Blue Cat Invasion

     Stopping at Bob Evans Seafood in Shady Side, Lou Hyde reports he routinely finds blue catfish in his 240 crab pots in Herring Bay. Some of the horned invaders are so fat that he tears up his pots cutting them loose.

      Mick Blackistone, fishmonger, worries that they’re eating juvenile crabs.

      “Guys who would go out to catch perch and spot are hauling up blue catfish. Some people are filleting them but a lot of people are letting them go,” says Blackistone, an author and former marine industry executive.

      “With scientists saying there are 100 million of them out there, we’re very concerned,” Blackistone says. “I’m worried that the ecosystem of the Bay could change.”

     Until recently, the spread of blue catfish was stealthy. But heavy rains and low salinity this year triggered a full-scale invasion of this apex predator that threatens to alter Bay ecosystems forever, fisheries experts warn.

     Maryland rivers and creeks teem with blue cats; an angler last week posted a Facebook photo of an eight-pound specimen, the biggest in his 30-pound take that day.

      In inlets along the sailboat haven of Herring Bay, anglers are taking home buckets of blue and other catfish varieties from waters where none swam a year or two ago.

      With no natural enemies other than us, these fast breeders reside now throughout Virginia and mid-Maryland waterways. Dozens nabbed at the Conowingo Dam this spring were invading to the north.

     As with snakeheads — another Asian alien — we’re told to eat and enjoy.

     Jalapeno and Peach Gazpacho with Blackened Blue Cat was among treats on the Statehouse lawn at the governor’s 2019 Buy-Local Cookout last month.

      “Tastes good,” Gov. Larry Hogan said after forking a fish hunk out of his soup.

     But as we take stock of the invader, it’s worth inquiring about the aftertaste. 

A Cautionary Tale 

      If it weren’t for catfish, Lewis and Clark might not have gotten beyond what is now Nebraska in their Missouri River journey westward.

     Sgt. Patrick Gass, the Corps of Discovery’s carpenter and all-around competent fellow, wrote that eight of them horsed out of the Missouri totaled 300 pounds of meat for the three dozen adventurers.

     Catfish was, and is, a fine species for the Midwest. Big river ecosystems there are damaged by invading Asian carp, voracious, bony and loathsome creatures hardly fit for cat food. 

     The Midwest fish story, like ours, began in the 1970s, when commercial catfish farmers in the Arkansas region imported Asian carp to hoover up algae and any other impurities that might fit through the fat, fleshy lips of these torpedo-like suckers.

     Then the floods came. Fish do well in water — so well that hundreds of millions of pounds of grass carp, silver carp and even the four-foot-long black carp, all equally detestable, fully occupy the storied Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

     The Army Corps of Engineers recently finished a plan to spend $800 million in taxpayer funds for an electric fence, sound barriers and air bubble curtains to prevent Asian carp from escaping the Illinois River into the Great Lakes, where they could do significant damage to a $7 billion fishing industry.

     Will the Chesapeake be paying for its own fishy decision of the 1970s?

     Let’s start a new fishery, the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries concluded back then. The state agency introduced blue catfish first into the tidal James and Rappahannock rivers and a decade later in the Mattaponi.

        Now photos of whiskered blobs the size of small hogs make the rounds, and Virginia boasts that their James River is a “premier trophy fishery,” drawing big-cat seekers from throughout the region. There’s a growing commercial catfish harvest, particularly in the Potomac River.

     Yet amid talk of lunkers and tasty recipes, fish experts offer a sobering reminder that what we have in our midst is a voracious, fast-breeding creature that swims at the top of the food chain.

     Roughly half of what blue catfish eat are other fish, a troubling fact at a time the Chesapeake’s prized rockfish are in decline and the Atlantic sturgeon and American eel are threatened species.

      A species is classified as invasive if it is “likely to cause economic or environmental harm to human health,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the nation’s main fisheries regulator.

     “Blue catfish have the potential to dominate the fish populations in tributaries where they are present, representing up to 75 percent of total fish biomass,” NOAA reports on its website.

      Blue catfish have a much higher tolerance of salinity than previously thought — in the range of 17 parts-per-thousand — pointing to “the ability to expand to (and survive in) much of the Chesapeake Bay,” reported a scientific study several years ago by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and The College of William and Mary.

     Eating behemoths over 30 inches — and frequent dining on blue cats of any size — is discouraged because of the mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls and other contaminants that build up in these bottom-feeders’ flesh.

      A study last year funded by NOAA on blue cats from the James River and Upper Potomac included these disquieting words: “Most fillets surpassed U.S. EPA advisory limits for unrestricted consumption for Hg [mercury] and PCBs.”

Turning Catfish into Cat Food  

      The threat was apparent years ago, which is why in 2012 a regional entity — the Invasive Catfish Task Force — formed to limit the range and “examine possible negative ecological impacts.” The assumed goal was a fisheries management plan. That was not to be.

     The task force scored successes, spreading the word about the benefits of expanding a commercial fishery to control populations.

     Proposals sounded for eradication strategies, but it became clear to task force members that they would not have support. Turning catfish into cat food was talked about but nothing took flight. (Purina is experimenting in certain markets with pet food made with Asian carp.)

      The resolve to proceed eroded amid the friction of competing interests and lack of support. The task force hit a crossroads late last year.

     “Without clearly defined outcomes developed by managers and stakeholders, the ICTF concluded that progress will continue to be limited,” the task force reported.

     Bruce Vogt, a fisheries scientist in NOAA’s Chesapeake Bay offices who headed the task force and works with states and advocacy groups throughout the region said members felt strongly about developing a Bay-wide management plan. “But the executive committee did not want to move forward.”

     What emerged from this reckoning was the Invasive Catfish Workgroup, with a different mission and much less hope, seven years later, of stemming the invasion.

     The workgroup will hold its first meeting August 27, open to the public. Stay tuned for more details.

     “We need to work together and set some goals,” said Vogt, who heads the group.

Tackling the Bubba Effect

    “It’s the same challenge you have with many fisheries,” said Greg Garman, a fisheries expert at Virginia Commonwealth University. “You have a commercial harvest and a recreational harvest. Then you throw in the potential conflict between different agencies with different mandates.”

     Building a commercial market is essential, he said. One potential is boosting the harvest via electrofishing — shocking fish to the surface with pulses from onboard gear. The method proved highly effective in tests with minimal by-catch, Garman said.

      But, he recalled, commercial interests lacking such sophisticated gear “kicked up a fuss with a state agency.” And that was that.

      As much as one-quarter of the catfish spread seems to have resulted from anglers brazenly moving them between waterways for convenience, which Garman referred to as “the Bubba effect.”

      “Somebody says, Hey, this is cool. I want to be able to fish for blue cats closer to my house,” Garman said. 

      Studies are in order measuring blue cats’ success outcompeting other species and better estimates needed about their toll on crabs and rockfish.

But there are no illusions. Perhaps the best that can be done, Garman said, is locating a few waterways where agreement can be forged “to try to hold the line,” to keep blue cats from moving in.

      “We will not eradicate blue catfish from Chesapeake Bay.”

      Matthew Ogburn, a senior scientist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, has studied Bay creatures from clams to cownose rays.

      After 40 years of collecting trawl data on the Rhode River south of Annapolis, his agency caught its first blue catfish this year.

      “If we’re serious about managing the impact of blue catfish, we should actively manage the fishery as we would blue crabs or striped bass so as to have positive benefits both for the ecosystem and for waterman,” he said.

      “We’re at the point as decision-makers, and as citizens, where we need to decide whether this is important enough to do something about it.”