Two men standing on a boat between a container of fish
U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman and P. Srirama Rao, Ph.D., vice president for research and innovation, saw a demonstration of an experimental way to harvest invasive blue catfish at the VCU Rice Rivers Center on Wednesday. (Photo by Joe Schumacher, district director for Rep. Wittman.)

Rep. Wittman visits VCU’s Rice Rivers Center, observes an experimental way to more efficiently harvest invasive blue catfish

The congressman visited VCU’s “river campus” to hear about research on sturgeon, tidal wetlands restoration and more.

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On a tour of the Virginia Commonwealth University Rice Rivers Center on Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman watched as VCU researchers and a commercial fisherman demonstrated their experimental method for catching blue catfish, an invasive species that has taken over tidal waters in Virginia and Maryland.

“We estimate there are about 100 million of these blue catfish. The challenge is how to efficiently get them out of the water,” said Greg Garman, Ph.D., director of the Rice Rivers Center, part of VCU Life Sciences. “There is a pretty strong market for them. There’s a real interest in something called ‘eat an invasive.’ You can go into some high-end restaurants now and blue catfish is featured on the menu.”

Eight people standing in a semi-circle on a doc
U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman, center, boards a boat with VCU researchers and officials on Wednesday. (Photo by Thomas Kojcsich, University Marketing.)

The Rice Rivers Center researchers partnered with commercial fisherman George Trice to develop a new commercial fishery that uses low-frequency electrofishing to harvest blue catfish. By introducing an electrical field of 9-30 hertz into the water, they can stun scale-less fish — in this case, only blue catfish — which float to the surface for a brief period of time, allowing them to be easily caught.

“We’re trying to figure out how to use this technology, which we’ve used for decades for research, by applying it to a commercial harvest,” Garman said. “The magic of the low frequency is that it only affects catfish. There’s no by-catch — you aren’t catching other species. It’s very efficient. It’s an opportunity to take pressure off other heavily exploited species like blue crab or striped bass, and yet the commercial fishers can still make money at it.”

When the researchers and Trice activated the system on Wednesday, several hundred blue catfish floated to the surface of the James River near the Rice Rivers Center.

Four men standing in a room
From left, U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman; Robert M. Tombes, Ph.D., vice provost for VCU Life Sciences and Research; Greg Garman, Ph.D., director of the Rice Rivers Center; and P. Srirama Rao, Ph.D., vice president for research and innovation, tour the Rice Rivers Center new research facility on Wednesday. (Photo by Thomas Kojcsich, University Marketing.)

Following the electrofishing demonstration, Wittman toured the center’s newly opened research center and heard about research being conducted at the Rice Rivers Center on sturgeon tracking; helping to navigate the challenges of commercial fishing and offshore wind energy; oyster reefs as fish habitat; and tidal wetlands restoration.

Wittman, who received a Ph.D. in public policy and administration from VCU in 2002, has represented the First Congressional District of Virginia since 2007. He serves on the House Committee on Natural Resources and sits on the Water, Oceans, and Wildlife Subcommittee. He also is co-chair of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Caucus and the Congressional Wildlife Refuge Caucus, and he is a member of the Conservative Climate Caucus.

“I think there's a tremendous amount of opportunities here,” Wittman said. “The Rice Center [is] an incredible asset not only for the commonwealth, but also, I would argue, for the nation.”

Prior to being elected to Congress, Wittman worked in state government for 26 years, serving most recently as field director for the Virginia Department of Health’s Division of Shellfish Sanitation. Earlier, he worked as an environmental health specialist for local health departments in Virginia’s Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula regions.

Two men standing in between a screen
Matt Balazik, Ph.D., a research assistant professor at the Rice Rivers Center, describes to U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman his research that tracks Atlantic sturgeon. (Photo by Thomas Kojcsich, University Marketing.)

P. Srirama Rao, Ph.D., vice president for research and innovation at VCU, told Wittman about VCU’s One VCU Research Strategic Priorities Plan, which prioritizes research that is community-engaged, has an impact on the community, and is aimed at enriching the human experience, achieving a just and equitable society, optimizing health and supporting sustainable energy and environments.

“What I find really unique about what’s going on at the Rice Rivers Center is that they cut through each of these areas,” Rao said. “All in all, if we look at what we're trying to do in the conservation space, in the aquatic space, the impact of all of [the research] is pretty humongous.”