VMRC Proposes Commercial Electrofishing for Non-native Catfishes

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) is proposing a commercial electrofishing fishery for non-native catfishes in Virginia portions of Chesapeake Bay (Click here for notice). At the Finfish Management Advisory Committee (FMAC) meetings on November 14th and 25th, 2019 (click dates for videos of meetings), VMRC presented plans to permit three licensees to conduct electrofishing in three Virginia tidal rivers. Commercial electrofishing was tested from 2014 to 2017 to evaluate its effectiveness through a Virginia Fishery Resource Grant.The findings of the experimental electrofishing trials revealed that invasive catfishes can be harvested at a rate of 28 lbs. per minute (Trice and Balazik 2015). However, the effectiveness of the gear differs based on environmental conditions including the water temperature and salt concentration. Consequently, electrofishing for catfishes is most effective from May to September in Chesapeake Bay tributaries. The experimental program also reported there were no user conflicts, as there were no detectable differences in hoop net catches when shocked and unshocked nets were compared (Trice 2017). The waterman involved in the experimental commercial fishery trials reported commercial electrofishing was the cleanest fishery he had ever done with no by-catch. Based on the reported success of this gear in an experimental setting, VMRC wants to expand the program to reduce non-native catfish abundance in three Chesapeake Bay tributaries in Virginia.

Watermen unload Blue Catfish harvested from the Rappahannock River using traditional fishing gears. Photo: Corbin Hilling.

Electrofishing is a fish sampling gear used by fisheries scientists to monitor fish populations and communities. The gear works by running an electrical current through the water, temporarily stunning fish. Stunned fish are then netted by boat-based scientists and processed based on the design and interests of the particular study. Altering specifications of the electrical pulses can target different fish species and maximize catch rates depending on water quality parameters (e.g., temperature and the ability of the water to conduct electricity). Using low-frequency pulses selectively affects catfishes and has no known effects on other species. Consequently, electrofishing provides an efficient means to collect large numbers of catfishes when conditions are favorable without by-catch of at-risk or undesirable species.

Virginia Tech scientists sample Blue Catfish in a tributary of the James River using low-frequency electrofishing. Photo: Jason Emmel.

The stated purpose of the proposed regulation at the FMAC meetings is to “sustainably manage populations of non-native catfish species through the creation of a low-frequency electrofishing gear license.” The proposed regulation would provide one license per river on the James, Pamunkey, and Rappahannock rivers at a cost of $120. Licensees will be selected using a lottery-based system where harvesters are eligible based if they meet one of two criteria: 1) electrofished for catfish as lead on a Virginia scientific collection permit 2) harvested at least 1000 lbs of catfish per year in three of the previous ten calendar years. Harvesters will be eligible based on a two-stage selection system based first on Criteria 1 and then Criteria 2. Staff from VMRC reported a single harvester is eligible for a license based on Criteria 1 and then other harvesters that meet Criteria 2 will be selected via lottery.

The proposed regulation also stipulates...

-Only harvest of Blue Catfish and Flathead Catfish is allowed

-Licensees must complete an approved electrofishing safety course

-No transfers or agents

-Harvest must be reported to VMRC

-Anyone harvesting on electrofishing vessel or chase boats need a commercial fishing registration license and fish dip net license

-Must call in to operations prior to fishing

-No harvest of Blue Catfish larger 25 in. (harvesters allowed 12 fish per trip between 25-28 in. as a cushion for measurement error)

-Can only fish in harvest area specified on license

-No daily limit

-No electrofishing October 16 to April 30

-No electrofishing from noon on Friday to 12:01 a.m. Monday

-No electrofishing within 100 yards of marked commercial fishing gear

Commercial electrofishing is proposed to take place in three harvest areas (see below). In the James River, the harvest area is from the southern point of Turkey Island to the James River Bridge. The Pamunkey River harvest area is the mouth of Matadequin Creek to the Rt. 33 Bridge near Eltham, VA. Finally, the Rappahannock River harvest area spans the area between the Rt. 301 Downing Bridge to the Rt. 360 Bridge in Tappahannock, VA. Harvest areas were selected based on experimental electrofishing success and reports from Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries staff on potential to electrofish commercial quantities of Blue Catfish. The commercial electrofishing license would only apply to the mainstem of the proposed rivers. Tributaries were omitted from harvest areas due to low electrical conductivity and concerns over user conflicts. Attendees at the FMAC meetings expressed concern that there is heavy fishing pressure for catfishes using more traditional gears in the proposed harvest area in the Rappahannock River.

Harvest areas proposed for commercial electrofishing of non-native catfishes (pink) within Virginia tributaries of Chesapeake Bay.

Although commercial electrofishing seems like an efficient way to harvest non-native catfishes, many stakeholders have expressed concerns about the processing capabilities of regional seafood processors, recreational fisheries, and the effect on traditional fishers. Concerned citizens or those seeking additional information may consider reaching out to VMRC (contact info here).Those interested in or concerned by the proposed regulation should also consider attending the public hearing on December 17, 2019 at 9:30 a.m. at VMRC (380 Fenwick Road, Ft. Monroe, VA 23651). Details on VMRC's regulatory process can be found here.

VMRC Proposed Timeline

December 17 – Public hearing and commission vote on electrofishing regulation (Click here for agenda)

December 2019 – If Approved, VMRC distributes applications

Feb 2020 – Lottery for electrofishing licenses

May 2020 – Commercial electrofishing fishery begins


Trice IV, G. 2017. Describe if commercial low-frequency electrofishing affects the catch of Blue Catfish hoop-net fishery. Final Report of Fishery Resource Grant 2016-03. Full Text.

Trice IV, G. E. and M. Balazik. 2015.Testing experimental collection gears to increase harvest efficiency of the electrofishing fishery targeting introduced Blue Catfish in Virginia waters. Final Report of Fishery Resource Grant Project 2015-01. Full Text.