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Bill Loy Jr. figures he's removed 26 million tons of carp from Utah Lake, where the nonnative fish has run amok since its introduction by Mormon settlers.
Some of the carp are sold to mink farmers. Others are shipped to Canada. Most, Loy says, become compost.
"It's a sad deal," he said. "Every time I dump them on the ground, I think it's a hell of a waste."
It's been nearly a quarter-century since Utah Lake's oily bottom feeders last fulfilled the mission set for them by early Utah fish commissioner Amos Milton Musser, who purchased 80,000 carp in the 1880s to revive the depleted fishery and provide a food source for the valley's inhabitants.
Although the carp have proved a detriment to the lake's ecosystem wolfing down plants that shielded young June suckers from predators they were a welcome source of protein for Utah's needy during World War I and the Great Depression. Bill Loy's grandfather, Henry Loy, hauled in several tons to donate to Provo families.
But the economic outlook brightened and Americans lost their taste for the fish. It wasn't until the mid-1980s, when Bill Loy began to harvest carp on behalf of the U.S. government and the beleaguered June sucker, that Musser's vision was again realized.
Then a hunger advocate for Crossroads Urban Center, which assists low-income Utahns, Patrick Poulin had a background in low-tech aquaculture and had suggested that the nonprofit farm tilapia for consumption by the increasing numbers of local refugees who enjoyed fish.
There was one problem, the state told him: Tilapia is considered an invasive species.
"They told me if I picked them up at the airport, they'd probably have to arrest me," said Poulin, now the executive director of the International Rescue Committee.
The center turned to carp instead. For a brief time, center staffers planned to farm them, and current Crossroads Urban Center Executive Director Glenn Bailey recalls that they paddleboated in the lake at the Lagoon amusement park while searching in vain for fish that would populate their kiddie pools.
Loy offered a better deal. For pennies per pound, he could sell them mass quantities of carp albeit stunted carp that, given their high bone density, made for more tedious dining. Loy estimates that the volunteers eventually bought about a half-ton of carp per week. A history of Wasatch Community Gardens says the carp was then sold to local residents at 18 cents per pound.
In 1987, Nick Hershenaw was hired to direct Crossroads' fish and garden operations, eventually spinning it off into its own nonprofit known then as Wasatch Fish and Gardens.
Volunteers supplemented Loy's catches with fleshier carp caught in the marshes of the Great Salt Lake. Many of them immigrants, they waded into the mud amid swarming insects and slapped the water to drive the carp into a seine. Sometimes they'd gather as many as 50, weighing on average more than a dozen pounds each.
Dan Potts, a trained ichthyologist who'd raised carp and tilapia as a Peace Corps worker in Ecuador, led the expeditions with the aid of Sengtek Tan, a Cambodian who'd seen two of his children killed by the Khmer Rouge and two more die in refugee camps before leaving with his wife and three remaining children.
"You'd have a Serbian, a Russian, a Chilean, a Vietnamese guy none of them speaking the same language," Potts laughed. "We're all just communicating through hand signals."
They'd transport the fish in an old state surplus truck with a holding tank they rigged from two fiberglass troughs that could hold upward of 500 pounds. Bailey said the truck's suspension had to be repaired multiple times.
The fish were taken, at first, to pools at Crossroads and in the backyards of Laotian West Valley City residents. Later, more sophisticated holding tanks were built and housed at the New Hope Refugee Center, on the city's west side. Potts said the wastewater was used to grow pumpkins and gourds.
"Members" those who paid a one-time fee of $1 to purchase the fish at the cut rate once numbered as many as 1,000, according to the Wasatch Community Gardens report. Potts said they'd lay the carp on a tarp on the bed of a pickup and the fish would flop wildly as refugees elbowed to get nearest, "uttering words that you suspect were swear words, but it was in a language that nobody knew, so who cares?"
Once, the Mormon church agreed to can the carp at Welfare Square, but the nauseating smell wasn't worth the underwhelming result, Potts said.
"You could can an old boot and it'd probably be edible. The problem with canning: By the time you do everything you do with the salt and all that, it might as well be whatever."
The nonprofit's customers preferred the fish to writhe in their hands, and Loy suspects that was the program's undoing.
A Wasatch Fish and Gardens analysis found they were spending $2.25 per pound to buy or catch and then transport and sustain the carp more than it would cost to buy chicken at Smith's.
Potts, who barbecued carp for city officials at annual fundraisers, disputes that claim, but the official story holds that the program folded because costs mounted, interest waned and Tan, a small-framed man who Potts said had "a massive, wonderful heart," suffered injuries in a 1993 car accident to which he would eventually succumb.
Wasatch Fish and Gardens became Wasatch Community Gardens, and the Salt Lake Fish and Game Association bought the holding tanks in 1997 and donated them to the Division of Wildlife Resources.
Potts said the program would work better today, given that the average carp in Utah Lake is now about 10 pounds, up from 5 pounds when Loy began his efforts in 1986. However, the state has issued an advisory that carp fished from Utah Lake have been found to have elevated levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, a pollutant known to cause skin conditions, birth defects and cancer.
Potts and Loy believe the dangers are overstated. The state's studies have found that PCB levels are well below the standard set by the Food and Drug Administration and much lower than Great Lakes salmon, or Hudson River carp.
Loy figures he has about two more years of aggressive fishing until the carp population reaches a point where it can be controlled through less severe efforts.
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