Non-native catfish concerns New Jersey officials


Mar 11, 2001
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Holy mackerel: It's a monster catfish

August 26, 2004

By KEVIN SHEA, The Times (Gloucester, NJ)

The flathead catfish is a voracious, predatory, sizable and long-whiskered beast known to scarf down anything with scales and give anglers a bullish fight.

Or, as one fishing Web site describes: "a brute of a fish, muscular and streamlined, but ugly by all accepted standards."

And it's here.

The state Department of Environmental Protection yesterday announced that a Hillsborough teenager snared the first-ever documented flathead last month in the Delaware & Raritan Canal in Lambertville.

The announcement was not celebratory, but a warning and a plea for assistance from fishermen.

Although flatheads, in the Midwest and South where they are common, can be a dream catch and a culinary coup because of their size - they range from 10 to 50 pounds with lengths up to 4 feet - New Jersey officials fear the flathead's appetite.

If they are reproducing, which flatheads do well, the DEP says, they could devour state fish populations.

"The threat of the flathead is significant, given its ravenous appetite and its potential for causing damage to native New Jersey fish populations," DEP Commissioner Bradley M. Campbell said in a statement. "Anglers should report any catches or sightings of this fish to the (DEP)."

The fish that a 19-year-old hooked July 23 with a live nightcrawler on his hook was a junior monster, only nine inches long, a DEP spokeswoman said. But it's very presence is frightening.

The flathead, once the species flourishes, has decimated native populations of other catfish, certain species of sunfish and rare species of sturgeon in the southeastern United States.

Particularly bad for the Lambertville area is that the flathead will eat shad, the DEP said. Documented reports indicate they eat substantial numbers of American shad during their spawning run.

Lambertville celebrates the Delaware River's shad population with the Shad Festival every spring.

The introduction of the flathead catfish has been called the "most biologically harmful of all fish introductions in North America," the DEP said. And in the south, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has listed the flathead as its highest priority among invasive animal species.

The DEP asks that if anyone catches a suspected flathead to keep it, despite the size, and to notify the department.

The flatheads worry fish experts and ecologists whenever they are detected in areas where they are not indigenous, like New Jersey. Pennsylvania and New Jersey officials have been on the lookout for the flathead for about two years since Pennsylvania biologists documented one in the Schuylkill River, a Delaware River tributary, and one in the Delaware itself in 2002.

Flathead catfish are native to a large slice of the country from Minnesota waterways, the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio River basins to the deep south. They can grow to large size in warmer climates, with many state fishing records for flatheads upwards of 100 pounds.

News reports from all over Pennsylvania suggest the flathead is migrating east somehow. The flathead is common in western Pennsylvania because the Ohio, Monongahela and Allegheny rivers meet in Pittsburgh. (A Pittsburgh newspaper's account last month of the flatheads continued popularity, and of 40 pounders being landed recently, called them "Monongahela Monsters.")

But officially, none have ever surfaced in New Jersey water.

DEP spokeswoman Karen Hershey said the Hillsborough teen, who the DEP did not identify, knows about catfish and noticed "there was a difference with this catfish." The teen notified authorities, Hershey said.

The DEP, she said, confirmed the fish was a flathead and issued the alert, but it's such a new topic that the agency did not even have a file picture of one to distribute with their announcement.

But Ray Goeke, manager of the fishing department at the Sportsmen's Center in Bordentown Township, said he knows of two smallish flatheads that have been caught in the Delaware River recently. "They were released though," he said.

Goeke said he firmly supports the DEP sounding the alarm on the flatheads and requests that they be kept out of the state's waters. "You don't know what it's going to do to the environment," he said.

If a human "introduced" it to New Jersey waters, it's reckless, he said.

He said he knows of the flatheads' devastating tear through other fish populations.

They might be sought-after by sportsmen, Goeke says, but in New Jersey, they are likely only to do harm. He said he hopes the catches of flatheads are isolated, because if they start to reproduce, "That's a problem."

Goeke said the only fish stories he has of the flathead come from the south, where he knows they are quite a catch. The difference between the flathead and other catfish is the predatory aspect. Most catfish are scavengers, not seekers, he said.

The body of the flathead catfish is yellowish brown to dark brown with black or brown mottling on lighter brown sides, the DEP said. It has a broadly flattened head and a tail that is only slightly indented, appearing more rounded or square.

The key characteristic that can help anglers distinguish the flathead from other catfish is that the lower jaw projects past the upper jaw.

Anglers who catch what they think is a flathead catfish are asked NOT to release it back into the water and to notify the N.J. Division of Fish and Wildlife's Bureau of Freshwater Fisheries, (908) 236-2118.

The bureau's address is 1255 County Route 629, Lebanon, N.J. 08833. A photograph of the fish is requested for identification.

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