Tuesday, February 7th, 2023
Tuesday, February 7th, 2023

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Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission wants blue catfish restored in Three Rivers system, nowhere else

From 2023 through 2031, the Fish & Boat Commission intends to stock tens of thousands of yearling blue catfish like this into the rivers around Pittsburgh. (Photo courtesy Fish & Boat Commission)

Harrisburg — The Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission wants to bring blue catfish back to the Three Rivers system in the southwestern part of the state, but the agency doesn’t want them to turn up anywhere else.

During a Jan. 4 Fisheries and Hatcheries Committee meeting, Gary Smith, Area 8 fisheries manager, gave an update on the commission’s blue catfish restoration project.

Ultimately, the hope is to restore populations of largest of all North American catfish species to the Ohio, Monongahela and lower Allegheny rivers – the three waterways where blue catfish are considered native.

Anywhere else in the state, however, the presence of blue catfish would be bad news.

“They’re considered a highly invasive species outside of their native range,” Smith said. “They can have an adverse effect on sport fisheries and threatened and endangered species.”

In other areas, the impact of blue catfish has already become a problem.

According to the Chesapeake Bay Program, blue catfish were introduced in several rivers in Virginia in the 1970s and 1980s and many believed they would remain in the freshwater flows.

But over time, it became apparent that blue catfish have a high tolerance to salinity, and they spread to all major tributaries on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay along with tributaries on the eastern shore of Maryland and Delaware.

There are concerns that a booming population of predatory blue catfish could harm several species native to the bay, including menhaden, striped bass, shad and blue crabs.

In Maryland, the state Department of Natural Resources is asking anglers to remove and kill any blue catfish they catch, and anyone caught transporting the species to another waterway can be fined up to $2,500.

Smith said it’s illegal for individuals to stock blue catfish in Pennsylvania, although they did exist in the state until the early 1900s when they disappeared from the Ohio River due to pollution.

According to Smith, the Fish & Boat Commission plans to replicate the approach West Virginia used to successfully restore blue catfish to a portion of the Ohio River, and there are indication the species is already here.

Blue catfish, which have a high tolerance to salinity, over time spread to all major tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay, including the Susquehanna River. (Photo by Dark Dwarf/Flickr)

Since 2019, he said, the agency has confirmed approximately 20 occurrences of blue catfish being caught by anglers in the Three Rivers. However, surveys conducted over the last three years in the Ohio River have failed to turn up a blue catfish, Smith said.

The Fish & Boat Commission’s blue catfish restoration plan, which was revised in 2022, seeks to establish a naturally reproducing population in the Three Rivers, beginning with 80,000 4-inch fingerlings that were stocked last year.

From 2023 through 2026, Smith said, the agency will stock 10,000 yearling blue catfish in the Ohio River, and if all goes well, yearlings will be stocked in the Monongahela and lower Allegheny rivers from 2027 through 2031.

Monitoring will begin in 2025 and will be conducted every three years.

Currently, blue catfish are open to fishing year-round in Pennsylvania with no minimum size and a daily limit of 50 fish. Smith said special regulations may be implemented on the Three Rivers to limit harvest mortality during the restoration effort.

But another key component of the restoration project is an outreach effort – including signage at boat launches and popular fishing spots – highlighting the ecological risks and legal consequences of translocating blue catfish outside of the Three Rivers.

Still, as long as blue catfish remain in their native range in Pennsylvania, Smith is optimistic the species will develop into another popular fishery for anglers.

“They are a sport fish. We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from anglers asking us to restore them,” Smith said. “The goal is to establish a naturally-reproducing population for a recreational fishery in the Three Rivers.”

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