Invasive blue catfish no longer welcomed

State hopes to dim spotlight on popular freshwater fish

August 14, 2010|By Candus Thomson, The Baltimore Sun

Two years ago, officials bubbled with piscatorial pride when Frederick County angler Ron Lewis set a state record with a 67.1-pound blue catfish caught on the Potomac River.

"Mr. Lewis's historic catch illustrates Maryland's superb year-round fishing opportunities," said Department of Natural Resources Secretary John Griffin in a news release.

With great fanfare, the enormous fish was relocated to a new home in the big tank at Bass Pro Shops at Arundel Mills, where it is still the biggest thing swimming around.

But after a successful lobbying effort by DNR's invasive species experts, the blue catfish joined Spiro Agnew, the 1969 World Series and Mayflower moving vans as things Marylanders shouldn't talk about. Quietly last year the Fisheries Service agreed to remove blue catfish from the list of more than 80 approved state species.

Why the bum's rush?

"This is an invasive species that we're not particularly happy about," said Don Cosden, the head of inland fisheries in a phone call on Thursday afternoon. "The more people get enamored of this fish, the more it can be Johnny Appleseeded around the state."

But the delisting was never announced. Lewis' catch remains on the state list as the top cat. Tackle shops that act as awards centers continue to issue citations for blue cats over 40 inches.

The word apparently didn't filter down through the agency, either. Blue cats remain on DNR's website as an acceptable entry in the Maryland Fishing Challenge; at least 10 anglers are eligible for the grand prize drawing after catching fish ranging from 36 inches to 52 inches.

The secret oozed out last week after Jayson Zorda reeled in a record-beating 79-pound blue cat on the Potomac River near Fort Washington. He raced his fish at 2 a.m. to a Silver Spring FedEx shop—the only late-night certified scale in the area — and then drove it back to Fort Washington for release, a practice most serious blue cat anglers follow. He filled out the paperwork and attached photos.

On Friday, he was disqualified, but not for the reason you might think. The fish had not been inspected by a state fisheries biologist, as required by the rules.

However, in talking the matter through with DNR officials, they agreed that while blue cats are no longer welcome, blue cat anglers in the fishing challenge are. Further, anyone who brings in a fish bigger than Lewis's this year will be considered for the record.

Pity the poor person trying to write that news release.

Invasive species — from nutria and emerald ash borers to northern snakeheads and zebra mussels — are no laughing matter. The state employees who try and block their spread with very little financial support and manpower are doing a thankless but important job.

Blue catfish certainly fit the bill. They are voracious predators, growing rapidly in size and weight until they resemble Newt Gingrich. Anglers who prize their fighting ability have smuggled them from the Mississippi River watershed to their home waters, including the James River in Virginia.

Virginia decided to embrace blue cats, illegal immigrant status and all. The record, set last year on the James River, is 102 pounds, 4 ounces.

Naturally, blue cats swam to Maryland waterways and onto the hooks of Maryland anglers. Initially Maryland was OK with it.

"Fishing for blue catfish has quickly become a burgeoning trophy catch-and-release fishery in the tidal portion of the Potomac River and the anglers who fish for them have become a close knit union often sharing skills and tips," said the release heralding Lewis' catch.

Cosden said his staff "was kind of conflicted" about delisting the blue cats. "It's always a hard argument to make why one species is OK and another species is not," he said.

It showed as we continued to talk. In one breath Cosden said the state is attempting to stop the spread of blue catfish. But then he added that the big fish has been caught in the Patuxent River and by watermen on the Nanticoke River. There have even been unsubstantiated reports of blue catfish in the upper Chesapeake Bay.

Johnny Appleseed, it seems, has already left the building.

"That makes it more difficult to defend this situation," Cosden acknowledged.

Tim Hagan, founder of The Catfish Nation fishing club and owner of a Frederick tackle shop, helped Zorda get the fish weighed and compete the paperwork. He scoffed at the state's policy and predicted Maryland will lose money as blue cat anglers switch to Virginia licenses for Potomac River fishing.

"They can call it an invasive species all they want. But the state of Maryland stocks fish that don't belong here, like largemouth bass and brown trout, and it makes money on licenses. They're never going to get rid of the blues," he said. "Those fish are only going to get bigger and bigger, and Virginia is going to get all the attention and money."

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