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Monster Catfish Found: NG’s Zeb Hogan Explains

This blog post is part of a special National Geographic News series on global water issues.

The recent capture of what could be North America’s largest recorded blue catfish–in Virgina in late June–has us thinking about this oversized species and its relatives.

The Virginia blue caught last month weighed in at 143 pounds and measured 57 inches. (The previous record was a 130-pound catfish caught in Missouri last year.)

Blue Catfish

A drawing of a blue catfish (Ictalurus furcatus), courtesy of Duane Raver/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

 

(See more pictures of some of the planet’s biggest fish.)

We asked fish expert and National Geographic Fellow Zeb Hogan—also an assistant research professor at the University of Nevada—to put this giant discovery into perspective:

Can you tell us more about this species — its range, habitat requirements, status, and any threats it may face?

Blue catfish is native to 20 states, primarily within the Mississippi River Basin but also in rivers along the Gulf Coast.  It has been introduced in another nine states, including Virginia. It is a big river species; it grows quickly, and it’s popular among anglers for aggressive behavior and good quality meat.  It is the largest catfish in North America and the third largest obligate freshwater fish in North America, behind the lake sturgeon and paddlefish.

“Mark Twain mentions large catfish in his books—those fish were likely blues.”

Blue catfish are the focus of many urban legends, mostly stories of huge catfish below dams. While stories of catfish the size of cars are most likely exaggerations, there are confirmed reports of blue catfish weighing over 200 pounds from the 1800s, and the largest unconfirmed catch, landed in 1866 in Portland, Missouri, weighed in at a whopping 315 pounds.  If these reports are true, it gives some perspective on the recent catches and a glimpse into the true potential of the blue catfish if left to grow undisturbed in a healthy environment.  Many states, including Virginia, consider blue catfish as an important sportfish and people travel long distances for a chance to catch a trophy fish.  Blue catfish populations are considered relatively healthy at the center of its range.  On the periphery of its range, populations have declined, primarily due to habitat modification, dam construction, river flow modification, wetland drainage, and pollution.

Do people eat blue catfish?

People definitely eat blues, and have been eating them for a long time.  Mark Twain mentions large catfish in his books—those fish were likely blues.  Blue catfish were also relatively common in the St. Louis fish market in the 1800s.  They have a reputation for firm, tasty meat and lots of it.  In some areas catfish harvest is now restricted—either to a set limit per day, a certain size of fish, or in rare cases catch-and-release only.  Usually, these rules are in place where fisheries officials hope to develop a trophy fishery (i.e. a recreational fishery for very large fish).

Catfish as a group are an extremely important food fish—in the U.S. alone we consume hundreds of millions of pounds of catfish each year.  In Asia, where catfish is an even more important resource, almost one and a half million tons of fish are produced annually.  Catfish are also an important food fish in Africa and South America, where they make up most of the catch in many areas.

“Incredibly, there are also stories of places where catfish have attacked and even eaten people.”

Incredibly, there are also stories of places where catfish have attacked and even eaten people.  Large catfish in North America and Europe have reportedly bitten humans, and one species of very large catfish in Northern India is rumored to stalk and occasionally kill local villagers.  These stories are often sensationalized and exaggerated however and there is very little hard evidence of catfish behaving aggressively toward people.  To learn more about these stories, and the truth behind them, watch the story of India’s giant catfish on National Geographic Channel.

When were blues introduced to Virginia?

Blue catfish were introduced into Virginia in 1974.  Since they can live over 20 years and are capable of growing very quickly, the extremely large fish coming out of Virginia now may have been among the first fish to be introduced there over 30 years ago.  It would be interesting to know the age of 143 lb record breaker and since the fish did not survive, I suspect someone is gathering that information now (the easiest way to age a fish is with its ear bone, sacrifice of the fish is required). 

How does the blue compare to other catfish? What makes it special or especially interesting?

The blue catfish is North America’s largest catfish species and it is one of the largest freshwater fish in the U.S.  If we look outside the U.S., however, there are several larger species of catfish.  In fact, globally, catfish are some of the largest and most widespread of any species.  There are several that reportedly grow up to 600 pounds and almost 10 feet long.  The Mekong giant catfish is the current record holder based on the catch of a 646-pound specimen in 2005.

(Watch a video on the Mekong catfish and learn more about this massive species.)

The recent catch of several record-breaking fish is interesting because it implies that blue catfish may be living longer—and growing larger—than at any time in the last few decades.  This may be partially due to management of blue catfish fisheries for trophy-size fish, but it is probably also because blue catfish have been introduced into areas outside their natural range where there is an abundance of food.  Introduced species can often undergo a population boom just after introduction.  The same phenomenon occurred when wels catfish was introduced into the Ebro River in Spain.

(See the trailer for the National Geographic Channel’s Monster Fish episode on the wels catfish, starring Zeb.)

Is fishing for these giant catfish legal?

Recreational fishing for blue catfish is legal in most states—and in fact, blue catfish were introduced outside of their native range to increase angling opportunities for sportfishing.  The release of non-native fish is controversial, because big predators like blue catfish almost certainly alter food webs and species diversity in areas where they are introduced.  Commercial fishing for blue catfish—and other large species of North American catfish—has been scaled back in recent years due to the perception that large-bodied catfish cannot support intensive harvest.  In other parts of the world, catfish support huge fisheries—both wild capture fisheries and aquaculture.  Catfish are some of the most popularly cultured fish in the world with millions of tons of fish produced each year.  Catfish fishing is only illegal in a small number of places where it has been determined that fishing is unsustainable.

“While a lot of people think of catfish as ugly, they are actually one of the most diverse and important groups of fish on the planet.”

Why should we care about catfish?

While a lot of people think of catfish as ugly, they are actually one of the most diverse and important groups of fish on the planet.  And not all catfish are created equal: we tend to think of catfish as slimy bottomfeeders, but that is only true for a small percentage of species.  Catfish come in a variety of sizes (some grow to almost 10 feet in length, while others are among the smallest fish on Earth) and they display an impressive array of behaviors and life histories (some make the longest migrations of any freshwater fish, while other live their entire lives in small ponds and creeks).

Throughout their range, catfish are an important component of commercial, subsistence, and recreational fisheries.  They can also have an important role in the ecosystem as top predators or as indicators of overfishing.   Multiple and combined threats from habitat degradation, dams, water withdrawals, pollution, and overexploitation have led to the decline of many catfish populations.

(Read more about dams and megafish on the NatGeo NewsWatch blog: “Dog-eating catfish, other river giants threatened by Mekong dam plan.”)

Despite these challenges, self-sustaining populations of large-bodied catfish still exist.  Globally, efforts to protect the ecological integrity of rivers where large-bodied catfish occur will benefit thousands of species of freshwater fish and millions of people who rely on fish for their livelihoods and food security.  Plus, they’re cute!

For more on Monster Fish, visit the National Geographic Channel website.

And read more about the monster blue in the Washington Post.

Comments

  1. [...] Blue catfish in North America: here. [...]

  2. Hironmoy Malakar
    Assam University, Silchar, Assam
    December 9, 2011, 4:00 am

    These pictures are too charming……..

  3. [...] fish are the alligator gar, the paddlefish and the lake sturgeon. There have also been reports of very large catfish in the U.S., but nothing over 200 pounds has been reported since the [...]

  4. mala
    trinidad and tobago
    August 20, 2011, 11:54 am

    hi,you all are doing such great work,keep it up,here in trinidad,we have wonderful freshwater sites,probably some day you will visit us and do a story……i love national geographic…”thats a gfeat big fish”…

  5. Ken Marks
    Atlanta,GA,US
    August 12, 2011, 4:33 pm

    I would like information on jobs available working with Zeb Hogan on his expeditions!

  6. Bruce Tincher
    St. Albans,WV.
    August 10, 2011, 7:27 am

    Not so fast on Blue catfish being introduced to Virginia in 1974. Blue catfish were native to the New/Kanawha River system in the Virginia’s until industrial pollution put an end to most of their habitat in the 1930′s.

    My grandfather saw a blue catfish taken from the junction of Coal and Kanawha Rivers at a fish market in St. Albans,WV. in the 1910′s that he described as “longer than I was tall”. Grandpa was 6 ft. 3 inches tall. The fish dressed out at 76 pounds.

    Blue catfish stocks in the Kanawha/New River basin were going fast even then,as it was the preferred food fish of the local population,and a large local fishery to support the demand.

    With siltation from mining and the timber industry,raw sewage from growing cities and towns along the Kanawha/New and industrial pollution from the nascent chemical industries in the lower Kanawha Valley,(beginning in the early 1920′s),the blue cat either died out or became very rare in the Kanawha/New system after 1930. (I opt for the latter due to personal and second hand experiences.)

    Recently,blue cats are starting to show up in the lower reaches of the Kanawha/New system,especially below the Winfield Locks and Dam. This doesn’t surprise me as I’ve caught occasional blues in the tailraces of that dam on and off since roughly 1980.

  7. Blaire
    Chicago, IL
    July 22, 2011, 1:13 pm

    While catfish are amazing creatures, NG, I believe you are in the minority by calling them “cute.”

  8. jeanspeng
    guangxi china
    July 18, 2011, 11:45 pm

    I never see so big catfish in our country~

  9. wajahat khan
    pakistan, karachi
    July 16, 2011, 3:11 pm

    its so much amazing!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  10. Gaudens
    Timika, Indonesia
    July 15, 2011, 9:11 am

    Wow!
    I have never seen fish like that, but in my town have bigger fish more than that fish, seem like human.
    If you don’t believe you can come in my town and see it.
    This is just information.

  11. val
    Romania
    July 13, 2011, 11:31 pm

    Here is what we catch in Danube Delta. That’s the European cousin of the catfish

  12. ramses
    cartago, costa rica
    July 12, 2011, 5:25 pm

    guau your photos are amazing congratulations

  13. [...] The recent capture of what could be North America’s largest recorded blue catfish – in Virginia in late June – has us thinking about this oversized species and its [...]

  14. Anonymole
    Roswell, NM
    July 12, 2011, 12:18 pm

    Non-native species introduction is a national pastime. Humans can’t help themselves it seems. Atlantic striped bass were introduced in 1869 in the California river systems; shipped across the newly created transcontinental railroad in barrels. The Atlantic shad was also introduced on the west coast, in the Columbia river system in 1879. Both have since expanded way beyond their introduction boundaries. California rainbow trout in New Zealand, rabbits in Australia, Asian carp in the Mississippi drainage, and on and on. Face it, humans will make a muddled mess of species segregation regardless of laws and policy.

  15. rehdamenta
    medan,Indonesia
    July 11, 2011, 10:55 pm

    amazing,4 the first time i see

  16. pat
    Missouri
    July 11, 2011, 9:28 pm

    Ask anyone that has worked on a bridge building crew, how big the cats are down in the bottom? 3 and 4 foot long cats are common here in the mississippi river

  17. Ken Jae
    Virginia
    July 11, 2011, 12:19 pm

    The 143 pound record breaker blue was caught in Kerr Lake, in Clarksville, Virginia. We know there are plenty more out there. Kerr Lake was created in the ’50s when the dam was built and the lake crosses between the borders of Virginia and North Carolina. There’s a story about a private plane that went down in the lake and a Navy diver, who went down for the rescue, scurried back up swearing he wasn’t going down again because he’d seen a fish “…the size of a full grown man…” down there.

  18. Eko Budi Santoso
    Jambi, Indonesia
    July 11, 2011, 12:28 am

    we call it ikan lele (lele fish). but that’s the biggest lele fish I ever seen..

  19. Tom Kwak
    Raleigh, NC
    July 10, 2011, 11:01 pm

    As a fellow professor of fisheries, I’d like to compliment Dr. Hogan on the accuracy of his explanation. I’d also like to add two additional interesting points about this new world-record catfish. First, blue catfish are somewhat different from the other three big North American catfish in that they rely quite heavily on molluscs in their diet (whereas channel catfish and flathead catfish don’t). That’s great in that they eat Corbicula (the invasive Asian clam), but bad in that they may eat imperiled native freshwater mussels, that are among the most endangered animals in the world. Secondly, while anglers are enthusiastic about a new world angling record, biologists and fishery managers are critically concerned about the impact of these introduced large catfish on native fauna and the ecosystem. The blue catfish is not native to the Roanoke River system in VA and NC. They were introduced by humans and did not evolve in this system to stay balanced with the rest of nature there. In general, it takes 10 lb of food to grow 1 lb of fish. That means that this record fish has probably consumed 3/4 of a ton of food(!) — with much of that native fish and mussels. Some of that food is native sport fish that other anglers pursue (other catfish, bass, and sunfish). Thus, promoting nonnative fisheries is detrimental to native fisheries that many other anglers enjoy and consider their natural heritage. This puts state and federal fisheries management agencies in a dilemma — should they manage these introduced fish as trophy fisheries with protective regulations (to make some anglers happy) or manage them as invasive species to control their numbers and impact (to protect native fauna and fisheries)? I have a personal opinion, but no right answer there. But what I know for sure is that once a fish like this is introduced outside its natural range, it’s impossible to take it back. Therefore, the best approach is to leave these excellent sport fish in their natural habitats and fish for them there, and never move a fish to a new water body — ever!

  20. sreekanth
    india
    July 10, 2011, 10:43 pm

    My dad and I use to catch fish that big and Bigger in Tennessee. and there is a good way to catch these record fish. That is to use 3 to 5 pound bait. Live fish or Chicken parts stuffed into panty hose or liver and also turtle parts. We have caught them so big we could never get them into the boat and sometimes their head is as wide as a pick up truck hood. BIG BAIT–BIG HOOK- BIG FISH– Many people don’t know how to fish for the big ones or they never use a big hook and big bait. The very best time to catch them is on a stormy night during heavy rain and thunder and your trot line or throw line is about 3 feet down below the surface. Biggest we ever got out of the water was 110 pound the others were too big to get out of the water but I sure saw many of them. Lucy Hatchie River and Missippi River. There are Bufolo carp that are Giants also.

  21. Zeb Hogan
    July 10, 2011, 7:56 pm

    Here’s another good news article with more information about blue catfish: http://www.bayjournal.com/article.cfm?article=4148

  22. Zeb Hogan
    July 10, 2011, 7:48 pm

    Hey everyone, thanks for your comments. Keep them coming, especially any facts or stories you have about big catfish!! If we can keep out rivers healthy I wonder if we’ll eventually get up to the 300lb mark in the U.S.!? Now that would be a monster!

  23. bebirojoey
    valenzuela
    July 10, 2011, 7:15 am

    amazing..

  24. Adrian
    Jamaica
    July 9, 2011, 10:36 pm

    This is beautiful. Thanks guys,we have big fishes in jamaica,but not like these.

  25. anon
    July 9, 2011, 10:30 pm

    I’ve always heard stories of giant catfish in Claytor Lake, I guess this is somewhat proof.

  26. Marilyn Dougherty
    california
    July 9, 2011, 4:50 pm

    Where’s Jeremy Wade when you want him? LOL
    http://animal.discovery.com/tv/river-monsters/

  27. Joseph
    Santo Domingo
    July 9, 2011, 2:14 pm

    Yes in Indian you can get a monster of river as this picture. “This fishes are monster of river”

  28. Rvgad
    New Mexico
    July 9, 2011, 10:58 am

    A wonderful find. Now somebody should consider hunting the real monsters in No. California’s Shasta Lake that were seen by dam inspection divers up close and measuring 4-5 times larger than this caught fish. Catfish were stocked in the early dam lake in 1939, and later Stergeon added in the 1940′s that have been found in there in 1990 at nearly 900 lbs.

  29. Granville Lovell
    Jackson Tennessee
    July 9, 2011, 9:58 am

    My dad and I use to catch fish that big and Bigger in Tennessee. and there is a good way to catch these record fish. That is to use 3 to 5 pound bait. Live fish or Chicken parts stuffed into panty hose or liver and also turtle parts. We have caught them so big we could never get them into the boat and sometimes their head is as wide as a pick up truck hood. BIG BAIT–BIG HOOK- BIG FISH– Many people don’t know how to fish for the big ones or they never use a big hook and big bait. The very best time to catch them is on a stormy night during heavy rain and thunder and your trot line or throw line is about 3 feet down below the surface. Biggest we ever got out of the water was 110 pound the others were too big to get out of the water but I sure saw many of them. Lucy Hatchie River and Missippi River. There are Bufolo carp that are Giants also.

  30. dhenok
    surabaya
    July 9, 2011, 9:31 am

    amazing…in Indonesia catfish is only about 10inch

  31. ric
    http://www.xpellshop.com
    July 9, 2011, 9:07 am

    the transformation of species into dinosaurs begins now

  32. Ryan Jesslie
    Philippines
    July 9, 2011, 7:58 am

    It’s huge!

  33. jeeva
    malaysia
    July 9, 2011, 7:31 am

    Really big.

  34. Olga
    Togliatti, Russia
    July 9, 2011, 7:15 am

    this is my husband’s dream to catch this fish in Volga river

  35. Jc Numan
    Palangkaraya,Indonesia
    July 9, 2011, 6:12 am

    Giant Catfish.,i want to know,how could you be like that.???

  36. Artem Polishchuk
    Kiev, Ukraine
    July 9, 2011, 5:39 am

    Several years ago I’ve seen at Dniper river one catfish which at least twice bigger that this one.

  37. Zombieduck
    USA kitchen
    July 8, 2011, 5:25 pm

    “Fish Heads..Fish Heads..rollie pollie Fish heads..Fish Heads..Fish Heads..eat them up YUM” (Dr. Demento song )

  38. Hadjer
    Algeria
    July 8, 2011, 12:47 pm

    What a giant fish; I’ve never seen this kind of fish, thanks !

  39. Daniel arredondo
    Sanluispotosi mexico
    July 8, 2011, 9:13 am

    Very good friends!

  40. Mohd. Sugito
    Jakarta
    July 7, 2011, 10:40 pm

    gorgeous

  41. Trent Steel
    scottsville va
    July 7, 2011, 12:21 pm

    Ive Benn cnorkleing in the James river and have stumbled upon a catfish early in the morning that was at least 6ft long and its head was easily 36 inches in diameter