Apex Predator River Monster

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Apex predator river monster that’s strangled US waterways is spreading

  • The flathead catfish can grow to 120lbs and is now in Canada after going north
  • Scientists blame climate change for its spread and fear it is devastating rivers

A river monster that can reach 120lbs and eat anything nearby is tightening its chokehold on America’s waterways and has now crossed the Canadian border.

Flathead catfish have gained thousands of fans in the shape of ‘noodlers‘ who try to wrestle the giant creatures out of a river with their bare hands.

But conservationists are sounding the alarm about their unstoppable march across the country from their original habitat in the Gulf of Mexico basin.

 

‘They are going to be one of the apex predators around every system once they establish those populations,’ said biologist Joel Fleming. ‘If they can fit it in their mouth, they’re going to eat it.’

The freshwater fish, which lays around 10,000 eggs at a time, was once confined to the rivers of the south, but has spread across the country due to a mix of deliberate stocking of previously unaffected rivers and its own attempts to escape from overpopulated areas.

They were detected in California in 1962, Virginia in 1965 and the Potomac in DC in 2003.

They get heavier the longer they are established with a 66lb example breaking the state record in Pennsylvania in June last year.

Scientists believe that global warning has contributed to their spread which has now reached the Thames River in southern Ontario.

First detected there ten years ago, scientists fear they have now established themselves as an endemic population in a river that is home to 25 already at-risk fish and mussel species.

‘Any one fish is going to be eating kilograms and kilograms of fish every day,’ said biology professor Nicholas Mandrak of the University of Toronto who is an expert in invasive fish species.

‘I think that very likely climate change is part of it,’ he told CBC. ‘As our waters warm, they become a more appropriate temperature for these southern catfishes to survive in Canada.

‘They get very large and they eat a lot of fishes, so they’re likely to have a substantial negative impact if we do not do anything to control their populations.’

But scientists in the US fear their Canadian colleagues may face a rude awakening when they discover there is little that can be done to control their exploding population.

Conservationists in Georgia caught and removed 64,000 in nine years after they established themselves in the state’s Satilla River, but admit they are fighting a losing battle.

‘They have extraordinary vision and a very large mouth gape that allows them to swallow forage items almost as large as they are,’ the wired2fish website notes.

‘This trait has tempted many fisheries managers to utilize flathead catfish as a control method for undesirable fish species.

‘Their overall aggressive demeanor and uncontrollable forage consumption usually leaves those experiments unsuccessful.’

The Satilla is part of a network that drains into the Atlantic rather than Gulf and their arrival has helped cement their stranglehold across the East Coast.

One was caught for the first time in the nearby Ogeechee River in 2021, and dozens more have been seen since then, with scientists fearing they ‘wandered in’ on floods from the Savannah River which they reached in 2010.

‘The native catfish we have are mostly scavengers or they eat muscles and crayfish and that sort of thing,’ Ogeechee Riverkeeper Damon Mullis told the Augusta Chronicle.

‘But the flatheads are top carnivores. They eat other fish.

‘Once a flathead gets up to a few pounds, it becomes pretty strictly a predator.

‘They will be one of the top predators in our river. That is the concern. They get so big and dominant, and a big fish needs lots of food.’

‘Originally they were brought over here to these river systems in some form or fashion,’ Fleming told The Telegraph of Macon.

‘They must have come over with the illegal stockings here and there and that’s how they got over on the east coast side.

‘We’re never going to get them all. Anything we do is simply a suppression effort at this point.’

The species was deliberately introduced to Idaho’s Snake River in 1943, and has spread from there through Oregon and Washington.

More were placed in the Colorado River basin in the 1940s near Phoenix, reaching California by the early 1960s.

Official or illegal stockings have taken place in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, and the monster fish have now found a home in 34 states across the country.

They have proven a prize catch for anglers with a record-breaking 121lb specimen being pulled from the Elk City Reservoir in Kansas in 1998.

The beast was 5ft long, had a 42-inch girth and had to be weighed at a local grain elevator to establish its weight.

But the male catfish’s habit of closely guarding the nests where eggs are laid means the animals are easy to find and has tempted thousands of amateurs to pit their wits against them.

More than a dozen states stage ‘noodling’ competitions in which contestants try to drag the fish to the surface using just their bare hands.

Thousands are expected to take part in the Okie Noodling Tournament in Pauls Valley next month, a contest that spawned a documentary film in 2001.

Participants dangle their hands in front of the fish in the hope that they will latch on with their sandpaper-like mouths.

‘Once a noodler settles on a spot, they will usually block all of the potential exits in order to stop the fish from escaping,’ fishmasters.com notes.

‘Usually, one person will tackle the fish, and others will help to block its path and ensure that no issues occur.’

One couple from from Mannford, near Tulsa, went viral in 2017 after bringing their friends to a gender reveal party on an Oklahoma creek where husband Colt Moore attached a pink tag to a Flathead before hauling it up to his guests.

But Oklahoma medicolegal death investigator Timothy Dwyer calculated that around six people a year die in the US trying to catch the giant fish with their hands.

‘A large flathead could easily overwhelm an unsuspecting angler who was not prepared for the struggle back to the surface with a weighty opponent who has no problem breathing under water,’ he wrote in a 2020 paper for the University of Central Oklahoma.

‘In addition to the ferocious fight they are known for, the pectoral fin is accompanied by a stout spine on the lateral aspect of each fin.

‘While physically wrestling a large flathead, the noodler needs to take care not to be ‘spined’, especially through the chest wall and into a hollow organ such as a lung.’

Some states have outlawed the pastime but some videos have attracted more than one million views on YouTube with many offering tutorials on how to snare the animals.

National Geographic Channel ran two seasons of a show called Mud Cats in which men competed to catch the biggest flathead.

But many serious anglers recognize the threat the flathead catfish pose to the rest of the river system and scorn those who seek them out.

‘Noodlers are like carp or drum,’ one told researcher Ruth Tobias. They’re the bottom-feeders, they’re trash, they’re the scum-suckers.

‘They’re the lowest on the totem pole as far as the bass fishermen, your tournament trout fishermen are concerned.’

The fish can survive for several hours out of water and a three-foot specimen was found earlier this month flapping about on a road in Houston’s League City after having apparently been dropped accidentally from an angler’s truck.

Despite their unappetizing appearance the catfish are said to be among the tastier of river fish, and at Maryland’s Conowingo Dam in Chesapeake Bay operators have launched a trap and transport scheme to remove them from the Susquehanna and donate them to local foodbanks.

Down in Georgia scientists are using electrical stun devices to tackle the fish and are begging anglers not to keep those they catch.

‘Over the next 10 years we will see quite a few impacts,’ said Mullis.

‘They’re going to impact our native catfish, and even though bullheads are not premiere game fish, they occupy a different niche in that ecosystem and they’re certainly important.’

And scientists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center have been tallying their devastating effect on dozens of native fish in rivers from Washington to Florida.

Shad, herring and perch have been decimated in some areas with 28 separate species found in flathead bellies in Virginia’s James River alone.

But they have also been known to feast on birds, crabs and turtles.

‘Flathead Catfish attract some fishers for its spectacular size and sporting qualities,’ the Smithsonian wrote.

‘But they are dreaded by conservationists and fisheries biologists for their effects on native species, and for its demonstrated ability to colonize river systems from introductions of a few individuals.’

Scientists in Ontario are now considering how to deal with the southern invasion, but Tim Barrett of the Department of Natural Resources fears they may be wasting their time.

‘It’s just physically impossible to take them all out,’ he said.

OKLAHOMA ART OF NOODLING

The art of noodling is ingrained in Oklahoma’s culture and involves wrestling a fish to the surface.

Most noodling takes place in shallow water. If the water is over your head, it can be difficult or even impossible to wrestle a fish to the surface. Noodlers search for likely catfish hideouts — inside submerged logs, fallen trees, under rocks or in mud banks. Catfish make their nests where they feel safe. During spawning season, which occurs in spring and summer when the water temperature rises to about 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius), you’re likely to find catfish in their nests because they seldom abandon their eggs.

Once you locate a promising spot, you’ll want to barricade any possible escape routes, using rocks, sandbags or your noodling buddies. Next, test the hole by poking it with a stick. Experienced noodlers can feel the difference between a catfish, a snake or a turtle. If your stick says it’s a catfish, go ahead and jam your hand in the hole. Sometimes you can do this without putting your head underwater. But sometimes you’ll have to take a deep breath and submerge yourself. You’ll need your noodling buddies to act as spotters, in case trouble strikes.

 


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