Common carp never fell into favor as table fare.

Today, common carp swim just about anywhere there is water, be it flowing or flat, clear or polluted, a farm creek in the Midwest or a reservoir in the South. They live in every state in continental U.S. and that ubiquity is due not only to the desires of Baird but to the fish itself.

Warm and muddy water is what common carp like. If they invade clear water, they will soon turn it off-color. They make a living by rooting and wallowing in the bottoms looking for food. And they eat anything, living or dead. What they don’t eat gets coated in mud. Fish eggs suffocate in silt and important aquatic insect habitats, destroyed. Native fishes that live by sight such as top predators can’t see so well in the muddied water.

The common carp gains a competitive edge; a mature female produces about two million eggs. Their fertilized eggs stick to vegetation and hatch in a week and the young set about eating microscopic plants and animals. Their diet soon turns to plants and roots, mollusks and bugs, small fish, eggs and carrion—muddying the waters as they go along procuring food.

And here’s something else to chew on: what would the American palate be without Brussels sprouts? What the miniature cabbage lacks in taste it makes up for in nutrients. American waters would be vastly different had the swimming nuisance not become established. But a fish that grows to 90 pounds and is surprisingly wary has its adherents of ardent anglers who take the fish by bow, fly, gear or spear.

But in the end, the success of the common carp in American waters is a testament of what not to do. Don’t spread fish to where they don’t belong. Clean and dry your gear to prevent the spread of unwanted organisms.  Encourage your customers to do the same. See what assets are available to your business, at the Stop Aquatic Hitchhiker’s website.