A Debate on Proposed Catfish Regulations has Missourians Angling for a Solution

Friday, October 24, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:22 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 6, 2008

At 1206 Business Loop 70 W. in Columbia, there stands a bait shop divided. Here among the fishing poles of Tombstone Tackle, friends and fellow fishermen convene to discuss fishing conditions, what the fish are biting on and, lately, the controversial new catfish regulations being proposed by the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Many fishermen, like fishing buddies Gary Mitchell and Mike Leach, are finding themselves on opposite sides of the debate over possible changes to the state’s catfishing regulations.

The proposal includes two regulations designed to protect Missouri’s catfish population. Catfish are second only to black bass as the most sought-after fish in Missouri, according to Kevin Sullivan, a resource scientist with the conservation department. Anglers love the fact that they are relatively easy to catch and good to eat, he said.

One proposed regulation would lower the number of blue catfish anglers can catch each day.

The other proposed regulation, which would create a trophy area on the Missouri River, has angered many fishermen. Within the trophy area, there would be a 30-inch length minimum on flathead catfish.

Though the area hasn’t been named, the stretch from Glasgow to Jefferson City is under consideration. The committee working on the proposal is also considering reducing the number of flatheads harvested daily in the trophy area. The statewide limit is five daily.

Public outrage over the proposed trophy area was so great at an Oct. 2 meeting in Columbia that Sullivan said the department might consider reducing the proposed length limit and increasing the regulated area.

Adam Wolf, Tombstone’s owner, is firmly against creating a trophy area.

“There are a million small fish out there and very few big ones,” Wolf said. “Why would you encourage people to keep the big ones and throw back the small ones? We need to protect the big fish.”

Wolf is an avid fishermen and said that he almost always throws back the big fish he catches, which can weigh more than 50 pounds. He keeps a few small ones to eat.

The bait shop owner is also concerned about how the regulations will affect his business. If there is a limit placed on small catfish, even in a small section of the river, he might lose business.

Wolf said he sells a large amount of trotlines, which are long, strong cords with many lines and hooks. He expects to sell fewer trotlines if there is a limit placed on how many fish can be kept.

Mitchell, a rod-and-reel fisherman, opposes the trophy area proposal because it doesn’t ban trotlines in the area. Mitchell said he can’t compete with trotline fishermen when looking for big fish.

When he wants to catch big fish, Mitchell heads to Minnesota, where he can fish for flatheads in areas where trotlines are banned.

Mitchell is also skeptical of the department’s ability to enforce the new regulations if they are passed.

“They can’t even enforce the laws they have out there now,” he said. “There are still people commercial fishing on the river where it has been banned.”

His fishing companion, Leach, likes the regulation because it will give smaller fish a chance to mature, creating more big fish in the river.

Leach also said that he hopes the initial regulations are just a start. He would like to see additional regulations, including one that would reduce the number of hooks that can be attached to the cords of trotlines.

“The regulations have been the same forever,” he said. “This might not be an ideal regulation, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

While the conservation department is being responsive to complaints, making changes to the proposed size regulations does pose problems.

The department used a computer modeling program to find an optimal length for an impact on size and population numbers within the shortest amount of time, Sullivan said. The program found that with the 30-inch minimum, there would be an increase in big fish within five years. If this size is reduced, the big fish won’t start appearing nearly as quickly.

The other proposed regulation would limit the number of blue catfish that can be kept daily. The limit on the total number of blue and channel catfish a person can catch per day is 10. The proposal would limit the number of blue catfish to five a day, while anglers would still be able to catch up to 10 channel catfish a day.

Channel catfish are a smaller fish. They can weigh 15 to 20 pounds, while blue catfish can exceed 100 pounds. In 1866, the department reported that a 315-pound blue catfish was taken near Portland, Mo. These days, Missouri anglers would be pleased with a 50-pound blue catfish, Sullivan said.

Blue catfish can live to be 30 years old and are often harvested before they have reached their growth potential, he said.

One problem with the new regulation is that anglers will have to differentiate between blue and channel catfish. To help fishermen make the distinction, the department has started distributing free rulers to the public that include descriptions of the different catfish and ways to tell them apart.

Though there are only two proposed regulations, the management plan also calls for different evaluations of catfish populations in the state.

The committee reviewing the regulations plans to reconvene with leadership from fisheries, protection and resource science departments to discuss the plan further, though no date has been set.

Sullivan said the group would go through the proposal objective by objective and evaluate the public input it has received. If the public has a problem with a particular objective, the committee will rethink its strategy, he said.

After the proposal has been evaluated, it will be sent to the regulations committee. If the committe approves the plan, the public will have another chance to comment before the proposal becomes law.

Once passed, the department will continue to observe and evaluate progress on each objective to determine what effects the new regulations are having. Sullivan said it would be about two years before the laws were officially changed if the proposal passes both committees.

No matter what happens, Leach said that he and Mitchell will remain fishing companions. So far, their different positions on the debate hasn’t affected their friendship, he said.

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