Photo credit: © U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
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Species at a Glance
The silver carp is a member of the Asian carp complex, which also includes bighead, black, and grass carp. While it is not yet found in the Mid-Atlantic region, its large size, voracious appetite, and ability to leap out of the water make it an enormous threat to the region’s fishery and recreational economies.
This very large filter feeder averages 40-70 cm (16-28 in) in length, but can reach up to 130 cm (51 in) and weigh up to 36 kg (80 lbs). Its deep body is laterally compressed, with a ventral keel that extends forward from the anus almost reaching the base of the gills. Large eyes are located low and forward on the head. The mouth is large and terminal and the lower jaw is slightly longer than the upper jaw. No barbels are present on the mouth. The short dorsal fin, which lacks spines, contains 7-10 rays. Scales are very small. Coloration is olive to grayish-black on the back, with silvery sides blending to white below, and darker pigmentation on the fins.
While it most closely resembles the invasive bighead carp (Hypophthalmichthys nobilis), the silver carp is fairly uniform in color, lacking the irregular dark blotches found on the back and sides of the bighead carp. The bighead carp also has a less extensive keel, spanning from the pelvic fin to the anal fin. Silver carp may also resemble the common carp (Cyprinus carpio), which has barbels on either side of the mouth, and species of suckers (Catostomidae), which have thick lips containing small nipple-like bumps.
The silver carp is an exclusively freshwater fish, preferring large river systems, lakes, or impoundments with flowing water needed for spawning. It can feed in temperatures as low as 2.5°C (36.5°F) and can withstand low levels of oxygen.
Once introduced to open waters, the silver carp readily spawns and disperses. Because juveniles resemble some common baitfish species, it may be unintentionally spread through the use of live bait. It can also spread in illegal shipments of live Asian carp, which is popular in the Asian food market.
Native to eastern Asia, the silver carp was intentionally introduced into the United States to control algae in aquaculture ponds. During flooding in the early 1980s, it escaped into the Mississippi River and has since moved upstream towards the Great Lakes. The silver carp also threatens the Mid-Atlantic region by its movement up the Ohio River.
Note: Distribution data for this species may have changed since the publication of the Mid-Atlantic Field Guide to Aquatic Invasive Species (2016), the source of information for this description.
The silver carp consumes vast amounts of plankton and detritus each day, competing with native filter feeders and juvenile fish for food. In addition, when startled by boat motors or other equipment, the silver carp can leap up to 3 m (10 ft) out of the water, posing a risk of injury to boaters and watersport enthusiasts.
Information for this species profile comes from the Mid-Atlantic Field Guide to Aquatic Invasive Species (2016).