Snakeheads vs Blue Catfish: Fear the Cats

by D.J. Rippert
Undocumented swimmers.

  The Chesapeake Bay Watershed has more than its fair share of non-native species. Mute swans escaped from an estate on the Eastern Shore where they had been imported from Eurasia. Today they are the largest birds in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Nutria were introduced to a nature preserve in 1943 in the hopes of kick-starting a fur farming industry. Today these waterborne rats eat sediment-holding plants in salt marshes. Phragmites accidentally introduced into the holds of ships now crowd out native marsh plants. In fact, the Chesapeake Bay itself could be seen as an invasive species since it was created about 35 million years ago when a large meteorite hit Earth just off what is today Hampton Roads.

Johnny come latelys. Two invasive species of fish have recently been introduced to the Chesapeake Bay: the Snakehead and the Blue Catfish. Snakeheads were introduced after being purchased as aquarium fish and then discarded in local waterways. Long and large with conspicuous teeth, the snakehead has caused quite a sensation. They now occupy at least 60 river miles of the Potomac River. After an explosive start recent evidence suggests that the snakehead population might be leveling off or even declining slightly.  Not only do largemouth bass (another invasive species in the Potomac River) enjoy an occasional breakfast of snakehead fry but people have found the “Potomac Pike” to be fun to catch and delicious as well. Governor Northam’s signing of a law that will allow the sale of Snakehead meat ought to help keep the toothy predator in check.

Stupid is as stupid does. The most vexing invasive species in the Chesapeake Watershed wasn’t introduced by accident or by some World War II brain cramp intended to spur fur farming. No, it was a deliberate act during the 1970s designed to improve sport fishing in Virginia. The environmental wizards of the day saw no issue with introducing an apex predator which can grow to over 100 pounds.  At the time of the Blue Catfish introduction, I suppose horribly polluted rivers such as the James could allow only a few nearly indestructible fish species like Blue Catfish to thrive. And thrive they did. Today, Blue Catfish surveys indicate that the total fish biomass of large sections of the James River is 50% or more Blue Catfish.

So, can we turn the Blue Catfish into the equivalent of the Snakehead (aka the Potomac Pike) – a tasty treat? Blue Cats are large, plentiful and delicious. They are easy to catch and abundant in rivers like the James. However, one may want to think twice before ordering the Blue Cat Blue Plate Special at Bookbinders. It seems that Richmond’s efforts to clean up the James have been …. well … spotty.  A recent survey of Blue Catfish stomach contents from catfish caught in the James near Richmond produced tampons, condoms and human feces. In fairness to River City I’m not sure that I’d eat Blue Catfish caught near Alexandria either. What a sad state of affairs.

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10 responses to “Snakeheads vs Blue Catfish: Fear the Cats”

  1. The law goes beyond making selling and purchasing legal. It allows possessing, transporting, giving and receiving the fish. It doesn’t do away with the requirement to kill and to notify “the Department” as soon as practicable, but haven’t seen any publicity on the details of that. I checked the VDGIF (Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries) and they are the “Department” in the law, but they haven’t updated their website yet. For any anglers here who might catch one, the number for reporting is (804) 367-2925.

    When posts of dead snakeheads washed up in Mathews County appeared on Facebook recently, the comments suggest the snakeheads may have moved further into the Bay than the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers. One big carcass was found on Bavon Beach, and a 2-ft one on Gwynns Island. In fact, the 2015 VDGIF map shows three reports on the Piankatank River (even though they don’t bother showing the river’s name.)
    Apparently juveniles have a greater tolerance to salt water, according to VDGIF. Hope some don’t grow up and keep that tolerance.

    1. djrippert Avatar

      The salinity in the Main Stem of The Chesapeake Bay is always changing. Fresh water flows out from the north floating on salt water that is flowing in from the south. It gets steadily saltier as the summer progresses. Those of us who fish the Middle Bay know that we might take some yellow perch in April and May in the rivers(which we won’t see again for 10 months) but it’s too early for Cobia and Mackerel until July or August. Invasive fish travel more freely during low salinity periods which lets snakeheads move from the Potomac to (possibly) the Shenandoah. Once the salinity rises they won’t stay in the salty Main Stem but they’ve already migrated to the lower salinity Shenandoah Flats.

      Lots of strange things happen in the Bay. Two years ago we had porpoises in Talbott County. Two huge Bull Sharks were netted near Point Lookout. I heard a rumor that someone once hooked a Mako up by the Bay Bridge. My guess is that you might encounter a Snakehead anywhere in the tributaries and in the Bay north of the Target Ship.

      Maryland and Virginia have somewhat different rules regarding catching Snakeheads and Blue Catfish. In my opinion, you should check the fish for tags and then kill any of either fish you catch. I fish in clean water so I’ll eat what I catch but even if people don’t want to eat the fish they should kill them.

      One of the reasons I think the Blue Cats have done so well is that they can live in polluted water better than many of the native species. This causes a problem when the water is cleaned up and the 50, 70, 100 pound catfish that have lived there for years feast on the young bass that, once again, can live in the cleaned water.

      1. Acbar Avatar

        You’re talking River cats and snakeheads living off channel- bottom detritus. If they’re so tasty, and hardy, and such indiscriminate eaters, what about developing the business of farm-raising these little beasties so they can be sold with dependably clean innards?

        1. djrippert Avatar

          Big business further down south – catfish at least. Snakeheads could also be farm raised I’d guess but they’re hard to contain. You might inadvertently introduce them to nearby waters. Next time Bacon has a bloggers party I’ll bring some Snakehead and Blue Catfish filets … caught over by the Choptank, far from the James or Potomac Rivers.

  2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    A remarkable description of an epic battle that ensued between a beast and a man who practiced the art of tickling a river catfish is found in the eccentric and antique novel about 19th century s/w Virginia found in the astounding novel Cold Mountain. Those paragraphs of river combat are worth your reading whole novel.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    DJ has brought in the other players in the invasive lottery. It’s not so simple. And I’m not at all sure you can “undo” it especially if the interlopers find the habitat to their liking.

    Hydrilla is a plant that has also found habitat to it’s liking… i.e. sediment-laden water not of pristine quality and it actually “cleans” the water by removing sediment and nutrients … nitrogen and phosphorous.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    Folks might also be interested in the fact that Lewis & Clark fished for food and their catch did include catfish:

    1. djrippert Avatar

      Channel Catfish and White Catfish are native to the Bay. Flatheads and Blue Cats are invasive. I think the Snakeheads are here to stay. They seem to occupy a niche that was more or less unoccupied. The Blue Cats will only be brought under control by electrofishing. Interestingly, with electrofishing you can set the equipment to shock and float specific species. I really want to see an electrofishing program in action. May have to volunteer at the Dept of Natural Resources.

  5. TBill Avatar

    Also invasive plants.
    A couple years ago I volunteered to help Va. DEQ pull a stand of water chestnut plants from the Potomac River near Mason Neck. We were knee deep in muck…considering sewage plant overflow, it was a yucky experience. But I figured George W. and George M. would have appreciated the effort.

    1. djrippert Avatar

      The George’s would have been appreciative. Not so much Jim Morrison (graduated from High School in Alexandria, VA). As he said, “No time to wallow in the mire.” Were the water chestnuts edible?

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