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October 25, 2001

Saltwater Aliens

Bigheaded carp get forced into saltwater enviroments after heavy rainfall.

Q: I work for the Navy at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. One day after a heavy rain I found these fish in the bay, floating on the surface and close to perishing. Although they were found in salt water, are they freshwater fish? I can't identify them. Can you help? - Tom Davis, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

A: As you suspected, it is a freshwater species, the bighead carp (Hypopthalmichthys nobilis), no doubt washed down into Guantanamo Bay from the mountains by heavy rains via the Guantanamo River. Bighead carp originated in China and eastern Siberia and have been introduced in various locations throughout the world. They grow to about 3 feet long and have been known to reach nearly 90 pounds. Their natural habitat is large streams where they prefer feeding on zooplankton, algae and insect larvae. Bighead carp were introduced into the United States in 1972. Escapees from a fish hatchery spread from Arkansas to Tennessee and Missouri, and are expected to occupy the entire Mississippi Basin. They are restricted geographically by the temperature at which they spawn and cannot survive long in salt water.