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Growth of blue catfish in Virginia waters a boon for fishermen, but biologists worry about effect on native species
Taswwar Ali hauled in this 68-pound blue catfish on the Rappahannock in August.
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In the Potomac River, "We view them as an invasive species that threatens to inhibit our ability to restore shad, striped bass, herring," said Kirby Carpenter, executive director of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission. "They are an apex predator that eats any and every thing that doesn't eat them first. Aside from us, we don't know anything else that eats them."
Carpenter said he doesn't know how or why, but blue catfish began showing up in the river at Washington in the late 1990s. Now they have adapted to "fairly high salinities" and are routinely found as far downriver as Colonial Beach, he said.
Carpenter pulled out a graph showing the sharp increase in Potomac harvests of blue catfish from 2003, when about 23,000 pounds were landed, to 2009, when nearly 200,000 pounds were caught by commercial fishermen. In the Rappahannock, where blue cats have been around longer, commercial fishermen caught nearly 450,000 pounds in 2009
The arc on the Potomac graph shows exponential growth that suggests 400,000 pounds of blue catfish could be landed there in 2011.
MANAGING THE BLUE CAT
Carpenter's concerns have now become the focus of a group of federal and state environmental agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and the environmental agencies of Maryland and the District of Columbia.
The goal of this Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team is to try to find ways to manage all the complex aspects of the blue cat fishery, including its threat as an invasive species and its trophy and commercial values, said Peyton Robertson, director of the Chesapeake Bay Office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has yet to be invited to meetings of the group, the VDGIF's Greenlee said. Robertson called omission of the VDGIF "an oversight."
Robertson said a major objective of the catfish working group is to determine research needs that might better define the dilemma.
Greenlee couldn't agree more.
"We don't have good, scientific data on what is going on," he said. "It's a huge area open for research."
Frank Delano: 804/761-4300
TOTAL COMMERCIAL CATCH IN POUNDS
--Potomac River Fisheries Commission