Since early March, the virus outbreak that’s been on everyone’s mind has been the novel coronavirus.
But a different virus is believed to be causing its own chaos on Kansas lakes — the koi herpes virus.
During the past month and a half, boaters and anglers have reported seeing — and smelling — dozens of dead carp floating in waterways throughout the state, including Hillsdale Reservoir in Miami County and Pomona Reservoir in Osage County.
While some fish kills are expected during the summer months because of decrease oxygenation in the hot water and other natural causes, the quantity of the dead fish being reported and the fact that most are the same species is particularly noteworthy.
’The smell was horrible’
Brad Reinking, who lives about a mile from the Hillsdale Reservoir in Paola, was fishing with a friend on June 16 when he noticed a large number of dead fish surrounding him in the water.
"I would hate to guess exactly how many I saw that day, but I know at one point I counted 24 that I could see from my boat," Reinking told The Topeka Capital-Journal. "I did talk with a boy who works at the marina and he said they think there was a disease that was only affecting the carp. Not sure about that ... A friend, Brian Burns, was fishing with me that day we observed all the dead fish."
Reinking said it was one of the worst fish kills he’s ever seen in person, adding it was unusual that they were all the same species.
"Yes, by far," said Reinking. " ... We did see a couple crappie and a channel cat, but most were carp. So the lake just had a bad stench to it."
He said so far he hadn't seen any big fish kills at any other lakes he's visited this summer.
"Nothing like this," Reinking said. "I was at Waconda at the end of last week. I don’t recall seeing one dead fish there."
Another witness to the die-off, David Nguyen, said on a Facebook fishing group that he saw dead fish skeletons "about every 5 feet or so" and flies everywhere when he walked along the Hillsdale dam.
Brian Larsen, of Vassar, was one of the anglers who witnessed the fish kill at Pomona, which occurred prior to the Hillsdale outbreak. He lives near the state park on the south side.
"It was latter part of May and into early June as we were fishing every day during the crappie spawn here," Larsen said. "Even while out canoeing for the fun of it, we were seeing hundreds of large, dead carp floating all over the lake. The smell was horrible. Neighbor asked a Corp of Engineers guy what was up and they said some kind of carp herpes that only affects that species and only breeding fish."
The technical term is Cyprinid herpesvirus 3, a highly contagious virus with an equally high mortality rate that appears to only infect fish in the Cyprinidae family, mainly the common carp in Kansas waters.
Larsen said he has yet to see anything like that at other lakes he’s fished so far this summer, and Pomona seems to be returning to normal.
"Not really seeing any the past couple of weeks as we’ve been out on the lake fishing for whites and wipers," Larsen said.
According to the Kansas Department of Wildlife Parks and Tourism, sightings of dead common carp were first reported in mid- to late-May at Clinton, Hillsdale and Pomona reservoirs.
Staff members from the fisheries division said Pomona was initially the only location where staff could verify a small-scale die-off. Staff at that time also were witnessing carp in abundance and in seemingly good health at other locations, meaning there was nothing to indicate a large-scale die-off was imminent.
A subsequent report came in to the KDWPT on June 7 for the fish kill at Hillsdale. Staff confirmed a die-off at that lake and have been regularly monitoring the situation since that time.
The agency said common carp are the only species that appear to be affected, leading to the belief that the koi herpes virus was the cause, and the state is currently collecting and testing samples from fish carcasses to find out for sure the cause of the deaths. Results of the tests should be back within 3 to 4 weeks, KDWPT Chief of Public Affairs Nadia Reimer said Friday.
While the staff can’t say for certain the total number of carp infected by the suspected virus, they estimate the number to be in the thousands, with the affected fish ranging from 6 to 40 inches in length.
The KDWPT noted that small-scale die-offs are not uncommon this time of year as the spawning season can be quite stressful on fish. Quick weather changes also add to potential stressors for the fish.
The department added that the koi herpes virus has no effect on other species, including humans.
While Pomona and Hillsdale are the only two lakes that have been confirmed by the KDWPT to have undergone fish die-offs, anglers on social media have reported seeing dead fish at other locations, as well.
Both Atchison County Lake and Atchison State Fishing Lake were reported on Facebook to have had a number of dead carp littering the bank during the spring, according to angler reports on Facebook.
Kenneth Nichols, of Wyandotte County, reported that not only were there dead carp earlier this spring at Atchison SFL, but he caught dozens of bluegills that had their fins covered in parasites at the lake. He estimated 40 of the 60 bluegill he caught had the parasites on them at that time.
Ken and Dawnett Cotton, of Topeka, reported seeing "close to 100" dead carp along the bank in mid-May, as well.
Nick Kramer, Perry’s district fisheries biologist for the KDWPT, said numerous KDWPT officials were at the Atchison SFL on Thursday banding geese and didn’t report seeing any dead fish at that time. He said he also personally inspected the county lake near Horton on Friday and also saw no dead fish at that time, nor did the wildlife biologist on duty there in recent weeks.
Jesse Springer and Steve Dehning also reported via Facebook seeing several dead carp in the coves at Osage State Fishing Lake a few weeks ago.
People who see dead or diseased-looking fish are encouraged to report their findings to the KDWPT biologist in their area with specifics about where they found the fish, what time and date they were at the lake, how many fish they saw that were affected and any photographic evidence they may have. The phone number for the KDWPT Operations Office in Pratt is 620-672-5911, while the number for the Topeka office is 785-273-6740.