The interesting history of the common carp

Submitted by Francis Skalicky, Missouri Department of Conservation
Common carp.

What has been one of the world’s most sought-after freshwater fish down through history won’t win any popularity contests with most Ozarks anglers.

Believe it or not, the same common carp that many local anglers scoff at has been a prized catch in many parts of Asia and Europe for centuries – and still is today. Many fishing folks in this area and elsewhere in the U.S. would also be surprised to learn that, although this large fish is found throughout the United States, it’s not native to this country. These are a couple of surprising facts about the common carp, a creature whose history is undoubtedly one of the world’s most interesting fish stories.

But before we get to the fish’s past, here is some information about carp today. There are several species of carp found in North America, none of which are native. Some of these carp species such as silver carp (Hypophthalmichthys molitrix), bighead carp (Hypophthalmichthys nobilis), and black carp (Mylopharyngodon piceus) are highly problematic. These fish have made headlines for the troubles these invasive species have caused and the efforts going on in a number of states to reduce the problems they cause.

However, the most frequently seen species of carp is the common carp (Cyprinus carpio). Common carp are found throughout most of the country, including all of Missouri. (For the remainder of this article, “carp” will refer to the common carp, Cyprinus carpio, and not the carp species listed previously). Common carp are most abundant in reservoirs, ponds and deeper parts of rivers. Adults commonly reach lengths of between one and two feet and weigh between one and eight pounds. They can get larger, though. The largest carp recorded in Missouri weighed 47 pounds. Elsewhere, weights of up to 60 pounds have been reported. In Missouri, there is no length limit, daily limit or possession limit for carp. In other words, you can keep whatever you catch.

Carp use their small, cup-like mouths to feed on aquatic insects, invertebrates and some of the plants found at the bottom of lakes and rivers. Carp are highly adaptive and are tolerant of a wide range of water temperatures and contamination levels. Their aggressive bottom-feeding activities frequently disturb sediment and increase the turbidity of the water in which they live.

Carp activity is most visible to humans during spawning, which usually starts in spring and continues until mid-summer. Spawning carp will often swim into water so shallow their backs are exposed. The splashing noises these thrashing fish make can easily be heard if you’re in the vicinity.

As early as 3500 BC, Chinese were growing carp for food in ponds on silkworm farms. Carp had an early introduction to Europe and, by the Dark Ages, monks were raising them in ponds across the continent. In the Middle Ages, carp became the fish of choice in the ponds of many feudal estates; a trend very likely sparked by a search for a meatless food alternative on the Catholic Church’s fast days. Through periodic flooding and other means of accidental – and intentional – population spread, carp soon were common and well-liked throughout Europe.

Because of this popularity, 19th-century American fisheries experts wanted to see the common carp in this country’s waters. Scattered stockings of carp occurred before the Civil War, but it wasn’t until the 1870s that America’s carp campaign swung into high gear. Spencer F. Baird, the head of the U.S. Fish Commission, believed carp were a promising food source for the country’s growing population. Based on his prompting, the federal government undertook its first major fish stocking program. For a quarter of a century, the government orchestrated the stockings of hundreds of thousands of carp at numerous sites throughout the country. To give an idea of the magnitude of this effort; in 1883, 260,000 carp were distributed by the government to almost 10,000 applicants. Missouri received its first carp in 1879. Over the next 15 years, the Missouri Fish Commission reared more than 80,000 carp for stocking in public and private waters.

The country’s carp population exploded, not only because of the mass stockings, but also because this highly adaptive fish found itself in a new habitat free of natural predators. By the early 1900s, it was evident that the favored fish of Europe and Asia was a flop with America’s anglers. Although carp were meaty, their thick skin and boniness made them harder to clean than native sportfish species. Also, the carp’s bottom-feeding habits gave many anglers a less-than-noble opinion of the fish. But, like it or not, carp were here to stay. Nearly three decades of intense nationwide stocking and natural propagation had firmly woven carp into America’s fishing fabric.

Today, some anglers feel the sporting qualities of the common carp should be more widely recognized. There’s a growing amount of literature and information on how to catch, clean, and cook carp. To be clear, it should be pointed out that this acceptance of carp in some fishing circles pertains to the common carp, not the more problematic species of carp mentioned at the beginning of this article. It also should be pointed out that this new understanding of carp isn’t exactly a love affair – common carp are listed among the “World’s 100 Worst Invasive Species” by the Global Invasive Species Database. Here in the U.S., even carp supporters agree that the massive introduction of this fish into the United States had an impact on native ecosystems that will never be known.

People can get information on the common carp, as well as native fish species that are more popular with anglers at mdc.mo.gov.

Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southwest Region. For more information about conservation issues, call 417-895-6880.