Every once in a while, one is struck by the power of a new idea. At a recent event held by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to kick off a public education campaign about invasive catfish in the Chesapeake Bay, I learned about an initiative called the Wide Net Project. The concept of the Wide Net Project is elegant in its simplicity and its brilliance.
Image courtesy Virginia Sea Grant
Neither blue nor flathead catfish are native to the Chesapeake Bay. Unfortunately, the invasive species have become apex predators that feed voraciously on other fish and shellfish. In some areas of the watershed, they represent a significant percentage of a tributary’s total fish biomass. But they are also a good source of lean protein.
In this invasive catfish problem, Wide Net Project co-founders Sharon Feuer Gruber and Wendy Stuart saw a solution: the catfish could be fished out of local tributaries and used to provide low-cost protein to hunger relief organizations.
Wide Net Project staff work with J.J. McDonnell, a large seafood company, to process and distribute the catch from area anglers. Staff sell the fish to restaurants, grocers, hospitals, universities and other institutions at market price. A significant portion of these sales is used to lower the price of the fish staff then sell to hunger relief agencies, which normally can’t afford healthy, local foods. To address the health concern related to the potential accumulation of toxins in older and larger fish, the Wide Net Project markets and sells only younger and smaller blue catfish. J.J. McDonnell also recycles fish waste produced during processing into pet food.
At the DNR event, which was held at Smallwood State Park on the Mattawoman Creek, chefs cooked up samples of blue catfish. While I enjoy eating fish, I don’t think I had ever tasted catfish before that day. I tried some, and found it had a flakey white meat and a light and delicate taste. I thought to myself, one should never underestimate the power of a great idea or the ability of a few dedicated individuals to get things done. Sharon and Wendy connected the dots and inspired us all.
Note: The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect U.S. EPA policy endorsement or action.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has launched a state-wide campaign to teach citizens about the impact of blue and flathead catfish and encourage anglers to remove the invasive species from local rivers and streams.
Native to the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio river basins, blue catfish were introduced to the James, Rappahannock and York rivers in the 1970s and ‘80s as a sport fish. Flathead catfish were introduced to the James in the 1960s for the same reason. Over time, the natural movement and purposeful introduction of the fish into new waters have hastened their establishment in Chesapeake Bay tributaries.
This concerns scientists, who fear the fast-growing and long-lived blue catfish, in particular, could impact the region’s ecologic and economic resources. Because of its opportunistic feeding habits, the blue catfish has become an apex predator, disrupting the structure of the Bay ecosystem and eating up critical aquatic species.
Indeed, “gut content analyses” of the fish have found American shad, Atlantic menhaden, freshwater mussels and blue crabs in their stomachs. Peyton Robertson, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chesapeake Bay Office and chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team, compared the blue catfish to a Bengal tiger, noting that the fish eats “just about anything.”
“If left unchecked, [blue catfish] could, as top predators, start to impact other parts of our ecosystem,” Robertson said.
But its eradication isn’t feasible, and experts believe the invasive fish is here to stay. So managers hope to mitigate their spread and minimize their impact on native fish.
With support from the Bay Program, DNR has established more than 150 signs at water access points and kiosks around the state to help anglers identify, catch and keep the species, while Maryland Seafood has escalated its efforts to market the fish to restaurants and boost consumer demand.
“[Humans] are great at overfishing things,” said Maryland Seafood Marketing Director Steve Vilnit. “And [the blue catfish] is a species that we want to overfish.”