Blue crab mystery in freshwater
Thursday, July 13, 2006
News staff writer
The Birmingham News
Tim Bryant is accustomed to a steady stream of customers this time of the year at his bait shop below Wheeler Dam, but never before had he seen so many visitors coming by just to look.
For 12 days, Bryant had a steady stream of curious people eager to see a blue crab named Fuzzy.
There's nothing that unusual about a blue crab in Alabama, but this one wasn't steamed or fried. It was very much alive and most unusual because a fisherman, Steve Dyess of Mount Olive, says he caught the crab in freshwater below Wheeler Dam. That's more than 350 miles from the crab's native habitat on the Alabama coast.
The crab lived for 12 days in Tennessee River water in the bait shop before dying Monday.
How it got below Wheeler Dam has a lot of people guessing. The crab has especially piqued the interest of University of North Alabama marine biology professor Terry Richardson, who spends his summers studying blue crabs at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab.
Richardson said his first instinct was that the catch might be a hoax, but the feisty blue crab was placed in freshwater taken from the Tennessee River on June 28 when it was caught and for almost two weeks it was active, eating and showing no signs of stress.
"This is really an extraordinary event if this is not a hoax of some sort," he said. "I have talked with the fisherman who caught the crab and I believe it is real."
Richardson noted the crab lived in freshwater for more than a week and was doing well, "so that tends to make me believe the story, too."
How the crab got there is baffling, Richardson said. Many theories abound.
"A lot of people believe it somehow hitched a ride on a barge somehow and dropped off in the Tennessee River but I don't know if I believe that," he said. "It just wouldn't have held on that long.
"We had four or five named storms blowing up out of the Gulf last year and that makes the fish and crabs move north, but I can't imagine a crab going 350 miles and negotiating all of those locks on the rivers.
"What makes a lot more sense to me is that maybe a crew aboard a barge was having a live crab dinner and threw one overboard, or a family on vacation at the beach caught a crab and brought it home and decided to let it go.
"I think those are the most likely scenarios."
Crabs can survive in brackish water when storms flood saltwater estuaries with freshwater, Richardson said, but he has never found crabs surviving in strictly freshwater.
Dyess says he caught the crab while fishing for catfish with cut shad.
"My son Joey and I had decided that we were going to eat seafood for lunch but we never dreamed we'd catch it ourselves," he said. "I just reeled in the line and felt something and the crab was holding on."
Dyess said he named the crab "Fuzzy" because his glasses had been knocked overboard earlier in the day and when he reeled the crab aboard he wasn't sure at first what he was looking at.
Richardson has placed a few crab traps below Wheeler Dam in hope of catching more crabs but so far has come up empty.
"It's difficult for me to believe that there may actually be a population of crabs there but then again it was equally difficult for me to believe that there was a single crab in the Tennessee River and a one fisherman got lucky and caught it," Richardson said.
Catches of saltwater fish in freshwater aren't unheard of in the southern half of Alabama. State fishery biologists have documented flounder in the lower Tombigbee River below Coffeeville Lock and Dam 116 miles from the coast and in the Alabama River below Claiborne Lock and Dam 117 miles from the coast.
"If the crab had been caught in, say, Demopolis, it would be unusual but maybe not that incredible," Richardson said. "Finding one that far north in Alabama is."
Scott Mattee of the Alabama Geological Survey said geologists have found bay anchovies as far north as Tuscaloosa on the Black Warrior River and striped mullet as far north as Tuscaloosa and Selma. There is even a documented case of a bull shark making it as far north as St. Louis, Mo., on the Mississippi River, he said.
But he doubts that the blue crab worked its way from the coast to Wheeler Dam.
"That's just going to be a crab that somebody threw in there," he said.