Is Virginia’s blue catfish population growing out of control?

Virginia

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Many anglers on the James River are targeting blue catfish. But is the blue catfish population growing out of control? Some believe it is.

The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (VDWR) introduced blue catfish into the Virginia tidal waters in the 1970s. The purpose behind that was to develop recreational fishery, specifically trophy fishery. But now, the blue catfish has become a top predator in Virginia’s waters.

Margi Whitmore, a tidal river fisheries biologist with VDWR, said the department has been studying the population of blue catfish for years.

Blue catfish in Virginia
Blue catfish in Virginia (Photo: 8News Matt DiNardo)

“They are in all of the tidal waters, so they are in the James, the Chickahominy, Appomattox, into the tributaries,” Whitmore said. “They are in the other tidal waters as well, so the York systems, the Pamunkey, the Mattaponi, as well as the Rappahannock and the Potomac.”

Whitmore said some trophy anglers have said that it is harder to catch trophy-sized fish and that is in part due to the increasing abundance and densities of the blue catfish.

As the blue catfish population continues to increase, it will have an impact on the native species, Whitemore explained. She said the VDWR does not have a great sense of what that impact is.

However, life science professors at Virginia Commonwealth University Rice River Centers have been doing research on the topic for 20 years.

Virginia's blue catfish
VCU Rice Center professors have been researching Virginia’s blue catfish for over 20 years. (Photo: 8News Matt DiNardo)

“It is a sportfish as well as a commercial fishery,” Will Shuart, a professor leading the research said. “So there are different questions that we can ask. How many trophy-sized fish are in this section of the river?“

Counting blue catfish is done in a very scientific way. VCU uses sonar in the water to scan from the boat out 100 meters and then a drone above.

“I have developed some artificial intelligence algorithms to count all of the fish on the surface of the water.  So we can look at how many are coming up and really what size they are. And we can do that based on the 20 to 30 years of data that we have collected. Looking at the length and weight of blue catfish in the James River,” Shuart explained.

Blue catfish in Virginia
Drone and sonar equipment is used to count blue catfish in Virginia (Photo: 8News Matt DiNardo)

In order to be counted, the catfish have to come up to the surface. This is where some recreational anglers and commercial anglers have a gripe. The process is called electrofishing.

“The state has allowed some experimental electrofishing. The low-frequency electrofishing is very good at capturing catfish, it doesn’t harm or impact other species but it’s very good at picking up the catfish,” VCU Environmental Studies Professor Stephen P. McIninch told 8News.

The permit for electrofishing is given to only a few commercial fishermen and one of them is George Trice, who has also researched the technique extensively.

“Well, it just tickles the fish enough where they want to come to the surface and swim around for one to two, three minutes tops and then you don’t harm anything you don’t take and then they swim back down. It is a zero bycatch fishing,” Trice said.

There are strict rules Trice must follow outlined by the special permit.

Trice said they only fish from Monday to Friday and they don’t try to get the trophy fish. What they are after are the three to eight-pounders and the smaller catfish.

“We can’t catch anything over 25 inches, so we kind of stay below the 24 and stuff, so there ain’t a question,” Trice explained.

Virginia blue catfish
Blue catfish in Virginia tidal waters (Photo: 8News Matt DiNardo)

VCU Rice River Centers and Virginia DWR will continue their research on the blue catfish population. But make no mistake, there are still a lot of catfish for recreational and commercial anglers.

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