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Whatever happened to ... fishing Utah Lake for carp to feed low-income Utahns?

First Published      Last Updated Oct 14 2016 09:21 pm

Introduced to Utah Lake in the 1880s, they now are a threat to the ecosystem.

Editor's note • In this regular series, The Tribune explores the once-favorite places of Utahns, from restaurants to recreation to retail. Find past features here.

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.

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