Initially introduced for sport fishing in several Virginia tributaries in the 1960s to 1980s, blue and flathead catfish are now considered invasive in the Chesapeake Bay. Populations of these catfish—which can grow as large as 100 pounds and live for more than 20 years—have increased dramatically since their introduction, and they are now present in every major Chesapeake Bay tributary.
Even though they’ve been in the Bay for years, natural resource managers now realize that blue and flathead catfish are problematic. While valued as sport fish, they are fierce predators and are contributing to changes in the Chesapeake Bay food web to the detriment of native fish.
Where did they come from?
Blue and flathead catfish are freshwater fish native to the Ohio and Mississippi River basins. In their native range, these catfish have evolved alongside the other organisms and are a healthy part of the ecosystem. In fact, they are quite popular sport fish for anglers in their native range, which is why they were brought to the Atlantic coast in the first place. Years ago this was common practice by natural resource agencies, but many now realize the harmful consequences of transporting fish outside of their home ranges.
Why are they problematic in the Chesapeake Bay?
“Blue and flathead catfish are ferocious predators and can take over entire stretches of rivers. They can grow quite large—reaching sizes of over 100 pounds,” according to Bruce Vogt, NOAA Fisheries manager and chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Invasive Catfish Task Force. “To get this large, they must consume a lot of prey. In some parts of the James and Rappahannock Rivers, invasive catfish dominate the fish community, representing up to 75 percent of the total fish biomass.”
Can you eat them?
According to Vogt, blue and flathead catfish are not only edible, but they are desirable table fare: “We’ve been working to promote the use of invasive catfish from the Chesapeake Bay. Whole Foods is now selling blue catfish in their stores, which is a great way to get the public involved in helping the Chesapeake Bay by eating this delicious invader. Invasive catfish from the Bay have even recently earned the green rating from Seafood Choices, the Blue Ocean Institute’s rating system for seafood.”
John Rorapaugh is the sustainability coordinator for Profish Ltd, a Washington, DC-based seafood purveyor, and has seen a boom in the sales of invasive catfish in recent years. “Four years ago we weren’t selling any blue catfish. We’re now selling over 300,000 pounds a year. Customers have been happy to eat locally caught fish while helping to reduce the populations of invasive species in their hometown.”
Harvesting invasives to help those in need
The Wide Net Project is a non-profit organization that supports restoration of the Chesapeake Bay and works to improve food access to underserved communities. Wendy Stuart, co-founder of Wide Net says that, “Wide Net sells invasive catfish to food pantries and community assistance programs at below-cost prices, thus making healthy, local fish available to hunger relief organizations while helping the environment.
Profish, Ltd. gives 25 cents to charity for each pound of invasive catfish sold as part of their “Charity off the Hook” foundation. “Giving back is something we believe in. This charity creates thousands of dollars for local charities each month and is a good way to make these problematic invasive species profitable to fisherman and beneficial to the community,” says Rorapaugh.
To learn more about how these fish might be affecting the Bay, the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office has funded research to take a closer look at the biology and feeding habits of these fish and continues to support efforts to manage the invasive catfish through their participation in the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Invasive Catfish Task Force. The Task Force works to explore potential management measures and proposes actions to mitigate negative effects of invasive catfish in the Bay. The Task Force has developed a set of recommendations for resource managers to follow.
How do we predict and stop the next invasive species?
According to Susan Pasko, NOAA’s aquatic invasive species coordinator, “Invasive species are very difficult and expensive to eradicate once they are established in an ecosystem. Prevention is our first line of defense against these species and will help avoid many of the long-term economic, environmental, and social costs associated with invasive species.”
The Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force—an intergovernmental organization co-chaired by NOAA—is dedicated to the prevention , management, and eradication of invasive species and has information on specific actions you can take to prevent the spread of invasive species.