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Blue catfish given a reprieve in Maryland

The on-again, off-again status of blue catfish--the massive fish with an even bigger appetite--is on again for Maryland anglers, at least for next season.

"In 2011, the blue catfish will stay as a game fish," says Tom O'Connell, director of the state Fisheries Service."We will be working with our partners beginning this fall to develop a comprehensive plan for the Chesapeake Bay. The policy will be implemented in 2012."

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The issue will be discussed Oct. 18 at a joint meeting in Annapolis of the Sport Fish and Tidal Fish advisory commissions.

A year ago, Fisheries Service officials bowed to a request from the Department of Natural Resources invasive species team to remove the fish, a Mississippi River native, from the list of acceptable species for the 2010 Maryland Fishing Challenge and the list of state records.

A New York angler was rebuffed this summer when he tried to submit documentation of a catch that exceeded the state record. But officials had forgotten to remove blue catfish from the Challenge website, and at least a dozen anglers submitted contest entries based on having caught a blue cat that exceeded 40 inches.

So officials reversed course and allowed the contest entries to stand, but said the next version of the Maryland Fishing Challenge, which began the day after Labor Day, would exclude blue catfish on the species list.

But Fisheries has reversed course again.

"There are recreational and commercial constituencies that rely on the species," O'Connell says. "To say we're banning them before we've worked with Virginia, D.C., the Potomac River Fish Commission and federal agencies would be to say we've made a decision."

O'Connell says the blue catfish population in the region has "grown significantly" over the past five years and he has heard reports that commercial fishermen are selling live fish to recreational anglers who are illegally stocking the region's waterways.

Jonathan McKnight, head of Maryland DNR's invasive species team, says the fish--the biggest North American catfish--will consume anything in sight, including freshwater mussels, which act as filters for the river and bay.

Getting Virginia to clamp down on blue catfish might be difficult since state officials introduced it to the James River in the mid-1970s to attract anglers.

The fish has reproduced so rapidly that biologists estimate blue cats make up 75 percent of the fish by weight in segments of the James.

Blue cats have spread up and down the Potomac River and attracted tournament anglers and fans of the fish who practice catch-and-release to allow the blue cats to get even bigger.

O'Connell dismisses any notion that Maryland can rid its waters of blue cats by asking anglers to target them and kill them.

"You can fish it down, but you can't deplete it," he says.

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