Fifty years ago, Virginia’s Department of Game & Inland Fisheries (now Department of Wildlife Resources, DWR) introduced blue catfish into the upper tidal James, Rappahannock and Mattaponi Rivers to enhance recreational fishing opportunities. Blue catfish (Ictalurus furcatus) are native to the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio River watersheds. There, people have fished for them commercially and recreationally for centuries, and they have become staples in Midwestern “seafood” diets. They can live for twenty years or more and grow to weights over 150 lbs. In their native range, they are prized for their taste, size and sporting qualities.
In the Chesapeake’s big, rich rivers, the fish have prospered, reproducing busily and growing to prodigious proportions as heavy as 102 lbs. Larger cats (>10 pounds) chow down on gizzard ("mud") shad and to a lesser extent other small fish and blue crabs, but gradually over the ensuing forty-five years, the number of outsized fish has decreased. Meanwhile smaller fish have grown in abundance. Today, for example, fewer than five per cent of the blues in the James are longer than 25", and the proportion is lower in the Rappahannock. In other words, the 15-25" “eater-sized fish” are plentiful.
The big cats have become much-beloved targets of trophy-seekers, drawing not only local anglers but also others from all over the United States, coming especially to the James. Guide services and tournaments have sprung up (check out the Rod & Reef Invasives Slam), and tackle shops stock specialized gear for them. A commercial fishery has developed, feeding markets mainly in Washington, DC, Baltimore and Annapolis. A solid constituency of people around the Chesapeake love them, and some people make a decent living with them.
Capt. Mike Ostrander with his "modest trophy" cat. Photo by John Page Williams
In hindsight, though, the wisdom of introducing them is debatable. Fishery scientists knew blue cats to be omnivorous opportunists, ready to eat whatever their waterways offer them, but the thinking was that salinity in the Bay’s lower rivers would keep them bottled up where they had been introduced. Instead, it turns out that they can tolerate more salinity than previously known. Years with high rainfall let them explore downriver, turn corners, and swim into the Chickahominy, the Pamunkey, the Piankatank, the Potomac and the Patuxent. They began turning up on anglers’ lines in unexpected places. The extremely wet years of 2018-19, when the Chesapeake region received annual rainfall worthy of temperate rainforests (65-70"), let the horses out of the barn. They now inhabit virtually every river system in the Chesapeake, eating whatever they find and multiplying fruitfully. After half a century, they are firmly established here, though their ranges in the lower rivers and the Bay’s main stem expand and contract according to rainfall and river flow. What should we do about them?
NOAA’s Chesapeake Bay Office calls them Invasive and Delicious. “Situations that are truly win-win are few and far between. But, resource managers and foodies alike agree: Eating blue catfish from the Chesapeake Bay is tasty and nutritious, and it is good for the ecosystem. A 4-ounce serving of blue catfish includes 19 grams of protein, with only 90 calories and 1.5 grams of fat. And they include healthy omega-3 fatty acids, too.”
“If you can’t beat 'em, eat ‘em” has become a motto of sorts for those of us here on the Chesapeake who want to make good use of the blue catfish resource. As people further south and in the Mississippi Valley have known for years, catfish have flaky, white meat that fits a wide variety of cooking methods. See a collection of recipes below.
Meanwhile, Chesapeake anglers like to wrestle with the rivers’ large trophy blues, frequently in catch-weigh-release tournaments. Others concentrate on the eaters or cheerfully accept them when they take baits meant for other species. In fact, as limits on rockfish tighten to help that species rebound, Chesapeake anglers are gradually accepting blue cats as legitimate game fish worth taking home for supper. Fishing for Invasives in the Chesapeake Bay has techniques for catching blue catfish.
An eater comes aboard. Photo by John Page Williams
Watermen on Bay rivers from the Susquehanna, the Choptank, and the Nanticoke to the Potomac, Rappahannock, Pamunkey and James are catching them in pots, pound nets, and fykes to satisfy a growing market demand. In fact, commercial landings of blue catfish in the Chesapeake have exceeded those of striped bass since 2015, according to figures from NOAA Fisheries. (Full disclosure: This correspondent is a fan of blue catfish, their problems notwithstanding. They have become favorite fish to pursue, catch, and eat. Moreover, they prefer the beautiful upper tidal sections of the Chesapeake’s rivers – fascinating places full of wild rice marshes, bald eagles, ospreys, winter waterfowl and spawning Atlantic sturgeon and rockfish, not to mention a millennium of human maritime history.)
Big cats pull hard! Brian Bremner, a fellow Virginia Anglers' Club member. John Page Williams photo.
As usual, there are serious questions about introducing a prolific, hungry new species into an ecosystem. One has to do with food safety. A friend who has been involved with the Chesapeake professionally for a long time asked the other day why a major grocery chain was selling fillets of wild blue catfish caught in Bay rivers. She had read that both Virginia and Maryland have outstanding health advisories suggesting limited consumption because of possible high concentrations of PCBs and mercury.
Blue catfish that live a long time in the Bay build up toxins in their bodies. Research has helped regulators work out size limits for blue catfish that are healthy to eat. It’s important to note the importance of filleting and skinning blue catfish, and to be extra careful slicing out the strong-tasting red streak of dark muscle that runs along the center of each fillet on the outside. The skin and the dark meat are the sites that accumulate contaminants. In fact, that fillet rule is good practice for all Chesapeake finfish these days. A good rule of thumb is to limit harvests to fish no longer than 24". That’s also the maximum size that many seafood processors will accept from watermen. The U.S. Department of Agriculture routinely inspects Chesapeake Bay blue catfish products that are available in grocery and seafood stores (though those inspections have created a processing bottleneck). The good news is that this practice keeps the big fish in the water as a challenge for the anglers who target the larger trophies, while reducing the huge numbers of smaller fish.
The other issue is whether blue catfish are disrupting the Chesapeake’s food webs. They eat an extraordinarily broad variety of prey, including blue crabs, Asian clams, insects, other fish and even vegetation. Their growing numbers and rapid expansion throughout the region have raised concern about their potential impact on American shad, eels, river herring, menhaden, striped bass (rockfish), blue crabs and other native species that play important roles in our ecosystem and economy.
As blue cats have spread around the Chesapeake’s rivers, fishery scientists are finding out that they include multiple genetically distinct stocks that present differences in growth of overall population and individual fish. Sizes and growth rates, for example, are much lower in the Rappahannock than in the James, and diet study results have varied between the James and the Potomac. Remember that blue catfish are opportunistic omnivores. They will eat whatever they find, so on the lower rivers, where they are close to the limit of their salinity tolerance, they are in blue crab territory and eat them readily, along with menhaden. Further up that river, though, they feast on lower-salinity forage, especially the abundant gizzard shad and even vegetation like the seeds of marsh plants. The smaller fish eat a wide variety of plant food as well as small shellfish, insect larvae, and worms, Managing each river’s blues properly for maximum benefit and minimal ecosystem harm requires its own research and assessment, including, as far as possible, information on the size or age composition of both recreationally and commercially harvested fish.
To deal with these issues, NOAA’s Chesapeake Bay Office and the Chesapeake Bay Program three years ago convened a Blue Catfish Work Group. It includes scientists, fishery managers, watermen, seafood dealers, guides and recreational anglers, working together to develop policies that control the high numbers of smaller fish; take advantage of them as reasonably priced, fresh, local seafood; and encourage all aspects of the recreational fishery, including the large trophy fish. The Work Group’s goals have been to “reduce the abundance and mitigate the spread and ecological impacts of invasive catfishes in the Chesapeake Bay through increased public education and awareness and development of fishery management strategies that ensure ecosystem health and productivity.”
Two years ago, the Bay Program published the workshop’s resulting 21-page Invasive Catfish Management Strategy. For anyone truly concerned about “lemons" (the potential harm that blue catfish pose for the Chesapeake) but also interested in "making lemonade” (realizing the opportunities they offer for fresh, healthy, local seafood, jobs for watermen, and good recreational angling), the Management Strategy is well worth reading. Its elements include improving public awareness through outreach and marketing campaigns, removing processing barriers, conducting and synthesizing scientific research, developing tributary-specific management plans and, overall, adapting blue catfish management as we learn more about them here in Chesapeake waters.
Yes, there’s a legitimate worry that the voracious blue catfish can disrupt Chesapeake river systems, but after a half-century, the science is telling us that so far, they are adjusting without radical damage to native stocks like blue crabs, eels, or American shad while concentrating on the abundant mud shad. It’s imperative that we continue to monitor the stock and adjust management accordingly. But right now, as science is also telling us that we need to reduce pressure on rockfish, we are presented with a new resource for both food and recreation. Don’t argue with what our Bay is giving us. Catch 'em up and eat 'em with a smile, with lemonade.
Blackened Catfish Fillets, from Colonial Beach Chef Rocky Denson :
1 lb. catfish fillets, skinned, with dark meat vein removed2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup Spice Bouquet Blackening Seasoning
Spread olive oil onto both sides of the fillets and liberally coat them with Spice Bouquet Blackening Seasoning. Add additional seasoning if desired. Place heavy skillet (preferably cast iron) over medium-heat. When skillet is hot, sear fish quickly on each side just enough to cause fish to flake. Serve immediately.
Basic Catfish Fillets, fried or quick-baked:
1 lb. catfish fillets, skinned, with dark meat vein removed
1 cup fresh buttermilk or two beaten eggs
2 cups House-Autry Seafood Breader
1 cup coarse ground yellow cornmeal
½ cup peanut or canola oil
Mix one cup of Seafood Breader and the cornmeal in one bowl, the buttermilk or egg in another, and the second cup of Seafood Breader in a third. Pat the fillets dry and coat in Seafood Breader alone (a shake of Old Bay or J.O. Spice is optional). Dip in buttermilk or egg and then coat in breader/cornmeal mixture. Heat the oil in a heavy skillet and fry each fillet quickly till golden brown, turning once. Drain on paper towels and serve with coleslaw. If quick-baking, coat fillets as above but bake in a pan pre-sprayed with olive oil. Bake at 450 degrees for 15 minutes or until fish flakes. One friend, a catfish guide, likes to cut blue cat fillets into chunks and marinate them in yellow mustard for several hours before breading and frying.
There are fourteen more Blue Catfish Recipes available from Maryland’s Department of Agriculture, including fried blue catfish tacos.
Fried blue catfish tacos, photo by Alex McCrickard