In one of the biggest diet studies ever conducted, Schmitt and his team have collected the contents of over 16,000 blue cat stomachs. Schmitt, along with a few assistants each trip, electrofished the James, Pamunkey, Mattaponi, and Rappahannock Rivers.

“The process of electrofishing is voodoo,” jokes Schmitt. A submerged anode draws the fish close enough to boat for the assistant to net them, with the boat acting as the cathode. Little is known about why the signal actually stuns blue catfish, or why it only works at certain temperatures and salinities, but the surface, for about two minutes, is suddenly speckled with catfish after the shock.


But the actual percentages aren’t as high as the “sensationalized” media coverage on blue catfish is claiming.

According to his study, Schmitt saw that 22 percent of the fish in the James had other fish in their stomachs, but in the York and Rappahannock Rivers, only two percent and five percent of the fish respectively had other fish in their bellies.

As for blue crab predation, “the probability of finding blue crab in blue catfish stomachs was as high as 30 percent in some conditions,” says Schmitt, but these numbers usually appear in the fall and winter when the vegetation is low, and only in certain locations, like around Hog Island. Overall, blue crabs were found in less than five percent of blue catfish stomachs, a stark contrast to the current narrative surrounding these whiskered fish.

In one of his 2017 publications, Schmitt noted that the “abundance of mature female blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay continues to improve since the population declines registered in the late 1990s, even with increasing blue catfish abundance.” While blue crab is one of the largest economically important resources in the Bay, it appears as if there are only certain locations along the river where the blue catfish are seriously impacting their populations. But with the blue’s ability to survive in saltier waters, their impact on blue crab may increase with expanding territory—a theory yet to be explored.

Schmitt found that the most frequently consumed diet items were actually other invasive species, like Asiatic clams, hydrilla, and Brazilian waterweed. These species were found in 60 percent of stomachs. The blues may be acting as a free invasive species removal team, but their reputation in the media remains the same.

Schmitt is frustrated by the way the media has portrayed blue catfish. "The narrative was progressing faster than the science, so was the hype, the sensationalism, and fear. I'm not saying blue catfish are not problematic, it's just not as things were presented," he notes.

The question remains as to what the management community will do with Schmitt’s conclusions.

Click below to explore the other perspectives in the blue catfish dilemma