Fish biologist Linda Beck holds one of thousands of carp that were fished out of Malheur Lake in order to see if commercial fishing could be a viable solution to address the invasive carp.

Fish biologist Linda Beck holds one of thousands of carp that were fished out of Malheur Lake in order to see if commercial fishing could be a viable solution to address the invasive carp.

Devan Schwartz

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A new project in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge intends to turn today’s invasive fish into tomorrow’s organic fertilizer.

The Refuge has entered into an agreement with Silver Sage Fisheries and Nutrient Company, a venture of Oregon-based Pacific Foods, to catch and process invasive carp.

Since introduction nearly a century ago, the common carp has overrun the Refuge in Southeast Oregon, severely degrading the once-prolific migratory bird habitat.

“It was done as a joint thought process of not getting overwhelmed by the problem, but saying let’s do something,” says Pacific Foods Co-Founder Chuck Eggert.

The carp problem is a major one. The estimated population in the refuge has grown into the millions.   The fish forage for insects and plants on the bottom. In the process they stir up silt in the shallow lake system, clouding the water and blocking sunlight from reaching native plants.

Migratory bird habitat has suffered, says Tim Greseth of Oregon Wildlife, the conservation group that helped broker the agreement.

“If you had been out to Malheur Lake maybe 20 years ago, the concentrations of birds would have been somewhat eye-popping,” he says.

Now that’s just not the case.

“The migratory birds aren’t using Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in any way to the same degree that they were previously, because really, literally, there’s nothing to eat there,” he says.

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Previous efforts remove the fish have been unsuccessful.

Silver Sage Fisheries is hoping to change that. The company is putting together a fleet of fan-powered fishing boats and will begin testing methods of catching the fish.

Last summer, EarthFix reported on trial efforts on the lake using nets. Greseth says that trial indicated fishing the lake could be productive. In one net, the fishermen caught more than 40,000 pounds of carp, with virtually no by-catch.

“It doesn’t appear that anything else really other than common carp are existing successfully in Malheur Lake,” he says. “That’s scary to me.”

Silver Sage would eventually like to use the carp as a food product or fish oil, but it currently has its sights set on turning them into fertilizer at a facility in Burns.

Eggert says the venture is an example of how good can come out of something that’s doing harm.

“We’ll be taking carp that’s a problem. We’re helping with the remediation. We’ll use it to grow alfalfa and other things that then get converted to organic milk, which then becomes an organic soup,” Eggert says. “And then we’ve kind of completed the cycle.”

The test project is expected to cost $500,000 the first year, and there are still many unknowns.

One factor that may complicate things this summer is the drought. Water levels in Malheur Lake are expected to be low, potentially creating access problems for the fleet and causing the carp to disperse into hard-to-reach places.

Silver Sage Fisheries will be operating under a Cooperative Land Management agreement with the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. That agreement establishes wildlife buffer zones and times of the year when fishing will not be allowed.

Overcoming these challenges will be priority the first years of the 5-year agreement.

“I think so many times projects get caught up in just how we make a lot of money quickly,” Eggert says. “We’re very long-term thinkers in developing agriculture in Oregon.”

From a habitat restoration perspective, Greseth says the project's success should be defined simply.

“We’re all on the same page that we’re measuring success in how many pounds of fish we can get out of the lake.”

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