River City RVA:
Home to Catfish, Condoms,
and Combined Sewer Overflows

Joe Schmitt is a third year Ph.D. student, and a Virginia Sea Grant Fellow at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. He is currently assessing the impacts of non-native catfish on native species in the Chesapeake Bay. His research team has already handled over 15,000 catfish at more than 500 locations on the James, Pamunkey, Mattaponi, and Rappahanock Rivers, making this one of the largest, most comprehensive diet studies ever conducted. The team’s overall goals are to 1) determine what these non-native catfish feed on, 2) determine how diet changes both seasonally and spatially, 3) quantify how much these fish can eat (maximum daily ration).  Read more at Joey Schmitt’s blog

Hae Kim processes a stomach from a catfish caught in the James River near Richmond. The fish had eaten a condom and raw sewer.

“What, what is that…?” stammered Zach Moran, as he dug through a Ziplock bag full of what appeared to be raw sewage. The stench was so oppressive it made our eyes water. In between dry heaves I handed him the forceps, and he delicately reached into the bag.

After a few seconds of digging, Zach locked onto a foreign object. He slowly began to lift the unknown object out of the bag and, as it emerged from the slop, we both let out an audible gasp.

“No, it can’t be…can it?” Zach asked in disbelief. I was still fighting back my gag reflex. As soon as I regained control, I said, “Yes, brother, that’s a maxi pad.” Zach just murmured “No, no, no,” repeatedly beneath his breath.

We were analyzing blue catfish stomach contents from the James River in Richmond as part of my doctoral research. We had already seen many unusual things in catfish stomachs, including peanuts, candy, cigars, hot dogs, chicken wings, muskrats, turtles, birds, and snakes. But we had never seen anything quite so disgusting. A few weeks later a condom emerged out of a similar bag, which also contained raw sewage, another sample from downtown Richmond.

So why are catfish eating feces, condoms, and maxi pads? Clearly their gastrointestinal fortitude rivals that of Andrew Zimmern, but why are these “food items” so readily available in the River City?

I began to ask this question in the spring of 2013, when hundreds of trees along the north bank of the James River were adorned with condoms. Some trees had so many condoms hanging from them, it seemed like a sick mockery of Christmas. These condoms would occasionally stick to our nets and the side of the boat. “Another James River drift sock”, Jason Emmel joked in disbelief.

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