For years, Rocky Rice made his living primarily by fishing two of the Bay’s most iconic species: striped bass in the spring and blue crabs much of the summer.
But after several years of poor blue crab catches, and with new catch limits on striped bass being put in place, Rice added one of the Bay’s most troublesome species to his mix: blue catfish.
Last year, he went from spending six days a week harvesting blue crabs to three. The other days he went after the growing population of blue catfish.
It paid off. The invasive species last year accounted for 25–30 percent of his income, Rice said. “The two biggest reasons for people targeting them is the increase in their marketability and the lack of hard crabs,” he said. “That’s what got me doing it. It made more business sense.”
Rice is one of a growing number of fishermen responding to the plea of fishery officials to catch as many of the voracious predators as they can.
Data show that on the Potomac River, and in Virginia, the commercial blue catfish harvests now exceed the commercial catches of striped bass. Striped bass are still the bigger catch in Maryland, where the blue catfish is a more recent invader.
No one knows how many catfish are in the Bay, but their numbers, and their range, has rapidly increased in recent years, and whether fisheries are taking a significant bite out of the population is unknown.
But Bruce Vogt, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Chesapeake Bay Office, is hopeful. “We’re getting the results we wanted,” he said. Vogt chairs the Bay Program’s Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team’s Invasive Catfish Task Force, which made creating a commercial fishery and a market for blue catfish its top priority for helping to control the invader.
The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries introduced blue catfish into the James and Rappahannock Rivers in the 1970s as a new species for recreational fishermen. In recent years, their population has expanded dramatically — in parts of the James, they are estimated to account for three-quarters of all fish biomass. They are now found in most rivers around the Bay.
Fishery managers are concerned the voracious predators could be harming important species, such as blue crabs, American shad and river herring. The endangered Atlantic sturgeon could also be at risk, as catfish are abundant in suspected sturgeon spawning areas.
Fishery managers around the Bay have encouraged fishermen to go after the fish, and seafood processors have increasingly promoted the product to stores. A nonprofit organization, Wide Net Project has been promoting the use of blue catfish in hunger relief programs in the mid-Atlantic.
Those efforts got a boost in September when the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program awarded blue catfish from the Bay a green seafood recommendation, its highest attainable recommendation. The rating means that Seafood Watch considers the fish a “best choice” and encourages consumers to preferentially purchase it.
It was the first time the program, which advises consumers about sustainable seafood, made an assessment regarding an invasive fish.
Consumers seem to be responding. Fishermen can get 50–75 cents a pound for blue catfish. That’s far less than striped bass, which can bring $4 or more per pound, but with blue catfish being so plentiful in many rivers, the price has become increasingly attractive for watermen.
“I see a larger number of people going after them than there used to be,” said Jaimie Bowling, who targets blue catfish north of the U.S. Route 301 bridge in the Potomac. “I figure every time I catch a blue catfish I’m doing some good. If I catch a crab, even though they’re doing better this year, I feel like I’m part of the problem. When I catch a catfish, I think I’m helping.”
Blue catfish harvests have risen sharply in recent years, especially in Virginia and on the Potomac River.
In Virginia’s portion of the Bay, blue catfish landings jumped from 150,328 pounds in 2010, to 1.21 million pounds last year, according to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. That likely underestimates the catch because 744,674 pounds of unidentified catfish were also landed, most of which are thought to be blue catfish. In comparison, last year’s striped bass harvest was 1.17 million pounds in Virginia’s portion of the Bay. Blue catfish have exceeded the striped bass harvest since 2011 in the commonwealth.
On the Potomac River, catfish landings last year were 608,874 pounds, for the first time surpassing striped bass, which totaled 594,561 pounds, according to data from the Potomac River Fisheries Commission. As recently as 2008, blue catfish landings on the river were just 166,000 pounds.
In Maryland, where the blue catfish is a relatively new invader, catches last year were 159,002 pounds, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. That was dwarfed by the commercial striped bass catch of 1.8 million pounds, and is actually down from 237,757 pounds in 2013.
But Vogt said, “the reason we suggested the fishery in the first place wasn’t solely for economic gain. It was to have some sort of ecological benefit.” Whether the increasing catches are reducing catfish pressure on other species is unknown. “We are not doing anything to quantify whether we are having that benefit,” Vogt said, adding that there might be a need for additional studies to determine the actual level of blue catfish reduction necessary to reduce predation pressure on crabs and other species.
Martin Gary, executive director of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, said the fact that blue catfish have become a profitable commodity for fishermen and a desirable product for chefs, wholesalers and retailers was a “silver lining” for an otherwise troublesome situation.
“But I’m still concerned,” he said. “Do we know enough about what… an ever increasing population of blue catfish is doing?”
“The uncertainty about what the ecological implications are, that is the wildcard that really bothers us.”
But for some fishermen, the blue catfish has been a boon. While species like blue crabs and striped bass have faced increasing catch restrictions, there’s no limits for blue catfish — and no concerns about the invader being overfished.
“There’s no way, without dropping a nuclear bomb and destroying everything in the river that you’re ever going to get rid of them,” Rice said. “They’re here to stay. Thank goodness they’re good to eat. Can you imagine if they weren’t? They would take over the whole river in no time. They’re already trying to.”