These Invasive Catfish Are Destroying the Chesapeake—and They're Delicious. You Do the Math. | Civil Eats

These Invasive Catfish Are Destroying the Chesapeake—and They’re Delicious. You Do the Math.

The Wide Net Project channels blue catfish to shoppers and food bank customers, as a way to help save an iconic watershed.

catfishUpdate: In September 2015, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program awarded a green seafood recommendation, the highest rating possible, to Chesapeake Bay blue catfish. According to the Wide Net Project, it is the first invasive species to be assessed and rated by the program nationally.

For the Chesapeake Bay, a region synonymous with blue crabs and a diversity of native fisheries, the blue catfish is like Shiva the Destroyer. In the last 40 years, the invasive fish has devastated a long-established indigenous ecosystem, crippling local economies that depend on crabs and other marine fauna for their livelihoods.

The Wide Net Project is an effort to reverse the damage already done by one of the area’s most insidious environmental threats. Founded by food systems experts Wendy Stuart and Sharon Feuer Gruber, the young nonprofit works to build a market for blue catfish, while providing free fish to hunger relief organizations in the process.

For all the talk of eating invasive species, few projects exist to help bring these foods to the masses on a large scale. The Wide Net Project, Stuart explains, was created to “get enough fish out of the Bay so that biodiversity is restored.” The group is specifically concerned with the blue crab, a species that is important to the Maryland economy and culture, and is currently threatened.

An opportunistic and adaptable apex predator, the blue catfish was foolishly introduced in the 1970s as fodder for recreational fisherman. Because it will eat most anything and can thrive in both fresh and brackish waters, the catfish quickly began its colonization of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAForty years later, wild populations have skyrocketed in size. Local officials haven’t yet conducted a comprehensive survey, but an attempt by Virginia biologist Bob Greenlee saw catch rates up to 6,000 fish in an hour using a scientific sampling method called electrofishing. The fish themselves have grown too; local anglers regularly pull 60-pound blue catfish from rivers in Maryland and Virginia (the record in Virginia is 140 pounds).

In 2012, the Maryland Department of Fisheries reported an annual catch of approximately 400,000 pounds, but it’s not enough; wild catfish populations continue to swell at unsustainable rates.

“What will happen long-term as far the impacts of blue catfish? We won’t know until the population settles down and achieves an equilibrium,” Greenlee explains.

In the meantime, the Wide Net Project sees the abundance of fish as an opportunity.

“There are millions of catfish in the Bay and no quotas… If you have the systems in place there’s little limit on how much you can provide.”

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Unlike blue crabs and many other native marine species, catfish have an unlimited fishing season and can provide income for fishermen year-round. Pursuing them requires little additional equipment and results in minimal bycatch–the Chesapeake’s blue catfish also received the highest rating from Seafood Choices, the Blue Ocean Institute’s rating system.

The only problem is the lack of a market. Historically, catfish have a reputation as a fish-of-last-resort for discerning palates.

So the Wide Net Project co-founders have built relationships with everyone from regional restaurateurs to the food service giant Sodexho in an effort to rebrand the lowly catfish. For many, their pitch is a no-brainer; blue catfish is cheap (around $8.99 a pound), local, sustainable, and–despite a reputation for muddy flavor–tasty.

“Pan fry it, bake it, grill it, make tacos with it. There are so many ways to prepare it and people are endlessly surprised by how delicious it is,” says Gruber. Blue catfish is a mild, flaky fish, well-suited to an array of culinary applications, and an easy ingredient for chefs to incorporate into existing menus.

The Wide Net Project works with a local processor to buy, cut, and package the fish. The partnership allows the organization to act as a sort of sales and marketing agency for blue catfish, using existing infrastructure to deliver the fish to market. They hold tastings, network with chefs, and collaborate with regional supermarkets to raise public awareness of the ecosystem costs and culinary possibilities of the catfish.

Then for each pound of fish they sell, Wide Net donates a quarter-pound to a hunger relief organization working in the community.

So far the combination of altruism and environmentalism is working. Consumers, chefs, and institutional buyers alike are waking up to the bounty of sustainable seafood in their backyard and sales have begun to rise. In 2015, the co-founders expect to sell 75,000 pounds of fish to the region’s consumers and donate tens of thousands of pounds to food-insecure families.

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Their effort is an unusual approach to a devastating biological threat and a glimmer of hope for the Chesapeake Bay in its war on the blue catfish.

“Across the board, biodiversity is being affected,” says Gruber. “If we can have a real, significant impact on that, it would be huge.”


Photos, from top: Giant catfish, Rocky and Bill Rice, the father-son team that catches for the Wide Net Project.

Lloyd Ellman writes about the people, farms, and ethical dilemmas of our food system. He firmly believes that good food is the answer to all of humanity’s problems. Recently, he has written for VICE and Food Politic. Follow Lloyd on Twitter. Read more >

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Join the conversation.

  1. Highlowse
    Heck yeah catch 'em, sell 'em and eat 'em. A few million Southern American's can't be wrong in that regard...

    Just sayin'....

    American Net'Zen
  2. roger
    Great effort and idea. I have felt the same way for many years about the white roe mullet caught and wasted here every year during spawning (roe) season. The buyers either don't buy or pay a minimal price for the male or white roe mullet, so the fishermen throw the white roe fish overboard! Incredible waste measuring into the hundreds of thousands of pounds per year. These are very good eating fish that should not be wasted. The law of course prohibits dumping the dead white roe fish, but can't really enforce this to any real degree. Your work and efforts might some day help with the waste of many tons of good fish!
  3. Jim Carberry
    Years ago you could not give away a Horse Mackerel until it was re-names Tuna Fish. Orange Roughy was called Slimehead.. The Atlantic Striped Bass is called Rock Fish in Maryland. Maybe that is all the Blue Cat Fish needs, a new moniker! How about Chesapeake Bay Bright Fish? Or?? Catfish is actually a very tasty fish just ask any Southerner.
  4. Jessie Stanley
    First, to make a dent you will need to sell wild caught, blue catfish in the markets. Second, you must compete with farmed and imported catfish in the markets which sell for $5/lb.+. Good luck!
  5. Huge catfish baskets, stink bait and a few hours and I garonnnnteeee you can take the population down.
  6. been roth
    In what place in America (besides, maybe LA or New York) is $8.99/lb fish 'cheap'? The author of this article says "good food is the answer to all of humanity’s problems"....I suppose that means we now just need to convince all of humanity to shop at Whole Foods
  7. Well, catch them, and eat them!!!! Catfish tastes really good!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  8. James
    Maybe it's just me. I don't consider $9/lb inexpensive for a fish that is destroying an ecosystem. I spent almost 25 years in the restaurant business, so I have some experience with fish prices. This price is right up there with sirloin strip. What does it cost to catch these fish, except gear which everyone that fishes already has, and gas. It certainly doesn't come close to what it costs to bring a steer to market. You want to sell fish and clean up the problem? Drop the price so your average Joe can afford to buy it. If someone sees an error in my logic, I welcome constructive criticism.
  9. Leonard Boyle, Sr
    Catfish is a staple in the south and we just love it. I didn't know they were an invasive species in the northeast and they were this much of a problem. I am al for the Wide Net Project. this will generate income and jobs that can't be outsourced. If the project is not successful, I would love to come up and catch as many as I can to bring home and enjoy.
  10. Tom
    Fresh and brackish water catfish is delicious and widely eaten and loved in the South and Midwest. Not a trash fish at all, as long as the water quality is good.
  11. Ralph Spooner
    They have been a delicacy in the south for years. Folks don't know what they are missing. My favorite way of prep is to filet them, then coat them with melted butter, a pinch of salt and lemon/lime juice and bake them. Or drop the filets in a deep fryer for a couple of minutes, till they float.
  12. Charles
    Catfish are not considered "Trash Fish" anymore. Never were in the South. Farm raised catfish are rarely " muddy" They are mostly Channel Cat though. But even the wild Blues I have caught and eaten were good. Especially from colder water like they have in the Chesapeake.
  13. J C L
    Hello McDonald, I've found a new menu item for your organization!
  14. Bob
    Sounds & Appears that Wide Net Project is in definite need of a Marketing Director experienced in Meat/Seafood Sales (both in Retail & Food Service).
  15. Larry Smith
    Locally called Blue Channel or Channel Cat .Fishermen here welcome them into the catch and some seek them out.

    Trash fish? Call it food snobbery.
  16. Al
    8.99 a pound is NOT CHEAP!
  17. msholmes
    To drastically lower these #s invite as many south Louisiana fishermen and hunters as possible for a free vacation to fish and enjoy this area. Inform them that all fish are ok to catch and sell except the blue catfish because they taste so good fried, blackened , in gumbo and jambalaya there is a big black market for them paying top dollar for each cleaned fish brought in and they are protected from over fishing. After a few days send in some fish buyers asking to buy only blue catfish and nothing else. After the first buy or 2 huge #s of fish will be brought in for sale to the" black market buyers" from around the country. In a month or so, to catch a blue catfish in these waters will be a rarity.
  18. Dog Soldier
    They don't have to have that 'muddy' taste. When the fish is cleaned, remove ANY blue/grey or non-white flesh. This removes most of the undesired taste by about 80%. It works. Not my catfish of choice, but I don't throw them back.
  19. shirley
    Blue catfish is a delicacy here in Arkansas, and most of the REST of the south too. We will happily eat all you can send us. If you don't have a place to fish for them here, they are EXPENSIVE to buy!
  20. We run a large 3 pond paylake in Ohio and could use all the bluecats we can get. Hard to get with regulatory fishing here. Lets talk about stocking ponds up this wsy
  21. Tim Stroud
    $8.99 a pound for cat fish is not cheap! I can buy fresh salmon for that price, and fresh heads on shrimp for $3.00 in season.
  22. Bob Hoffman
    Where can you buy this blue catfish?? I am from the South, and catfish is a staple in our diet. Up north (PA) where I am now, doesn't have any catfish restaurants or outlets for catfish. Theres nothing better than sitting down to a catfish dinner with collard greens, hush puppies and "slaw. People dont know what they're missing!! If any restaurants around the Chesapeake City or Solomans, MD area have this to offer, which ones are they??
  23. First Blue cats are fine dining no dought about it.

    They are also one of the best fish to eat , for yur body.

    Chesapeake’s blue catfish also received the highest rating from Seafood Choices, the Blue Ocean Institute’s rating system. -

    They have an unlimited fishing season

    Pursuing them requires little additional equipment and results in minimal

    Now the BUT.
    "blue catfish is cheap (around $8.99 a pound)"catfish LMFAO

    So yu got a fish that's good for yu and yu can catch all yu can catch year around and it dosnt take additional expense to catch but yu price it more expensive than ribeye steak . WHY ???

    SWAI is $3 a lb good for yu and that's yur completion .

    Stop being so GREEDY and yu may develop a market and sell some fish.
  24. MR.Catfish
    Perfect Catfish - once you fillet the critter, cut the mudvein out completely. then you have 4 fillets per fish to cut however you choose (2 per side). Then soak fillets in a pan of water and add about 3 tablespoons of salt scatterted thoughout the pan. Let soak for about 12 hours. This will draw the oil/blood etc out of your fillets and they will turn flakey white.

    preparation of catfish is the most important part in determining if you have great catfish or lousey mud tastin fish. I only eat my own catfish. Just like shrimp, most folks dont know theres another vein on the bottom side of the shrimp.
  25. Michael Nissen
    I love cat fish, but what you call cheap is out of sight. $8 plus is not cheap in my book. If you want to sell enough to help the environment it wil have to come in the $2 range. More efficient fishing can do this, but watch for the monetary greed. I live in the USVI and buy frozen farmed catfish for $4. That includes shipping. Just a thought.
  26. scott hostetter
    $9.00 a lb, that is ridiculess, as already stated Sirloin is that price. As for the "blue cats" as trash fish. No way, they will eat live before dead any day. Talk to a real blue cat fisherman. Big live minnows at night will get'm. As told to me, using stink bait will get you a stinking catfish.
    Now lets think here people ....Crawfish,Shrimp, Crabs and Lobster by and large are the dead clean up crews. Same as fly's, crow's, buzzard's and vulture's.
    But Shrimp, lobster etc.... you folks will pay the big bucks for REALLY ?
    If it tastes good eat it. And in closing, you people are waaay over pricing that fish. But keeep on eating that $h!t fed fish called Tilapia at large prices. Really, check out what most of those are fed.
  27. jim ford
    This article completely ignores the 800lb gorilla in the room! Please go to the Virginia dept of game and inland fisheries web site and read up on the fish eating advisories affecting the Potomac, Chesapeake, and other tributaries. Eating these fish is NOT advised!
  28. jonathon trueman
    Allow commercial fishing it will help open transport of fish across state lines and the paylakes in ohio and kentucky will help your problem. Thank you jonathon trueman
  29. Dr. David M. Ward
    Flounders are bottom feeders and they are delicious also. You just have to get used to the taste and it can be prepared so many different ways you palate will not be bored.
  30. i really like this information it is usable for a story thank you and i hope you have a great weekend see ya

    - love sammy
  31. The catfish you have pictured is a white catfish...not blue. White catfish have white whiskers under the chin. Blue do not

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