Maryland is taking aim at two voracious, invasive species — the blue and flathead catfish — through a major public awareness campaign that it hopes will educate both anglers and diners about this large and domineering predator.
The goal is to stop the spread of the catfish, which are eating some of the Chesapeake Bay’s prized fish, interrupting the food chain and spreading rapidly throughout many river systems.
The catfish came to the Chesapeake in the 1970s and are in almost every tributary, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Flatheads seem to favor the Potomac, though they’ve also been found in the Lower Susquehanna. Blue catfish have proliferated in the James River and in the Potomac, where anglers have been known to catch single fish weighing close to 100 pounds.
Maryland’s campaign will include signs at popular fishing spots, explaining what the blue catfish looks like and warning anglers not to move the fish to other waterways so as not to spread the invasive animals.
The campaign will also remind anglers that there is no limit on how many blue catfish they can catch, and that fishing the species is one way to control its numbers.
Several Chesapeake Bay chefs have kept the invasive catfish on the menu because they believe consuming the animals will reduce numbers in the Chesapeake. One popular item is Alewife’s blue catfish tacos, which sell for $13 and are a popular seller on the Baltimore brew pub’s menu.
Steve Vilnit, the seafood marketing director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, has tried to introduce the product to a larger audience. Wegman’s, the upscale grocery chain, now sells blue catfish from the Potomac River. At a recent event, Vilnit recruited top chefs to demonstrate how easy the fish was to prepare.
“Developing a market through which food service helps to decrease populations of invasive species is an important tool in the battle against this threat to the natural ecosystem,” Vilnit said.
Martin Gary, director of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, said he sees great potential in more distribution deals with grocery stores.
“There’s no shortage of fish in the river. The fishermen can catch the fish. But the demand is not quite there yet,” Gary said.
He’s looking to bring fishermen together with some seafood distributors who can bring it to grocery stores. With the fish selling for about $8.99 a pound, Gary said, it’s an affordable and local option. It’s especially attractive as many other species have strict catch limits, and crabbing hasn’t been great in the past couple of years — especially in the Potomac.
“I’ve had these conversations with these fishermen. It’s amazing how many fish they can catch, especially, given the other hardships they face,” he said.
If blue catfish became a staple of our diets, Gary said, it would not only help watermen and the ecological conditions but it would also create more jobs for fish cutters and processors.
“Everyone,” he said, “would end up making out on that.”