Dedicated to the Conservation of Southeastern Fishes
Voracious Catfish Will Be Stunned And Then Removed From Satilla River
May 13, 2007
The survival rate of flathead catfish, especially in the Satilla River, is heading down.
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources has launched an all-out war - one that is more shock than awe - on the non-native invasive species.
A first ever full-time crew of three DNR biologists is on the river almost daily, sending an electrical charge into the water that temporarily stuns the voracious spined fish. Then they snatch them up in nets and remove them permanently from one of Georgia's most pristine rivers.
That may seem harsh to animal lovers, but left alone, flatheads devastate native species such as the redbreast, a favorite of fishermen for generations. Flatheads aren't picky, though. They'll eat just about anything that swims in front of them - including other flatheads - and therefore are not welcome.
"They have pressed immense destruction on the native sunfish population, particularly redbreasts, native catfish populations and other native fish," Satilla Riverkeeper Gordon Rogers said.
Rogers rues the day about 10 years ago when a sport fisherman dumped a few into the Satilla and they took hold. For years, they've been caught in the Altamaha River where many fishermen favor them for their large size.
It's quite a thrill to pull up a limb line in the middle of the night to find a bewhiskered 50-pound catfish, a size that is becoming more routine each year.
Rogers gives credit for the current surge to state Sen. Greg Goggans, R-Douglas. The Satilla rises near Douglas and then flows through or touches Ware, Pierce, Brantley and Camden counties.
Goggans saw to it that the fledgling flathead project was funded during the 2006 legislative session.
During the many disputes over the state budget, Goggans plucked the flathead eradication program from "the scrap heap," Rogers said.
"The budget item remains for this year and we expect it to be there in coming years," he said.
The state is funding the project to the tune of $200,000 a year. During the latter days of 2006, studies were conducted and a plan of action developed. After that, some fish were captured and tagged to determine the size and range of the population, and now the shocking project has begun.
Bert Deener, regional supervisor of the DNR's Fisheries Office in Waycross, said that before this new initiative, the flathead eradication project was catch-as-catch-can. No personnel were dedicated to the task full time. Those efforts to reduce the flathead population could not keep up with the rapid rate of reproduction. As the flathead population rose year by year, the redbreast stock dwindled, particularly in the lower reaches of the river.
"We were using existing resources to remove the fish and we did the best we could," Deener said. "But the fish continued to expand."
Deener said his three-man crew will be on the river three or four days a week from April until October. The electro-fishing device doesn't work well in cold water. Meanwhile, a permanent solution to the flathead problem may come in the laboratory. Biologists are looking for a genetic flaw that can be bred into the stock to cause sterility or some other method of reducing or eliminating the species from the Satilla. An Auburn University professor has expressed interest in conducting research into ways to breed the species out of existence on the Satilla.
In some cases, a natural predator or parasite has been introduced to control populations of invasive species, and that also is a possibility, Deener said.
Since beginning just over a week ago, Deener's crew already has removed 700 pounds of flathead catfish from the river.
Flathead haters from all over the eastern seaboard will be watching the Satilla project closely, he said, since a solution that works here may also work on other rivers plagued by the fish.
According to Rogers, it'll take some time to diminish the flathead population.
"It's going to take between 10 and 20 years, but we're going to get them under control," he said. "We may not wipe them out, but they'll be at a low level."
Rogers warned it's going to take a long time and cost a lot.
"This is the price you pay for somebody's misdeeds," he said. "But the resource we're preserving is worth it."