Bay Journal

New catfish reg threatens watermen’s livelihood, Bay

Inspection requirement could derail both thriving fishery, effort to control invasive species

  • By Rona Kobell on April 03, 2017
An invasive blue catfish, recently caught in the Potomac River by Richard Turner and his crew. They can reach 100 pounds and consume vast amounts of crabs and menhaden. (Dave Harp) Sophia Shenski, left, and Katie Turner, right, reel in the net to remove the blue catfish. Shenski is engaged to Richard Turner; Katie is his sister. Both help him before they start their regular jobs. (Dave Harp) Katie Turner helps her brother, Richard, check the bait bags. They re-use the bait to catch more fish.  (Dave Harp)

Richard Turner Jr. maneuvered his Carolina Skiff around Gunston Cove in the Potomac River, then hoisted a hoop net out of the water that he’d left there hours ago.

Inside wriggled a 12-pound blue catfish. These mustachioed menaces have been eating their way through the Potomac River and the rest of the Chesapeake Bay for the last decade. They can grow to 5 feet long and weigh up to 100 pounds while gobbling up other commercially valuable fish, such as menhaden and blue crabs.

Turner and a growing number of fishermen are turning the tables on these invasive predators. Spurred on by a burgeoning market and the lack of any harvest limits, the blue catfish commercial fishery has taken off.

But a new federal regulation could disrupt what many see as one of the most successful “eat the invasives” campaigns in the country. Under legislation passed by Congress years ago to protect Mississippi’s farmed catfish industry from foreign imports, sales of any type of catfish, including these wild-caught in the Chesapeake region, will be subject to inspection by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The requirement takes full effect in September.

What that means for the fishermen who catch blue cats, the processors who turn them into fillets and the chefs who cook them is unclear. But Turner is sure none of it can be good.

“There’s a possibility that this could just shut the fishery down,” Turner said as he filled his cooler with more of the whiskered fish with smooth, slate-blue skin. “I’m not only concerned about my livelihood. I’m concerned about the ecosystem. I’ve seen what they can do.”

Introduced to the region in the 1970s as a new species for recreational fishermen, these natives of the Mississippi River basin have since munched their way throughout the Chesapeake. Scientists who examined blue cats’ stomachs found them filled with crabs and menhaden, among other species. In parts of the James and Rappahannock, the nonnative species accounts for an estimated three-quarters of all fish biomass, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, a Republican, slipped the USDA catfish inspection requirement into the U.S. Farm Bill in 2008, as his state’s catfish farmers complained that they could not compete with foreign imports from Vietnam and China, which they said weren’t required to meet the same growing standards. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspected all of the fish sold commercially, but catfish farmers contended that the agency only checks 2 percent of all catfish. They successfully argued for catfish to be examined by the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service, which inspects 100 percent of all the meat and farm products it regulates.

But critics of the catfish inspection provision, including many Republican lawmakers, derided it as a trade barrier inserted because Vietnamese catfish farmers were eating Mississippi’s lunch. Where Mississippi dominated the market in the 1970s, Vietnam has been gaining ground since the U.S.-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement was signed in 2001. According to Food Safety News, close to 80 percent of the U.S. catfish market is Vietnamese imports.

As the 2017 deadline for the new inspections approached, criticism mounted. In 2013, a Government Accountability Office report declared that switching catfish from the FDA to the USDA was the number one area of duplication and waste in the federal government and would cost taxpayers an extra $14 million annually. That year, the House of Representatives voted to block the move. In 2016, the Senate did as well. But differences in the legislation required House approval, and it never came up for a vote. So the inspection requirement remained.

Chris Gallegos, communications director for Sen. Cochran, defended the provision, saying it makes consumers safer. USDA inspections have already rejected 226,000 pounds of catfish that when tested, contained anti-fungal drugs and other contaminants, he said. Among the contaminants found were malachite green, gentian (or Crystal) violet, and enrofloxacin, all of which are banned or strictly regulated for use in the United States in food and food-related applications.

“Strong arguments have been made for the USDA inspection program in terms of its safety benefits to the public health,” he said. Gallegos also contended that the USDA has managed to reduce the costs of the new inspections, according to their projections, though the agency would not know if there would be any actual savings until it fully implemented the program.

The FDA gives no indication that catfish are any more dangerous than any other fish, according to its Fish and Fishery Products Hazard and Control Guidance, which was last updated in 2011. An FDA spokeswoman referred catfish questions to the USDA.

A USDA spokeswoman said the agency did not ask for the catfish program, but was working to implement it. The agency, she said, would pay for catfish inspectors to be in private processing houses 40 hours a week, and those facilities would also have to be inspected by the agency once per quarter. With enough notice, she said, the USDA will pay for inspectors’ overtime if the processor meets the “necessary requirements.”

But processors are already concerned, even though the law has yet to be fully implemented, and they’re not yet sure of all that it will require.

Tim Shugrue, vice president of Congressional Seafood, said his company processes fish 16 hours every day, twice the workday length of USDA inspectors. To get an inspector on Saturdays, he said, will cost him $70 an hour, and fresh fish can’t wait to be cut until Monday.

“Many businesses will opt out of selling this invasive species rather than deal with the bureaucratic red tape,” Shugrue said, adding, “the premise of this regulation is a joke — this is being done under the guise of food safety — that somehow wild blue cat represent some grave danger to the public over and above all other seafood.”

Shugrue and others say the uncertainty over what will happen with the inspection process could hurt what has become a hugely successful fishery, both economically and environmentally.

Statewide in Virginia, watermen harvested 1.2 million pounds of blue catfish in 2012, nearly double the 685,298 pounds landed in 2011.

In the Potomac, blue catfish landings hit 608,874 pounds in 2014, surpassing striped bass for the first time and more than tripling the harvest from 2008. Last year, the catch rose to 1.5 million pounds, according to the Potomac River Fisheries Commission. There’s no indication that the haul is putting a dent in the population; on Turner’s boat, the sonar that scans the Gunston Cove bottom showed that it’s covered with oblong white shapes; every one, Turner said, is a blue cat.

Maryland watermen landed 125,000 pounds of catfish in 2011, much of that from its portion of the Potomac. By 2013, that number had nearly doubled as well, to 237,757. Hoping to stimulate even greater commercial harvests, the state of Maryland began marketing blue catfish aggressively to chefs.

Chad Wells was an early adopter. While a chef at the Alewife restaurant in downtown Baltimore, he put blue catfish tacos on the menu. A fisherman himself, Wells extolled the virtues of eating the invasives. It has caught on, and demand is outstripping the supply; the price per pound has increased from 10–30 cents in 2011 to 50–80 cents today.

Now the chef of Victoria Restaurant Group in Columbia, Wells has introduced blue catfish to the menu at his new restaurant. And Clyde’s, a fine-dining chain with 13 restaurants in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia has it on theirs.

Both Wells and Bart Farrell, Clyde’s food and beverage manager, wrote to Congress about their concerns with the USDA inspection requirement. Farrell even testified before the House.

“There’s no scientific proof that says that the fish supply is going to be any safer, that the USDA is going to swoop in and save the day,” Farrell said. “It’s purely a political move, one that will cost the taxpayers money, and will greatly affect the Chesapeake Bay and beyond.”

Wells agreed, calling the transfer of inspector duties “nearsighted, reckless and irresponsible.”

Gavin Gibbons of the National Fisheries Institute lobbied in vain against the catfish inspection rule, and other local groups pushed unsuccessfully to at least exempt wild catfish from it.

Of all the places in the country that grapple with invasive fish, Gibbons said, the Chesapeake has the best chance of getting a handle on its issues. A few restaurants in the Great Lakes region serve invasive Asian carp, one of the area’s greatest aquatic menaces, but it hasn’t spawned a robust fishery like the blue catfish industry here.

“You have an invasive species that’s a real challenge for the Bay, and now you have a program that puts it on people’s plates,” he said. “And then you have a nonsensical trade barrier really potentially ruining that effort.”

No one seems certain what will happen next. Billy Rice, a longtime commercial fisherman, said the industry hasn’t been able to ascertain how far-reaching the law will be. But Rice, who also oysters, crabs and fishes for striped bass, said the blue cat fishery is the most profitable one he’s in, and that any charge to the processors will trickle down and cut into his profits.

“If it falls back on the processors, it automatically falls back on the fishermen,” he said, “Because someone has got to pay the bill.”

Martin Gary, executive secretary of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, said he continues to try to get clarity from the USDA about what the new law will look like. Part of the problem, Gary said, is that each time he speaks to someone at the USDA, he gets a different answer about what the new program means. Since the Trump administration took office, the agency has many vacancies, particularly in its communications department.

Richard Turner, 26, is one of the younger fishermen working the Chesapeake. Recently engaged, he employs his sister and his fiancée to help on his early-morning runs, one of the few captains with a female crew. Blue catfish are a key to him being able to continue working on the water. By early March, he said, he was catching 2,765 pounds in one day.

As Turner steered his boat back to Marshall Hall, he looked again at the sonar screen showing blue cats all over the bottom. In his spare time, he said, he has been emailing and calling the USDA, hoping to get the same answers Gary is seeking.

“I’m getting a lot of different answers. No clarity,” he said. “And I’m concerned. We have built this into a really good fishery, a positive thing.”

About Rona Kobell

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Baltimore Sun. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Read more articles by Rona Kobell


By submitting a comment, you are consenting to these Rules of Conduct. Thank you for your civil participation. Please note: reader comments do not represent the position of Chesapeake Media Service.

Joseph Corcoran on April 03, 2017:

Since the new " administration " is against regulations this should be easy to fix . Additionally , this " administration " is against laws crossing state lines . So let Mississippi take care of Mississippi and don't bother Maryland and Virginia .

Patrick on April 03, 2017:

I'm with the watermen on removing a protectionist regulation that prevents local (American) food production. But the undoing of pollution regulations should be a much greater concern to the catfishing watermen than the USDA inspection requirement. If they put half as much energy into fighting pollution control rollbacks as fisheries regulations, the bay would be much better off in the long term. If they don't, they risk having the wild caught catfish becoming increasingly fouled by bioaccumulating chemicals that would render their fisheries products unsafe for human consumption.

B on April 04, 2017:

What I don't understand is how the Potomac fisheries commission does not recommend eating these fish from the river because of the many contaminates found but allow commercial fisherman to harvest and sell to the public without any discretion. Why has this not been mentioned?

Eric tustin on April 15, 2017:

I speak for thousands of folks the recreation fish for blue cats when I say hat we fully support the new regulations. Bluecats bring a lot of revenue into the Virginia Maryland and District of Columbia area. I live in Ohio and travel to the Potomac river several times a year. Hat that means for the local business, hotels, dining, fuel, etc. and I'm not alone in the travels. Thousands of catfisher men women and most importantly children travel to the Potomac river because of the great bluecat fish available. Might be had for y'all to over look your own greed of the might dollar but a lot of folks like myself depend on that very idea. So I proudly support any and all regulations that make it more difficult to rape the river of its fish.

james on May 13, 2017:

Oh yes, how “nearsighted, reckless and irresponsible.” to protect the public from eating fish filled with such high level's of Mercury, PCB's, anti-fungal drugs and other contaminants/Toxic chemicals! all they want to do is rape our river to pad their wallets, maybe some will get cancer from it but they will make their money,is that so bad??. these catfish have been here since the 70's with no issue's, and shad/crab populations have been on the rise; so how are they "invasive"(meaning:"believed to cause damage to the environment)"? there is NO proof of any problems from blue cats (which eat the same things as native channel catfish and others). but they must make up a lie so they can get by with exploiting our fishery. perhaps the bigger problem to the shad population(if there was one) is that other invasive species eating up all the fingerlings, The Largemouth BASS... which are also not native to the Potomac so lets get rid of those invasive predators first! or maybe it's these very "commercial fisherman"(river rapers) with their gill nets hundreds of feet long wiping out schools of fish indiscriminately. bass,stripers, american/hickory shad(which are not legal for harvest, but die by the dozens in these nets). these people are the biggest threat to the river, Ban them -james

david creek on May 19, 2017:

these commercial fishermen have a lot of power over some politicians I suppose. how they can get away with the whole sale destruction of a public resource, a resource that belongs to all of us, not just a few men that make a living off our property, I cant figure out. I would love to see the outcry if we decided the whitetail deer needs to be kept under control by commercial harvest, or as the person above stated the largemouth bass. These so called fishermen will sell every last fish on the planet if they could, just to make a buck. I hope they all find a job that doesn't include feeding people contaminated food, or decimating our resources.These same states could make a ton of money advertising the great catfishing on these rivers, instead they cow to the river rapers.

larry on May 21, 2017:

This is one of the classic moves that maryland makes all the time. lets make up a fire that needs to be put out that we the state could make money off of!!! the commercial fishermen will pay fees so that we will let them rape "OUR" river of all the resources that belong to everyone, but who cares about the rest of the population they are not slipping us an extra unlimited quota fee. these fish have been here a long time with no impact on any native species. and when ask for real proof they cant give you any. it's still being studied they say. if that was the case why would you call to wipe out a species if you have no proof. they have been in the james river even longer and just like here in the potomac everything is coexisting fine. i have been fishing this river my entire life,and the state can make up any lies they want but i still catch all the same species of fish and the same numbers as always. i personally love the blue catfish. where can you go to your local river and possibly catch 50 to 70 pound fish? the great potomac,well for now anyway. getting rid of them and going back to being excited to catch a 5 pound bass again?not a chance...back to the harm they are accused of is manufactured. the blueback herring?we personally witness the river so full of them it looks as though you could walk across the river on them....but the blue cat has decimated them right?and by the way who does what with or is actually interested in the herring? im waiting...and on that same note all the protected herring and shad that are protected and the blue cat blamed for,the same offenders that pay blood money can catch them farther out before entering the bay by the tons and its ok? for a fee ?YES!!! sound familiar?and please dont refer to them as watermen!!! these are not true watermen who make up many in my own family. the sportsmen who live here and enjoy catching big fish , along with people who travel from 4 to 5 states away to come to such a great fishery to have a chance at such a great trophy,have no voice because the commercial guys are paying to kill all of "everyones"fish. a case in point to look at would be the ohio river that has been all but destroyed by this same problem of the "INVASIVE" COMMERCIAL FISHERMAN.ask the regular recreational fisherman how it worked out there.the same guys that are making the money on this false agenda will also have told me how much farther up the potomac system they have been able to crab in recent years. so another strike out for blue cats harming the crabbing. and these are the same guys getting to destroy the catfish for hurting crab populations,UNBELIEVABLE! AND disgusting. as long as we keep letting these people in charge of our natural resources in MD make rules as they go,and on a notion,or as has been the case on a make money agenda we will have nothing left!!! SAVE THE BLUE CAT. before its too late.and it cant be reversed

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