Channel Catfish

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Other common names:

Scientific name: Ictalurus punctatus

The basics:
The Channel Caftish is the most common catfish on the North American continent. Its native range extends east of the Rockies from the great lakes of Southern Canada, through the USA. Like many catfish species the channel catfish thrive in both still and flowing waters. Being omnivores, they are very adaptable in terms of food requirements. They are characterized by their barbules, which function as scent organs (they also have olfactory pits distributed over the entire body surface). Because of this highly-refined sense of smell, channel catfish can live and find food in even the murkiest and muddiest waters. Indeed, they are primarily nocturnal feeders.

Ictalurus punctatus are a traditional edible sport fish and the rise in the popularity of catfish as food led to an equally sharp rise in the farming of catfish. Channel catfish grow very rapidly and it often surprises people to know that the Mississippi Delta supports a $450 million dollar a year industry growing channel catfish. This industry yields 160,000 tons of catfish grown in 100,000 acres of catfish ponds. The Mississippi Deltaic Plain is the largest producer, followed by Alabama and Louisiana. The channel catfish is the single most important cultivated fish in the USA.Young catfish (up to 4 inches in length) are predominantly insectivorous. Adults are mainly omnivorous and eat insects, molluscs, crustaceans, smaller fish and even some plant matter. In the wild they reach sexual maturity from between 3 to 6 years but in captivity they are sexually mature at between 2 and 3 years of age.
The Channel Catfish is an active fish and a good fish for sport fishing. They are very active when being fed and children enjoy this aspect of rearing them. However, apart from when spawning, raising fry, and moving the fish to new ponds and tanks there is little opportunity to interact with them. They are kept in some very large freshwater aquaria however and their feeding behaviour (despite being mainly nocturnal) is interesting to watch.

At maturity they are typically about 12 inches in length and weight about 1 pound. The Channel Catfish is typically olive brown to slate blue in colour on the back and flanks and the belly is silvery-white. Typically they have numerous, black, spots on the flanks (though these can fade or become obscured in the adults). They have a large body that's less rounded than other catfishes. The head is long and wide and is flat or just slightly rounded on top. The upper jaw projects beyond the lower jaw and there are four pairs of darkly-coloured barbels. The fins are the same colour as the body and the anal fin has 24-29 soft rays (fewer than the very similar blue catfish). The tail of this catfish is forked. Mails that are in breeding condition are often a brighter blue in colour and the male typically has a broader head than a female.

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In the wild, smaller channel catfish are insectivorous, but as they grow beyond about 4 inches in lenght they become omnivorous and will consume insects, molluscs, crustaceans, smaller fish and even some plant matter. In aquaculture systems, catfish are typically fed commercial pelleted feed that contains between 32% and 36% protein. Typically channel catfish are either grown in ponds or are grown in mesh cages set in river deltas or just upstream of river estuaries. For good oxygenation plenty of fresh, flowing water is needed, the fish need to be fed regularly (particularly in the first months after spawning) and the fish need to be moved on as they grow to ensure that the ponds or cages are not over-populated (too much stock means poor growth). Commercial ponds and cages are typically 1/2 acre or more in size (often up to 10 acres). Water should have a pH of 6.5-9.0 and no less than 20 mg/l (ppm) alkalinity or hardness and for intensive farming there needs to be a flow of 25-40 gallons/minute of good quality water for each surface acre of production pond.

Large ponds for intensive growth are typically stocked at 1,500 to 5,000 lb/acre. Small-scale commercial ponds are often stocked at 200 to 1500 lb/acre. For cage-style aquaculture, these are typically stocked at 1,500 lb/acre without aeration and 2,500 lb/acre with aeration. Recreational ponds are stocked at 100 catfish fingerlings per acre. As long as there is sufficient aeration and not too much competition for food, the channel catfish is a very healthy fish. Water used should always be very clean, as this minimizes skin and gill infections. In intensive systems stress is the main reason for poor health. For optimal growth water temperatures need to be about 85ºF, but this is typically impractical to maintain. Because they can be raised in ponds, Channel Catfish are suitable for small-scale or home rearing. Catfish are typically between 6 and 8 months old when sold.

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