Bay Journal

New federal regulation of blue catfish may be eased

USDA relaxing inspection mandate, but Bay fishing industry fears it could still cost jobs, and hamper efforts to control invasive fish

  • By Rona Kobell on August 25, 2017
Blue catfish can grow to more than 100 pounds devouring crabs, herring and striped bass, while living for 20 years or more. (Dave Harp)

Chesapeake Bay watermen and processors who handle blue catfish — an invader eating its way through the Potomac and several other major river systems — may face a less burdensome federal inspection process than they expected when a long-anticipated regulation goes into effect.

As of Sept. 1, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is responsible for inspecting all catfish. The regulation covers both the wild-caught marauder menacing the Chesapeake’s tributaries and the farm-raised varieties grown in Mississippi River ponds and imported from China and Vietnam. Previously, the Food and Drug Administration inspected all fish. The FDA will continue to inspect all other fish; only catfish will be added to the USDA’s mainstays, beef and chicken.

The USDA had previously said it would require an inspector at the processors any time blue catfish were on the premises, and that the agency would cover the cost of an inspector for only 40 hours a week, and just during normal daytime working hours. Processors would have to pay about $70 per hour for inspectors needed at other times — which would be likely, as watermen bring in catfish on weekends and from early in the morning until late at night.

But after meetings with watermen, processors and fish-cutters over the last several months, the USDA has revised its plan, according to spokeswoman Julie Schwartz. Calling it an adjustment in production coverage, she said that rather than require an inspector be on hand at all times during catfish processing, the regulation will mandate an inspector only “once per production shift.” This would apply to both whole fish sellers and those that process them into filets. She did not specify the length of a shift.

Martin Gary, executive secretary of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, helped to organize two meetings with anxious watermen and processors this summer as well as tours of two facilities, Reliant Fish Company in Jessup, MD, and ProFish Ltd. in Washington, DC. He said he’s grateful that USDA inspectors are willing to listen to concerns, but pointed out “they haven’t guaranteed anything.”

“[What] I heard from the USDA [was] an earnest effort to try to understand the logistics, timing and challenges of the processors,” Gary said. “We don’t really have a choice, but at least there’s been some positive communications, and the two sides understand each other better.”

Introduced into the James and Rappahannock rivers in the 1970s as a new species for recreational fishermen, the whiskered blue catfish has munched its way across the Chesapeake. It now accounts for 75 percent of the biomass in parts of those two rivers, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. Voracious and salt-tolerant, the blue catfish is also established in the Potomac and York rivers. They can grow to more than 100 pounds; devour crabs, herring and striped bass; and live for 20 years or more.

With few options to combat their spread, the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Invasive Blue Catfish Task Force in 2014 recommended establishing a commercial fishery. One quickly emerged.

In 2016, watermen caught 1.5 million pounds of blue catfish from the Potomac, up from 608,874 pounds in 2008, the year the whiskered invader first surpassed striped bass. In as little as a year or two, harvests doubled in Virginia and Maryland.

But in 2008, U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) slid a provision into the U.S. Farm Bill moving inspection responsibility to the USDA after a phase-in period to give agencies time to adjust. The shift was intended to protect Mississippi catfish farmers, who were complaining about competition from their counterparts in Vietnam. The regulation had critics — from Cochran’s fellow lawmakers, including Republicans, who called it an unfair trade barrier — to the Government Accountability Office, which said it was a waste of $14 million annually in taxpayer funds. Efforts to block the law faltered, and it took effect this year.

Gavin Gibbons of the National Fisheries Institute, who represents catfish processors and farms, said the provision means one of the country’s most successful “eat-the-invasives” programs will suffer.

“Maryland and Virginia have done an excellent job of creating a commercial fishery out of an invasive species, and now they will be exposed to duplicative and expensive regulations that are completely unnecessary,” he said.

NOAA’s Bruce Vogt agrees. “We felt like we were on the cusp,” of managing the blue cat fishery, he said. “That’s the trajectory we were on, and the inspections could take us off that track. The USDA has never really dealt with a fish before, a wild-caught fish, let alone an invasive species. So it’s taking a bit of learning on everyone’s part.”

Ricky Nixon, owner of Murray L. Nixon Fishery in Edenton, NC, is not reassured. His family has been in the fish-cutting business since the 1950s. His 49 employees cut 3.5 million pounds of catfish each year, much of it from the Chesapeake Bay. Already, he said, he has reduced work shifts from 10 hours to eight in anticipation of the USDA’s 40-hour work week and its rule that inspectors had to be on the premises whenever fish were cut.

“It worries the hell out of me, excuse my French. I reckon it will put the wild [catfish] people like us out of business,” Nixon said. “And there ain’t nothing I can do about it. I have cussed, I have fussed, I have done everything I can do.”

If Nixon stops handling catfish, it will be a loss of several million dollars and dozens of fishermen out of work, said Tim Sughrue, vice president of Congressional Seafood in Jessup. It’s not just the fish inspecting, he said, but also the facilities. Congressional moved into a new $9 million facility. But other processors, like Nixon’s and the two that the USDA visited, are older.

“They will stop production for a crack in the floor,” Sughrue said of federal agriculture inspectors.

Processors and watermen are working with the USDA, but also lobbying for change. They have formed an organization, the Wild American Catfish Coalition. The effort has included letters to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue asking for wild catfish to be exempted from the law. They are from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan; Basil Gooden, Virginia secretary of agriculture and forestry; and Robert Newberry of the Delmarva Fisheries Association.

Hogan, in addition, asked for a six-month delay in enforcing the law, saying the extra time will allow the state to fully assess business’ harm from the regulation. Hogan spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said the governor’s staff plans to meet with Congressional staff to pursue the issue.

USDA spokeswoman Schwartz and other department officials have maintained the department is only doing what Congress mandated. Advocates want to remedy that with new legislation or an exemption in the next Farm Bill, which is due by September 2018.

The Potomac fisheries commission’s Gary hopes that lawmakers ultimately will agree that the best way to deal with a Chesapeake Bay menace is to let fishermen take as many as they can, with minimal red tape, while offering consumers a healthy, plentiful and relatively inexpensive protein source.

“At the end of the day, it comes down to the resource,” he said, “or it’s supposed to anyway.”

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

Comments

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Rosa on August 25, 2017:

I understand the point of view of the manufacturers but since the 50 de food safety has go thru a mayor changes and some on this manufacturer that has been operated under no inspection cant expect to be operating without having the food safety as the first priority. The necessity of reducing the numbers of invasive species cant be priority when sometimes the unsanitary conditions are predominant as this companies priority is making money and not investing in the infrastructure of the plant. I agree that the regulations should be base in manufacturers inside the USA but lets have in mind as consumers we want safe food products and don't have food outbreaks that can be very costly too.


Capt. Robert Newberry on August 25, 2017:

There is no need for this added inspection. All production fish processing facilities already have state, County and federal health standards they have to meet. Also all processing facilities must be HASSAP approved. The domino effect of this blue catfish is critical also to the blue crab industry and many other seafood base Industries in Maryland. The data that the FSIS has gathered is insufficient and does not substantiate the implementation of this regulation. Data quality Act of 2001 from Congress has not been fulfilled properly. Also, president Trump, through his executive order, stated no new regulation shall be implemented until two current regulations are scheduled for dismissal. Plain simple fact. USDA has rushed this issue along with the FSIS, and have made many mistakes. Once again, this inspection is not necessary and does not need to be implemented. There are no reports of any catfish from the Chesapeake Bay ever making anybody sick when properly handled as existing regulations imply.


Capt. Robert Newberry on August 25, 2017:

This regulation set forth by the USDA (FSIS) is unnecessary, and being promulgated and implemented indirect violation of the Data Quality Act set forth by Congress in 2001. Their lack of data, and continuance of gathering data, does not substantiate their bases for implementation of this regulation. The lack of an environmental, an economic impact study is also of great concern to us in the seafood industry. All facilities that process catfish throughout the nation already are inspected by the State Health Department, County Health Department, and also have to have proper HASSIP plans in place to process fish. This original regulation was put in the 2008 Farm Bill trying to curtail the mass of import of foreign fish affecting our domestic Market. It was amended in 2014, and reworded. Still today only 1.7% of imported catfish is inspected. FSIS stated at all their meanings this 1.7% will not change under the new regulation which goes into effect September 1st. If this regulation goes into effect, it will put out of business many hard-working fisherman throughout this country, and eventually this invasive species of blue catfish will be 100% out of control. We never had this problem with the snakehead did we.


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