Blue cats … a success or a plan gone awry?
Susan and Biff Andrews
In the late 1970s, NOAA/VIMS or whoever, decided to introduce the blue catfish into the James, York and Rappahannock rivers to expand the recreational fishery.
In 2018, 30 years later, those blue cats have expanded so rapidly that 75 percent of all fish in those rivers are blue cats. Croaker are hanging on, some spot in the fall, with stripers on the decline and bluefish, gray trout and puppy drum rare.
So is this a roaring success or are we losing biodiversity? What about traditions like corning spot and serving rockfish for Thanksgiving dinners? Is this a success or plan gone wrong?
Positive Impacts: In 2007, there were virtually no commercial landings of blue cats. In 2016, there were 4 million pounds of catfish landed, with a value of $1.4 million. In a recent roundup of electro fishing, 6,000 fish were stunned in one session.
It’s hard to sit on the banks of the James and throw in a baited hook without catching one. Recreational purposes achieved.
And they just get bigger and bigger. The Virginia record is now 102 pounds. Charter services are springing up around Hopewell. Everybody loves them. They are definitely edible. I personally prefer the native channel catfish, which is firmer. But a lot of people prefer the softer blue catfish, which is milder and absorbs any spices and seasonings put on it.
Negative Impacts: Blue cats are voracious feeders. They eat crustaceans, other fish, even other catfish. They out-forage native species and take over their habitat. They feed on plants, insects, fish and blue crabs. Not good for other fisheries, especially the crabbers.
In short, they threaten native species, especially fish and crab.
And they’re basically tasteless.
On a recent evening I fished with two buddies on the shore of the James near Rescue. This is the time of year we used to get big croakers (1 to 2 pounds) before the warm water came with the small pin-heads of summer… 4- to 6-inch fish.
The take for one hour? One croaker… small. One white perch… tiny. Three skates about 7 pounds each, and over 20 blue catfish between one and four pounds, all of which were sent back to the river. No puppy drum. No speckled trout. No stripers. No gray trout.
So … was the 1970s experiment a smashing success or a tragic miscalculation?
SUSAN and BRADFORD “BIFF” ANDREWS are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.