No, ma'am, this isn't Mississippi

  • Curtis Knoll and James Lay with a 23-lb. Yaqui catfish

    USFWS photo
  When people think of catfish, they're more likely to imagine roadside cooking shacks in Mississippi than desert streams. But that could change now that the native Yaqui catfish has been restored to Arizona.

In October, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released 350 of the blue-gray fish in the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge near Douglas, Ariz.

The catfish, which can weigh over 20 pounds, has been extinct in Arizona for 100 years. According to Buddy Jensen, the biologist who led the reintroduction efforts, cattle wiped out the fish's habitat. Overgrazing destroyed streamside vegetation, he explained, leading to muddy water and irregular stream flows. Federal officials traveled to Mexico, where the Rio Yaqui flows over 300 miles to the Gulf of California, to trap wild catfish for the project.

The reintroduction is part of a refuge effort to replace non-native fish with eight native species and restore streamside habitat. Jensen has also re-introduced the Yaqui chub, Yaqui shiner and Yaqui top minnow in the San Bernardino refuge, created in 1982 to focus on native fish recovery.

To balance the non-native and native fish populations in Arizona streams, state biologists have promoted unlimited catches of exotic fish such as rainbow and brown trout, which feed on native fish.

Biologists hope the catfish will succeed well enough to allow limited fishing, which will bring in money to pay for more restoration.

Even ranchers are supporting the fish's return. "I think it's great," said Wendy Glenn, co-owner of the Malpai Ranch, which surrounds the refuge. "If they have a place for it, they should put it back."

*Jason Lenderman

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