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  • Writer's pictureNew Wave Fishing Academy

Invasive Species: Bighead Carp

Invasive species have the potential to completely flip an ecosystem upside down. In our mind the water bodies in Ontario are our crown jewel and we want to do our part to ensure they remain a prized resource.

Todays invasive species is Bighead Carp!

We will cover why they are a threat to the Canadian waters of the Great Lakes, why anglers play an important role in monitoring for them, and what they can do to help stop the spread!

No these are not the Carp that jump out of the water and hit people as they boat by! While these are not the species you're thinking of they are from the same family and have big impacts on any water body they occupy. Bighead Carp look similar to Silver Carp (the jumpers) but grow much larger & are not known to jump.

bighead carp ontario invasive species risk asian carp

History & Biology

Bighead Carp, or Hypophthalmichthys nobilis, are native to large rivers and lakes in eastern China and far eastern Russia. Bighead Carp are extremely hardy and can adapt to many temperate freshwater environments. These fish were introduced to the Southern U.S. in the 1960's for use as biological control in aquaculture facilities. Flooding events allowed this species to escape and make their way into the Mississippi River Basin. Bighead Carp are voracious eaters and consume a wide range of zooplankton, detritus and small invertebrates, outcompeting native species for food. They lack a true stomach which requires it to feed almost continuously.


They are a deep-bodied, or wide, fish with a large toothless mouth and very large head.Their eyes are located forward and low on the head, well below the axis of the body. Coloration is dark gray above and cream-colored below with dark gray to black irregular blotches on the back and sides. Gill rakers are long, comb-like and close-set allowing the carp to strain planktonic organisms from the water for food. They can mature in 2-3 years and commonly weight up to 40 lbs. In the right conditions they can grow to more than 80 lbs.


Spawning can occur in many water bodies including moderate to large rivers and lakes with areas of slow current and depths of more than 6 feet. They are active in cold water and begin to feed at water temperatures above 35 degrees Fahrenheit, preferring temperatures of 39 to 78 degrees Fahrenheit. Currently, Bighead Carp are found throughout the Mississippi River. There is an electric dispersal barrier in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal within the Chicago Area Waterway, which is the largest known continuous connection between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins. These barriers are designed to prevent fish migration between the Mississippi River and Great Lakes basin. Equipment generates a direct current pulse through the electrodes, creating an electric field in the water that discourages the fishes from crossing. The design does not prevent waterway vessel traffic. Bighead Carp are currently up the river basin and stopped at the electric barrier.

Impact To Great Lakes

While the term Asian carps refers to four species, each is different and therefore, would have their own unique impacts to the Great Lakes if they were to establish. Bighead carps are planktivorous, meaning they eat plankton. Unlike their cousin the silver carp, Bighead Carp consume zooplankton. While both species can exist in the same body of water the two species do not compete for food with one another meaning more consumption overall! Plankton are important food sources for native species in the great lakes. Although indirectly most species depend on plankton as it is at the bottom of the food chain and the food source for their prey. Like silver carp, bighead carps lack a true stomach, and continuously filter large volumes of water that contain plankton to a greater degree than native species ever could. This means bighead carps will outcompete and cause a large decrease in the population sizes of native planktivorous species, such as:

  • Alewife

  • Bloater

  • Cisco

  • Rainbow Smelt

The decline would negatively impact predatory fishes that consume this forage such as:

  • Yellow Perch

  • Lake Trout

  • Walleye

Along with ecological impacts, these fish would cause negative economic impacts to the Great Lakes basin. They could impact the Canadian commercial fishing industry by causing a reduction in commercial catches. Commercial catches would be reduced due to decreases in native fish population sizes and overall quality as a result of direct competition with these fish for food. There would also be an increase in operational costs of commercial fishing due to the need to travel farther to catch fish, resulting in decreased profits.

Bighead carps would also impact recreational fishing by causing a reduction in populations of angling species, such as the ones listed above. Anglers contribute large amounts of money to the economy via fishing licenses, purchasing of fishing equipment and gear, and through tourism. Reduced recreational fishing opportunities would also have an impact on other businesses and livelihoods that depend on the development of this sector, such as bait and tackle shops.

As Bighead and Silver carps continue their persistent movement north through the Mississippi River basin, deterring their entry to the Great Lakes is crucial in order to maintain its ecological balance and associated financial value.


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