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Catfish spawning boxes may be key to fishery

| Tuesday, July 31, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

The Fish and Boat Commission may have found a way to do more with less.

The agency has over the past few years developed a renewed interest in channel cats, because anglers have been taking to them in growing numbers. According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife research, catfish are the fifth most-sought species in the state, and participation in catfishing climbed 24 percent between 1996 and 2006.

To support that, the commission last year stocked 242,000 2-inch catfish fingerlings around the state, along with 11,000 8-inch yearlings. That cost is $53,000.

Stocking is necessary, because channel cats are cavity nesters and most of Pennsylvania's manmade, bowl-shaped lakes don't have much of that kind of habitat, said Mike Porta, a fisheries biologist in the commission's division of habitat management.

This spring, though, the commission experimented with putting wooden nesting boxes in three places: F.J. Sayers Lake in Centre County and Pymatuning Lake and the ponds outside the Linesville fish hatchery in Crawford.

The boxes did not produce any spawning activity at Pymatuning, but the lake has a self-sustaining catfish population, so it might be there's just so much natural habitat there the boxes were ignored, Porta said. But catfish successfully spawned in three of 10 boxes at Linesville and in all 12 boxes at F.J. Sayers. There, in fact, catfish spawned in 11 boxes multiple times.

That's significant, because stocking 17,300 2-inch catfish in Sayers costs the commission about $3,500 annually, he said. Building and installing the nest boxes cost $230 and produced 192,000 1-inch fry.

If the commission can replicate that at other sites, and create naturally sustaining populations, it could eliminate some stocking, allow those fish to be used elsewhere or allow the commission to raise fewer but larger catfish, he said.

“This isn't a cure-all technique. But we're going in the right direction for catfish management in Pennsylvania,” he said.

If there's one downside, it's that more research is needed and the commission has not identified if or when it will do it.

Porta said the commission needs to determine how many boxes it takes per acre to produce and support a self-sustaining population and how many of the 1-inch fry produced by the boxes actually reach adulthood, for example.

It's important the commission get those answers, or this initial survey will have been interesting but meaningless, said commissioner Len Lichvar of Somerset County.

“Hopefully we don't have a dead end with this,” he said.

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bfrye@tribweb.com or 724-838-5148.

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