Waterman David Confair fishing for invasive blue catfish on Marshyhope Creek. Photo :Stephen Badger/Maryland DNR

Md. Passes Bill to Encourage Blue Catfish Commercial Harvest

A bill has passed the Maryland legislature and now awaits the governor’s signature that may help get the Bay’s invasive blue catfish population better under control.

A thriving commercial fishery for blue cats would help slow the spread of the multiplying species, but some U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspection rules made it close to impossible for fishermen to get their fish processed.

According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), USDA’s “burdensome” rules have “drastically impeded the harvest and sales of blue catfish.” Since 2017, USDA has been regulating all species of catfish, and one of the agency’s regulations says a USDA inspector must be on the premises during blue catfish processing. The inspectors come at a cost to the dealer, and their schedules don’t always overlap with the dealer’s schedule. While blue cats are processed, the room must be cleared of all other products, slowing down business.

DNR cites one example of a seafood dealer going from bringing in 1,000 to 2,000 pounds per week before the USDA regulations went into effect to less than 100 pounds per week after.

A measure in the Maryland General Assembly sought to change that this session. Joint Resolution 4, sponsored by Senator Guy Guzzone (D-Howard Co.) and Delegate Dana Stein (D-Baltimore Co.) urges Congress to return regulation of blue catfish to FDA, consistent with other seafood processing, rather than USDA. Both chambers passed the legislation. DNR applauds the passage, saying it will help the state control the invasive fish’s population and spur seafood industry growth at the same time.

“It is clear that the current inspection rules are designed to deter dealers and processors from buying this invasive species,” DNR Secretary Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio said. “Restoring the former rules will help incentivize their removal from our waters while providing new opportunities for our watermen, our seafood dealers and our restaurants.

Haddaway-Riccio points out that seafood businesses need these opportunities for income more than ever as they recover from the pandemic’s economic blow. DNR encourages watermen to target blue catfish, releasing this  video that highlights commercial techniques that can be used to catch them.

Blue catfish are particularly destructive not only because of their proliferation in the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River watersheds, but because they have the capacity to eat significant amounts of native species like crabs and striped bass.

-Meg Walburn Viviano