Blue catfish now the top predator in James River

Tim Wilson was fishing for a couple of hours on the James River south of Richmond in late May before he finally got a solid hit. Wilson and his cousin could barely lift the fish-a 102-pound, 4-ounce blue catfish from the water. It is the largest freshwater fish ever caught in Virginia and the first one tipping the scales more than 100 pounds.

But Wilson's record-setting catch is part of a growing brouhaha over the growth and appetite of the blue catfish, a nonnative species introduced into the James River in the mid-1970s to beef up the river's sporting resume.

In a little more than 30 years, the blue cat has morphed from scavenging newcomer to top predator in the James. It's not just a select few monster fish, either. The blue catfish is so prolific and widespread that some estimates suggest that the species makes up as much as two-thirds of the fish population of the James by weight. In the 1990s, state scientists would catch samples of blue catfish, pulling in about 1,500 fish an hour. Similar samples now bring in as many as 6,000 fish, said Bob Greenlee, a biologist with the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

The blue catfish takes years to turn the corner from bottom-dwelling vacuum cleaner to top predator. The average 8-year-old blue catfish weighs only about 4 pounds, but that is when blue cats switch to feasting on other fish. By the time a blue catfish is 10 years old, it is gaining about 10 pounds a year.

Ernie Bowden, president of the Eastern Shore Watermen's Association and a voting member of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, sees blue catfish as an unchecked menace.

"They're eating full-size crabs; it's not just the juveniles. We're talking about 5-inch crabs," he said. "It takes a lot to feed a 102-pound fish....We'll never recover the herring, the shad or the blue crab with a predator like that out there. We're paying a lot of money for catfish food."

Curbing the growth of the blue catfish is difficult because fishermen are allowed to catch only one blue catfish measuring more than 32 inches a day. Further, there is almost no commercial market for larger fish because the Department of Health has a "do not eat" tag on any blue catfish more than 32 inches long because of the prevalence of toxic mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls, known as PCBs.

Greenlee said the anger is understandable. "Last year, these guys got hammered with restrictions, and they're frustrated. When you're a crabber and you pull up your pots and they're full of blue catfish, I understand the frustration.''

But Greenlee doesn't believe blue catfish are harming the resurgence of blue crabs and American shad. He said there is little overlap between the habitats of blue catfish and blue crabs, and added that "shad are depleted regionally in places where blue catfish don't live.''

Rob Latour, a marine biologist with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary, led a study on the diet of small blue catfish, and found menhaden, croaker, river herring and shad. "I'd say the lion's share of their diet was fish,'' he said, "but we don't have a lot of data on the 50-plus pounders.

"The blue catfish isn't built to eat a hard shell,'' Latour added. ``And there is limited overlap in habitat (with the blue crab).''

But Latour acknowledged that there are tough questions about what the blue catfish does to other species. "To what extent are we compromising our efforts?" he asked.

Bowden said he expects the General Assembly to seek legislation brought forward by watermen who want to rein in the blue catfish population.

The blue catfish falls under the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries because it is a freshwater, game fish.

Watermen are also asking the VMRC to step in and regulate the fish.

Jack Travelstead, chief of fisheries management for the VMRC, said the commission isn't trying to get regulatory authority over the blue catfish. Officials simply want better data on what blue catfish mean for other species.

Feds won't appeal ruling against King William reservoir

The Justice Department said it will not appeal a judge's ruling invalidating a permit for a reservoir in King William County.

The department announced its decision in a June e-mail to organizations that filed a lawsuit challenging the Corps of Engineers permit. The plaintiffs include the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Alliance to Save the Mattaponi, the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club and the Mattaponi Tribe.

U.S. District Judge Henry Kennedy ruled in March that the Corps acted "arbitrarily and capriciously" when it issued a permit for the King William Reservoir in 2005.

Opponents argued that the 13 billion gallon reservoir would damage the environment and endanger some the Mattaponi's cultural sites. Proponents said the reservoir was needed to meet the region's long-range water needs.

Miami manatee found poking about upper Bay

Ilya the wandering Miami manatee was spotted twice in July swimming up the Susquehanna River The manatee was first seen week near Havre de Grace, MD, then later near Perryville, MD, where the Susquehanna empties into the upper Chesapeake Bay.

The U.S. Geological Survey, which keeps a database of manatee photographs, said Ilya hadn't been seen outside the Miami area before arriving in Maryland.

Jen Dittmar, stranding coordinator at the National Aquarium's Marine Animal Rescue Program, said the manatee was identified as Ilya based on photographs.

Manatees are seen almost every year in the Bay, and Ilya doesn't appear to be in any danger, although he could die if he doesn't don't return to warmer waters in the fall.

Climate change forecast: warmer, wetter PA

Warmer temperatures and more rain are forecast for Pennsylvania over the next century in a climate change study from Penn State University.

Scientists at the school's Environment and Natural Resources Institute estimate that temperatures in the commonwealth could rise an average of 3 to 7 degrees by century's end. More precipitation is likely, especially in winter, although it's expected to be more rain and less snow.

The severity of changes will depend on greenhouse gas emission levels, said the recently released report for the state Department of Environmental Protection. The study was mandated by state law in 2008.

Global climate changes slowly, so reductions in emissions won't have an immediate impact, said James Shortle, director of the institute and professor of agricultural and environmental economics. "But changes now will have a large impact on the climate we experience in the second half of this century, and those decisions need to be made today,'' he said.

The report said that forests also could change, with conditions potentially becoming less suitable for northern hardwoods.

VA proposes tougher rules for stormwater runoff

Virginia is proposing stricter rules governing stormwater runoff, which occurs when fertilizer, oil, animal waste and other contaminants flow into public waterways.

Runoff from development sites, including lots and construction zones, is the fastest-growing source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, according to the EPA.

The proposed regulations would dictate how new homes, businesses and roads are built, where new development occurs and how redevelopment happens in cities and towns. Each locality would have to manage a runoff permitting program or allow the state to do so.

New regulations would take effect in July 2010 at the earliest.

WV board backs new limits on sewer waste loads

In a significant victory in the fight to reduce pollution in the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay, the West Virginia Environmental Quality Board in August sided with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Department of Environmental Protection and is requiring the city of Martinsburg, the Berkeley County Public Service Sewer District, the city of Charles Town, and the Warm Springs Public Service District to reduce pollution as required in their permits.

The jurisdictions had objected to new requirements put in place to improve water quality in local streams, the Potomac and the Chesapeake Bay.

"This ruling reaffirms the principal that pollution reductions required under the Clean Water Act must be followed," said CBF President William Baker.

The Bay states, the District of Columbia, and the EPA developed tributary strategies, which determine how much pollution must be reduced from sewage treatment plants across the watershed.

"If the Board had ruled in favor of the utilities, it would have opened the door to increased pollution not only from these plants, but others in West Virginia as well," said CBF staff attorney Amy McDonnell.

The CBF's battle was joined by the Jefferson County Public Service District, the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, and the Stewards of the Potomac Highlands.