A Utah County family of fishermen faces an enormous task -- ridding Utah Lake of an invasive species. Fifth generation Utah Lake fisherman Bill Loy Jr., his son Cody Loy and their fishing crew of six men cast their nets daily to pull millions of pounds of wriggling carp in each year.
Loy's crew is contracted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the state of Utah as part of the June Sucker Recovery Program, an initiative that has become familiar to many Utahns in the past several years. The program was formed in 1986 to seek the recovery of the endangered June sucker species and to restore the shallow water ecological balance of the lake. Loy received the contract two years ago to begin mass fishing carp, the invasive species that contributed to Utah Lake's ecological shift.
According to the June Sucker Recovery Program, the non-native carp were introduced to Utah Lake in the late 1880s to provide a new fishing population. The carp population quickly grew to become more than 90 percent of the lake's biomass and, with some other factors, altered the lake ecosystem's balance from a clear water state to a turbid one. The program cites that through "predation, competitive interactions and habitat alteration," the carp population largely contributed to a decrease in the June sucker population and a loss in Utah Lake's ecological diversity. The June sucker population, one unique to Utah Lake that once numbered in the millions, now stands at less than 1,000 fish.
On a windy, cold day, Loy and his crew gathered their nets on the east side of Utah Lake. As one of the fishermen pulled in nets full of carp into the boat he reached down and pulled a gray, medium-sized fish out of the mix. It gasped in his hands, expanding and contracting its sucker as Jedediah Allred held it out to show.
"This is what we're trying to save here, the June sucker," he said.
He walked over to the edge of the boat, away from the net, and tossed the fish back into the murky gray-green water.
The crew of eight men, including Loy and his son, pull nets year-round, running a variety of equipment to get the job done. In the fall, the crew operates several flat blue boats to navigate the shallow lake. Loy and his son dropped one of the large nets into the water from the main rig, a larger yellow boat with a skull and crossbones painted on the front of the hull. Loy kept one hand on the rudder and the other on the throttle to pull the net taut; his crew circled the buoys in the smaller blue boats watching and waiting for the net to fill.
They pulled the ends of the net in to form a giant circle near shore. The crew anchored their boats in the shallow water and hopped overboard in their chest-high waders; Loy began to reel the net in with a winch. Cody Loy and three other crew members fed the net back to the boat as they stood belly-high in the water, tightening the circle on the catch. They pulled the boats together and narrowed the catch to a small portion of net between them.
The first fish to surface were the smaller white bass, which had been caught in the holes of the net. While the nets pull in a variety of species, Loy and the crew only pull in the white bass and the carp, throwing back the occasional walleyes, perch and the endangered June sucker. The vast majority of their pulls, though, are carp.
Carp are large in size. Their scales range from a dark olive bronze at their top fin to a light pinkish yellow underbelly. As they lay on the boat floor, they squirmed under the feet of the fishermen, aggressively flapping their fins in search for water.
Loy estimated the catch to only weigh in at about one ton. The operation is contracted and paid by weight delivered, at 20 cents per pound. The catch was a small one for the crew, and they called it a day after their first draw. Their largest catch in one draw had been 116,000 pounds, a record 57 tons for them.
As he drove the large yellow and black boat back to the harbor, Loy smoked a cigarette and gazed out over the gray water. The wake spread behind the boat as Bill and Cody Loy headed home for the day. When they returned to the docks, the carp were loaded into a trailer for weighing. The fish are used as compost, food for mink farms and to make organic fertilizers.
The contract goals with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies ask for five million pounds of carp each year for six years. Last year, the crew was only able to pull in just more than three million due to high water and lack of funding. For Loy, there are good and bad days to fishing.
"On a bad day, we'll be lucky to see fish in the bottom of the boat," he said.
They fish seven days a week, weather permitting. Summer typically brings smaller returns in the shallow warm waters; winter brings more fortuitous returns as the fish congregate to deeper waters.
"It's stressful, you know," Loy said. "It's stressful just making sure you're making enough money to pay your payroll. ... It's a lot of guesswork. It's a lot of traveling around looking for fish."
Bill Loy Jr. is the fifth generation in his family to run a fishing operation on Utah Lake. They take various fishing contracts over time, sometimes in other portions of the West. Cody Loy makes the sixth generation. Like his father before him, Cody learned the trade by working with his father while growing up. He spent seven or eight years building power lines, until he and his wife decided that he was spending too much time on the road. He returned to fishing.
"When I was young I swore up and down I'd never fish for a living when I got older," he said.
"Yeah, so did I," his father said from across the table.
Cody Loy hasn't yet decided whether to follow in his father's fishing footsteps for the long haul. His 10-year-old son is interested in his father and grandfather's fishing, but Cody Loy would rather that he not experience the struggles of a fisherman to make ends meet.
"I'd really like to see him go to school. There's easier ways to make money," he said.