This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Utah Lake was once a fabulous, rich fishery. George Washington Bean, a settler in Utah Valley, wrote that Ute tribes gathered at the lake "on account of the wonderful supply of fish moving up the stream from the Lake to their spawning grounds each spring. Indeed, so great was the number of suckers and mullets passing continuously up-stream that often the River would be full from bank to bank as thick as they could swim for hours and sometimes for days."
The Utes depended on this food source. So did the settlers, especially during the lean early years. Over the decades, settlers pretty much fished out the lake, destroying the ecosystem and fishery.
Basically, people messed up nature. But no big deal. They could fix it with carp. A. Milton Musser, acting fish commissioner, was gung-ho about carp. During the 1880s he imported at least 80,000 of them, stocking streams and ponds around the state. He happily reported they were "multiplying rapidly."
In 1887, he printed this notice: "Those who are interested in the distribution of carp in the Territory can now make application to Mr. A. M. Musser. …"
In short order the carp destroyed Utah Lake's native fish habitat. As early as 1901, people recognized the problem, calling carp the sparrows of the fish kingdom. Hoping to revive the flagging native population, in 1903 the Legislature made it illegal to catch or sell trout. In 1909, it became illegal to catch bass. The carp prevailed; out of 13 native species, only two remain in the lake.
People began to use the "trash" fish they caught from the lake to feed chickens and mink. In 1922, the Deseret News reported that fishermen took 10,000 pounds of carp from the lake daily 8,000 pounds for the chicken farmers, and the rest shipped out to Los Angeles (where, the paper said condescendingly, the Chinese, Japanese and Mexicans were glad to have them).
But in times of need, hungry Utahns of all cultures were glad to have them. During the terrible depression of the 1890s, nearly half of the potential work force was unemployed. The same A.M. Musser cooked up a plan to feed needy families with carp from Utah Lake. The railroad transported the fish for free, and church ministers distributed them.
Over the years, more distributions followed. In 1914, Fish and Game officials planned to give out 10 tons of fish, with the Salvation Army and Volunteers of America helping. People began lining up around 6:30 a.m. for the distribution, which began at 8:30 a.m. In 1915, 3,000 people showed up to get fish. Mr. Woods noted that the people " were eager to get the meat and many of them looked as though they needed it badly."
The Fish and Game Department also offered fish to the county infirmary, youth detention homes, Utah State Prison, State Mental Hospital, struggling miners in Scofield and more. The Fish and Game Department also fed the poor during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
During this depression, a couple of fishermen, Henry Loy and George Madsen, caught several tons of fish and donated them to struggling families in Provo. Madsen, who was actually very ill at the time, had been selling 4,000 pounds of carp weekly in Los Angeles but now he turned his energies to feeding the local poor instead of making a profit.
When people aren't hungry, they're generally not so excited about carp. But that's what we've got in the lake. The carp have changed the habitat to suit themselves, destroying it for native fish. As of last year, carp made up 90 percent of the lake's biomass, with around 7.5 million in the lake.
However, last fall state, federal, and private agencies began a major, several-year effort to rid the lake of carp in order to restore the ecosystem and encourage the native species.
Time will tell whether this latest effort to fix what we've messed up will work.
Kristen Rogers-Iversen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sources: "A Safety Net for the Needy," by D. Robert Carter (in Beehive History); A History of Utah County, by Frederick M. Huchel; Daily Enquirer; Deseret News; Wikipedia.