Catfish release comes as surprise

Lyme - The release of 1,050 channel catfish into Uncas Lake last week is raising questions among members of the committee that oversees the watershed the lake is part of.

"We just found out about it on Monday," said Patricia Young, program director of the Eightmile River Wild and Scenic Coordinating Committee, which works to enhance protection of the Eightmile River watershed, on Wednesday. "We're not going to change the fact that they're there now. We need to get more information."

The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection released the catfish, a nonnative species, on May 28 into 19 lakes and ponds across the state, including Mohegan Park Pond in Norwich, Hopeville Pond in Griswold and Pattaconk Lake in Chester.

Four lakes, including the 69-acre Uncas Lake, in Nehantic State Forest, were new to the program this year, said Peter Aarrestad, director of DEEP's inland fisheries division. The program, funded by federal funds from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, is intended to increase fishing opportunities and the diversity of species, he said.

Although catfish are not native, they have been introduced to many lakes and rivers in the state. A reproducing population has lived in the Connecticut River since the 1970s.

At least one member of the Eightmile River Watershed Committee, David Bingham of Salem, is concerned about the possible negative effects the catfish could have on Uncas Lake and the 63-square-mile watershed, and that no public hearing preceded the release.

Young said the committee has not taken a position, but plans to gather more information. The Eightmile River watershed, which extends into Lyme, East Haddam and Salem, is one of two in the state in the national Wild & Scenic River designation.

Aarrestad said Uncas was on a list to receive catfish in 2016, but the release was done this year after plans to release fish into Lower Bolton Lake fell through, and DEEP quickly had to find places to put a truckload of fish.

"It was a last-minute decision," he said.

Aarrestad said there should have been better communication with the Eightmile committee before the release. He noted that other nonnative fish species live in Uncas Lake.

The lake does not have the kinds of habitat catfish prefer for spawning, so he does not expect they will reproduce there. The released fish are 9-to-12-inch yearlings that should reach catch size in about a year. Aarrestad said the catfish will not damage the lake or watershed ecosystem. Any fish that leave the pond will swim downstream into tributaries that flow into the Eightmile, which in turn flows into the Connecticut River where there already are catfish, he added.

"Nationally, they're a very popular fish, and we think it's a good addition to the fishing opportunities in Connecticut," he said.

Young said the episode highlights the need for better communication between the Eightmile committee and DEEP.

j.benson@theday.com

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