The job “catfish stomach content analyst” is worthy of its own Dirty Jobs episode (Mike Rowe, if you are reading this, come hang out with the Virginia Tech catfish crew). That was my job. Luckily my actual title sounded better - laboratory technician. The work was as dirty as it gets. A major component in assessing the ecological impacts of non-native blue catfish is looking at what they eat. Using a method called pulsed gastric lavage, we are able to shoot water into the fish’s stomach and force them to regurgitate their stomach contents (don’t worry, this doesn’t hurt the fish). Those regurgitated samples were placed on ice and brought back to Virginia Tech. This is where the fun really begins. The vomit samples were brought back to be analyzed by yours truly, the lab technician.
Words cannot begin to describe the smell of partially-digested stomach contents. No amount of candles, Glade Plugins, or Febreeze can begin to mask the foul, rotting smell of fish vomit. The upside is that you go “nose blind” after a while, but initially there is a great deal of dry heaving as you process samples. No one is safe from the smell. The smell finds its way out of the lab and into the hallways. Anyone within a 50’ radius of the lab is sure to be hit with the rancid smell of fish vomit.
There is never a dull moment on the job when you are analyzing catfish vomit. Each bag was a little foul surprise, much like an unwanted Christmas gift. Aquatic vegetation, mollusks, and shad were some of the more commonly encountered prey items. Blue catfish do occasionally like to throw you a curve ball. Things that shouldn’t even be in the water show up in these samples. With that here are the Top Ten Weirdest Things Eaten by Blue Catfish:
# 10. Red-eared Slider
The Red-eared slider, Trachemys scripta elegans is described as one of the top 100 most invasive species in the world (IUCN). They are popular as pets and have been widely introduced by pet owners. This is an interesting find considering it would take a significant amount of time to digest that hard shell. Non-native species predation on another non-native species!
# 9. Fishing Hooks
Fishing for big catfish is very popular in Virginia’s tidal rivers, where 50 plus pounders are not uncommon. Landing trophy catfish can be challenging, as these big cats have the strength and stamina to break the casual angler's line. Hooks found in catfish are from those anglers who lost the battle. Various sizes and styles like j-hooks, octopus style hooks, and circle hooks were commonly encountered.
# 8. Chicken Bones
As shore bound anglers enjoy a nice meal of fried chicken, they toss the bones in the water. Catfish scavenging along the bottom often find these bones and eat them. Chicken bones are more frequently encountered in urban areas where fishing pressure is higher, like in downtown Richmond, VA.
# 7. Berries
This catfish from the Rappahannock River found its way into some berries. Some of these catfish get more fiber in their diet than I do!
# 6. Beer Bottle Cap
Who doesn’t enjoy a cold one after a long day on the river? It is hard to say if catfish prefer Budweiser, but preliminary findings seem to suggest that they do.
# 5. Sea Lamprey
Sea Lamprey, Petromyzon marinus, spawns in fresh water and lives most of its life at sea. Sea Lamprey terrorize other fish by latching onto them and consuming their blood. A fifty pound blue catfish got the last laugh when it slurped down a rather large lamprey (top right).
# 4. "Odds and Ends"
OK, chicken livers aren't that surprising, as they are a common catfish bait, but pig anus? Really? Not sure how this item made it into the James River, and I don't really want to know. "Pork bung" is a popular food item in some cultures, and blue catfish don't seem to be picky eaters.
# 3. Muskrat
We pulled muskrat remains out of a 65 lb blue catfish on the James River. That same fish had also eaten a 30" longnose gar.
# 2. Maxi Pad
Feminine hygiene products are not an indication of clean water. Thanks to the City of Richmond's outdated and archaic sewage system, raw human waste and flushed objects, such as this maxi pad, are dumped into the James River during moderate to heavy rains. The system is known as the "combined sewage overflow". Sewage and rain water run into the same pipes and rain can cause them to overflow. The excess water, along with raw human waste, is dumped right into the river. You can read more about this sewage system here. The sewer overflow system dumps into the James River just a few feet downriver from the Mayo Island kayak launch. I would not recommend swimming in this area.
# 1. Used Latex Condom
This was the most shocking and interesting find. Thanks to the previously mentioned combined sewer overflow, flushed condoms go right into the James River. After rain, the stretch of the James closest to the outflow (the north bank of the river from Mayo Island to Rocketts Landing) is littered with used condoms. There are condoms in the trees and condoms just floating around. The catfish must have thought the silhouette from the condom was a prey item and slurped it down, or they have an "I'll try anything once" attitude. This picture was posted on the popular internet message board Reddit, and has garnered close to one million views and close to 500 comments from users all over the world.
Other honorable mentions:
Philly blunt wrapper (grape flavor)
peanuts (where did they come from?)
Werther's Original candy
rubber worms (Yamamoto Senko, to be exact)
hogchokers (basically a miniature flounder)
latex surgeon's glove