Top-of-the-food-chain predators called blue catfish have exploded in numbers and size in the James. The fish can top 100 pounds, and they eat anything they can get in their gaping mouths – from other fish to muskrats, herons and even KFC chicken boxes.
Back in the 1970s, when people did such things, Virginia biologists put young blue catfish in the tidal, freshwater James and Rappahannock rivers to give anglers something new to catch.
Native to the Mississippi River region, the creatures found their new homes – especially the James – to be welcoming places. There was plenty to eat ... and virtually no predators.
By the mid-2000s, blue catfish constituted up to 75 percent, by weight, of all fish in parts of the James, according to VCU scientists.
Anglers love the big fish, but some scientists fear that the bug-eyed bullies are driving down numbers of struggling species, such as American shad and river herring.
Virginia has been experimenting with allowing a limited commercial catch of blue catfish by "electrofishing," which involves putting a charge into the water to stun the animals. The technique, often used by researchers, has rarely if ever been used commercially.
The question now is whether to expand that program.
“We’ll not get rid of (blue catfish), but the goal would be to use commercial harvest as a tool to keep numbers below some ecological impact threshold," said Greg Garman, a VCU fish ecologist.