The Chesapeake Bay’s Blue Catfish Problem

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A growing blue catfish population in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed is depleting the Bay’s native fish population. Regional restaurants, markets and nonprofit organizations are stepping up to this challenge, and offering this invasive species to consumers as a tasty, affordable alternative. Does a higher demand for blue catfish provide a solution to this environmental issue?

The blue catfish is a major predator of the blue crab population in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. The VMRC has named the growing blue catfish population as one of the factors responsible for the low harvest numbers for crabs this year. Originally from the Mid-West, native to the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio Rivers, the blue catfish was brought to Virginia in the 1970s and 80s as a sporting fish. Stocked in the York, James, and Rappahannock Rivers, the fish has since spread north, to the Potomac River, infiltrating both Virginia and Maryland waters.

The blue catfish thrives in freshwater, in the Chesapeake Bay’s major Southern tributaries, but can also live in brackish, tidal waters. Since the blue catfish is an invasive species in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, it has no natural predators in this estuary. An unchecked population can do a great deal of damage to the underwater ecosystem, by preying heavily on shellfish, menhaden, white perch and fish eggs (such as shad), and competing for resources with native fish.

Blue Catfish Range in the Chesapeake Bay. Source: chesapeakebay.noaa.gov/fish-facts/invasive-catfish.
Blue Catfish Range in the Chesapeake Bay. Source: chesapeakebay.noaa.gov/fish-facts/invasive-catfish.

Spawning from late May into June, females of reproductive age release 4,000 to 8,000 eggs per kilogram every year. This can be quite a lot of eggs considering the large size of catfish. The largest catfish caught in Maryland was 84 pounds, while Virginia has recorded the catch of a 140-pound catfish.

While a 2012 Maryland Department of Fisheries report recorded an annual catch of 400,000 pounds of blue catfish, this has not been enough to reduce the environmental damage caused by this invasive species in our watershed. As a response to this issue, many area restaurants and markets have embraced the idea of selling locally caught blue catfish to help reduce the Bay population. Whole Foods and MOM’s Organic Market began to sell this fish in 2014, while restaurants such as Clyde’s, and other popular D.C. restaurants, now offer catfish on their menu.

A regional nonprofit, Wide Net Project, has also found a way to address this environmental issue, and works to build up the market for blue catfish. Wide Net Project works with regional markets, restaurants, and food service companies, marketing the blue catfish as a local, sustainable, tasty and inexpensive food item. In addition, this nonprofit works to stock local hunger relief organizations with the fish. A quarter pound of blue catfish is donated for every pound sold. In 2015, Wide Net Project is expecting to sell 75,000 pounds and donate tens of thousands of pounds of blue catfish.

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