Specialty in Asian carp brings scientist unexpected fame

Monday, May 19, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:50 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 20, 2014
Duane Chapman, a research fish biologist prepares for an overnight research trip to collect Grass carp eggs and larvae. Chapman works with the U.S. Geological Survey and is the leader of the Asian carp research team.

COLUMBIA — Duane Chapman is accidentally famous — he appears on TV more than he watches it.

When the 56-year-old research fish biologist for the U.S Geological Survey in Columbia decided to specialize in Asian carp, he was never expecting to become a media staple.

But his specialty has bizarre behavior that fascinates the public when it is filmed leaping out of the water behind a powerboat. The carp, a nuisance fish that lives in the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River watershed, can jump up to 10 feet in the air when startled.

Within the past year, Chapman has been featured in numerous publications as a carp expert. He has appeared on the Discovery Channel, Fox News, The Weather Channel, ABC News, Canadian Broadcast Television, National Public Radio and in at least two dozen magazines and newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

Chapman says he "did not sign up for this."

"It's kind of embarrassing sometimes," he said. "My scientist colleagues give me some flak about it."

The nuisance fish

The Asian carp has received media notoriety because it is a threat to the kinds of fish that bolster the economy in some areas. They out-compete other fish for food, a rather bold irony because carp were brought to America in the 1970s to clean commercial fish ponds.

"The carps are pretty high profile," Chapman said. "I never really planned on that. It's not something I expected when I got into this job."

Chapman is a supervisor of scientists and technicians at the USGS. He currently has four scientists and a boat captain working for him on projects to determine, for example, the dissolved oxygen tolerance for young fish to reduce the survival of Asian carp.

Another project involves looking at the early life history of the carp to determine how far upriver they spawn, what rivers are potential spawning habitats and where they can be located.

Acoustic video camera technology is also being used to determine just how the Asian carp avoid being caught in nets — something they excel at.

Although Chapman didn't plan on being a media resource, he always knew he would work with fish.

"I was never one of those people who wondered what they would do," he said.

Fish in his past

Before Chapman graduated from college, he had never lived in the same house for more than 14 months at a time. When he was 4 years old, his father, who served as a Marine, died.

Until Chapman's mother remarried when he was in first grade, the family lived with several uncles. This is when the boy was first introduced to fishing. 

Several uncles were fishermen, and his paternal grandfather fished recreationally. After Chapman's mother remarried, he would often spend his summers with his grandfather in Tennessee.

Chapman went into college thinking he would be a fish farmer, but by the time he graduated with a master of science degree from the University of Wyoming, he was hired as a researcher in Denver to study striped bass. 

Before enrolling in graduate school, he joined the Peace Corps and moved to Costa Rica, where he met his wife, Mari, a social worker also in the Peace Corps. 

Chapman moved to Columbia from Texas in 1995 to be closer to his wife's family and accepted a job at the USGS.

When his three children were younger, he said, he was still doing more hands-on work with the carp. He fondly remembers rushing to school one day to pick up his daughter after a long day of working with the fish. She stopped short when she was still "40 feet" away and commented on the awful smell.

"The job is not as glamorous as it sounds," Chapman said.

Fish continue to be a significant part of his life. He lives north of town in a home surrounded by three ponds where, sure enough, Asian carp swim freely. 

Although many Americans don't eat Asian carp because of their bones, Chapman regularly cooks the carp he finds in his ponds. He has a video with almost 50,000 views on YouTube about how to properly filet the Asian carp. A son, who is currently studying animation, helped film the video. 

Asian carp have been known to injure boaters when they jump in the air, and Chapman has been hit himself. He almost lost a tooth when one jumped and slapped him in the face a few years ago.

"My neck hurt for a week after that," he said. 

Chapman considers his biggest professional achievements to be inventing a sediment pore water extractor, which has been used worldwide; creating a model to show where Asian carp can reproduce; and publishing two books about fish.

He has a whimsical side as well.

When his son was younger, Chapman was a Boy Scout leader for Troop 7, and he continued this after his son became an Eagle Scout. His wife was involved with the Girls Scouts, and both would make the Scout floats for Columbia's Christmas parade every year.

Last month, they entered the Float your Boat for the Food Bank event, a fundraiser for the Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri. A cardboard boat built by their team made the event's top 10 after staying afloat longer than those of many other teams. 

Several years ago, Chapman began keeping a "life list" of all of the fish he has caught. There are currently more than 200 on the list, some caught in China and Russia. 

"There's just something magical about fish," he said. 

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