Invasive catfish poised to be “apex predators” after eating their way into Georgia rivers

State officials in Georgia warn that flathead catfish are encroaching on another river, posing a threat to native fish, including the treasured redbreast sunfish.

In a section of the Ogeechee River just upstream from Interstate 95, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources reported that systematic sampling in August turned up more than a dozen flathead catfish.

Anglers are being urged by wildlife officials to catch as many flathead as possible and report them to the state Wildlife Resources Division, but not to release them back into the Ogeechee.

Wildlife Resources biologist Joel Fleming told The Telegraph of Macon that after they establish such populations, “they are going to be one of the apex predators around every system.” They’ll consume anything if they can get it to fit in their mouth.

Although there had been considerable sampling, no flathead had been discovered since a commercial fisherman had only one in the river in December 2021.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources stated that staff had been keeping an eye on the river in the hopes that it was an isolated incident. “Unfortunately, during sampling operations in August 2023, flathead catfish were caught. Since then, the Ogeechee has seen the removal of over a dozen people.

“It’s simply not possible to eliminate them altogether”

Many rivers that empty into the Gulf of Mexico are home to the flathead catfish, including the drainage of the Coosa River in northwest Georgia. However, the fish has established itself in several rivers in Georgia that empty into the Atlantic Ocean, including as the Satilla, Altamaha, and Savannah rivers.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources states that flatheads “can pose a significant ecological risk when introduced into new waterbodies, primarily through predation on native species.”

Officials in Georgia have been fighting a long-running battle against flathead catfish in the Satilla River, which drains sections of southeast Georgia before emptying into the Atlantic north of Brunswick. Between 2007 and 2016, 64,000 flathead catfish were removed from the river. Predatory flatheads, which can weigh more than 100 pounds, are blamed by wildlife experts for reducing native fish populations in the Satilla basin.

A man in Kansas caught a 121-pound flathead catfish in 1998, shattering the previous record. And just three months ago, a Pennsylvanian broke the record by landing a flathead that weighed 66 pounds.

By Monday, according to Fleming, around 20 flatheads had been removed from the Ogeechee. According to Fleming, the average size of the flatheads pulled at the end of August was around 17 inches; however, one flathead pulled by a two-person crew on Monday was longer than 38 inches.

According to Fleming, biologists think that during high river levels, the flatheads that were trapped in the Ogeechee may have “wandered in” from the Savannah River via coastal waterways.

On the Ogeechee River, about six or seven people are using electrical current to stun fish and count several catfish species. Because sampling teams kill the fish rather of tagging and releasing them, they are unable to accurately determine how far upstream flathead catfish have spread.

According to Tim Barrett, the Department of Natural Resources’ coastal region fisheries supervisor, teams can only expect to control the flathead catfish population in the Ogeechee.

It’s simply not possible to eliminate them completely, according to Barrett.


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