Seafood distributors sold more than a half-million pounds of blue catfish to the region’s foodservice industry this past year. That’s double the amount of this invasive species they were able to move the year before, says Steve Vilnit, director of fisheries marketing for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ Fisheries Service.
Wholesale distributors across the region have embraced the invasive offering, advertising it to retail outlets as an inexpensive and versatile whitefish that is good to move from Chesapeake Bay tributaries to local plates.
John Rorapaugh, director of sustainability at ProFish, said he’s been amazed how quickly the fish has gained popularity among his buyers.
His company went from selling 500 pounds three years ago to more than 300,000 pounds — the most of any local wholesaler — this past year.
“That doesn’t happen. There’s not usually a new product that comes out and gets that much traction,” he said.
Not that catfish are new, per se, to their seafood offerings. ProFish has long sold farmed catfish but only began selling the local stores of wild blue catfish around 2010.
That’s when Vilnit approached Rorapaugh to pitch the invasive species as an affordable whitefish that, when caught and sold, helps balance the Bay’s ecosystem.
Blue catfish were introduced to the Chesapeake Bay in the 70s for a new recreational fishery. The carnivorous eaters have since taken over tributaries throughout the watershed and make up an estimated 75 percent of total fish biomass in local rivers.
Their large numbers have displaced and consumed many native fish in these habitats, and make catching blue catfish a lot easier. Fishermen can net up to 20,000 pounds of blue catfish in one swoop in tributaries like the James River, where the blue catfish have basically taken over.
Their abundance means a low price-per-pound for buyers and consumers, which is why ProFish and others have been able to ramp up sales. Sales of blue catfish have outpaced the harder-to-catch and more expensive snakehead that has found its way into white tablecloth restaurants in the District of Columbia and elsewhere (thanks, in large part, to Vilnit’s promotional efforts).
Rorapaugh said buyers have even started to prefer the local blue catfish to the farmed varieties they’ve purchased for so many years. The wild catfish in the Bay are more apex predators than bottom feeders and, therefore, have a cleaner, less muddy flavor.
ProFish isn’t the only company that’s jumped onto the blue catfish boat. The Wide Net Project, a nonprofit launched last year, is helping seafood supplier J.J.
McDonnell move more of the inexpensive source of protein to benefit D.C.’s hunger-relief organizations.
The nonprofit also is working to improve the image of blue catfish in the watershed, elevating the fish as a win-win for buyers who want a cheap, versatile whitefish that benefits the Bay.
“It’s been quite a ride,” Rorapaugh said of blue catfish’s sudden success. “It’s not often that you’re fishing for something to try to help the local population” of seafood.
If the trend continues in the right direction, Rorapaugh thinks growing sales of blue catfish could help rebalance the ecosystems they’ve damaged in the Bay.
Though he doesn’t see eradication as the end goal, he is beginning to see a future in which more predators (that’s us) could help put this overabundant species back in its place.