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Stop Catfish Massacre, Park Director Says

Recently, several fishermen were seen carrying out more than 100 pounds of fish each, he says, while leaving catfish carcasses to rot along the shoreline.

White proposes that the most productive parts of the river around Richmond be designated "no-take" zones, where fish must be released if caught. He's encouraging park users to call the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries this month, before a decision is made in October, to express their support.

But state Fisheries Division chief Gary Martel disagrees. Reducing the number of catfish might even help the James, he says. "The population has really just exploded in the past 10 to 15 years," Martel says.

Besides, the fish aren't even supposed to be there, he adds: "The most sought-after recreational fish species are not native to the James itself," including blue and flathead catfish.

Blues and flatheads are voracious eaters of smaller species, such as sunfish and smallmouth bass. They can grow to upwards of 60 pounds. (The state record for a blue catfish is a specimen of almost 72 pounds, caught in the James three years ago.)

No serious adverse effects on the native fish in the James have been reported, Martel notes, but in other Southern rivers the catfish "have had a pretty negative impact."

The state limit on catfish is 20 per day. Martel recommends, however, that anyone fishing for dinner should take only smaller specimens, for reasons of health. Because catfish are long-lived predators, they tend to accumulate hazardous pollutants in their tissues, he says.

He enjoys catching catfish himself, though. "It's really amazing to see people down there swimming when you pull out a 25-, 30-pound fish," he says. "They kinda go, 'That thing's in there?'" — Melissa Scott Sinclair

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