Australian politicians are declaring "Carp-ageddon" on the country's most abundant fish pest. Their weapon of choice? Herpes.
The country's federal budget, released on Tuesday, allocates $15 million ($11 million USD) to the new carp-control program, which Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce says is the only way to wipe out the "bottom-dwelling, mud-sucking fish." Joyce is a member of a ministerial task force focused on the problem that also includes Environment Minister Greg Hunt and Christopher Pyne, Australia's minister of industry, innovation, and science.
Carp are crowding rivers in the Murray-Darling Basin, one of the nation's vital agricultural areas. It includes Australia's longest waterway, the Murray River.
"The common carp is a nasty pest in our waterways and makes up 80 percent of fish biomass in the Murray-Darling Basin," Pyne said.
The species, also known as "European carp," breeds prolifically, allowing it to compete with native fish. Because carp have no teeth, the fish suck up fish eggs, insects, mussels, and plant matter from the riverbed, stirring up sediment. As a result, they're blamed for adversely affecting water quality and making it difficult for native fish that rely on sight to feed and survive.
Carp have a high tolerance for polluted waters, making them unpopular fish to eat. Because they are bottom-feeders, many people often say that they taste like mud.
Scientists from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Organization (CSIRO) have determined that the release into the ecosystem of a carp-specific herpes virus to kill them off would be safe and not risk hurting other organisms.
After the herpes virus has been unleashed into waterways, it is expected to begin to attack the carp's skin and kidneys until the fish dies. The government expects upwards of 95 percent of the local carp population to be killed off within 30 years.
"Suddenly, there will be literally hundreds of thousands, if not millions of tons of carp that will be dead in the River Murray," said Pyne — a prospect that will require a massive cleanup of stinky fish carcasses.
The earliest documented report of carp in the Australian wild was in 1907, according to Fishing World, when a man purchased carp from an animal dealer in Sydney and released them into a reservoir. The fish didn't become widespread until the 1960s, when the Boolarra strain of carp was released from a fish farm into the Murray River. Extensive flooding in the early 1970s helped carp to spread.
Carp have posed a problem to American waterways as well, particularly down the Mississippi River Basin. The US has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on efforts to combat the spread of carp, using electric barriers, seismic water guns, and scent-based traps to impede their movement.