- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources is pulling out all the stops hoping it can control a pair of invasive species in local waters.
The flathead catfish and blue catfish, which were introduced to Maryland waters by sport fishermen from the Mississippi, Ohio and Missouri River basins in the 1970s, are destroying many native species because of their huge appetites.
“[They eat] a lot of things that Marylanders in the Chesapeake Bay region grew up fishing and relying upon, and this is what the concern is,” said Frank Dawson, secretary of the Maryland DNR, at a media event last week at Smallwood State Park in Marbury. “We’re concerned that these new fish in the bay region that are spreading are going to start having a negative impact on these valuable resources that people rely upon for commercial purposes, recreational purposes or even play an important ecological role. We have a problem here.”
The flathead and blue catfish are anadromous — they are able to live in fresh or salt water — and can be found throughout the Potomac River, the Patuxent River up to Jug Bay and in Allen’s Fresh. There is no evidence of the fish in St. Mary’s Lake.
DNR is hoping to control the situation by placing posters at popular fishing areas throughout the state, adding the two species to the 2014 Maryland Fishing Challenge and fining violators who transport the species to other bodies of water up to $1,000.
“We’re using this to try and reward those people that are helping to remove these fish and also use it to make people more aware of it,” said Tom O’Connell, director of the Maryland DNR’s Fisheries Service, of the species’ inclusion in the Maryland Fishing Challenge.
The blue catfish in particular is an apex predator and has a voracious appetite.
“They eat just about anything,” said Peyton Robertson, director of National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s Chesapeake Bay office and chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Program Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team. “What about the things we care about? White perch. Yes. Herring. Yes. What about crabs? They don’t eat crabs, do they? Yes. They can’t eat shellfish, can they? Yes, try mussels, just about anything. Looking in the guts of these fish we find really astounding differences in the range of species they consume, suggesting that if left unchecked they could potentially start to impact our ecosystem.”
Because of its appetite, the blue catfish is crushing state records every few years. The current Virginia state record for a blue catfish stands at 146 pounds, while the Maryland record is an 84-pound monster pulled out of the tidal Potomac in 2012.
And the fish are not a rare sight in local waters. Biologists conducting their annual survey on rockfish in Mattawoman Creek had difficulties when the large amount of catfish pulled the nets down. And in February, a Port Tobacco commercial waterman on the Potomac hauled in 300,000 pounds of the fish in one haul.
“These invasive catfish are a baywide issue,” said Robertson, who likened the blue catfish to a “Bengal tiger in the jungle.” “The bay at that time — not so long ago, only a couple hundred years or so — didn’t have this apex predator. … And essentially we’ve changed that now. We have a species that didn’t exist that could upset the balance.”
The two species are not to be confused with the native white catfish, which can grow to about 20 to 30 inches in length, or the channel catfish.
And like the northern snakehead, officials are hoping diners develop a taste for the white, flaky flesh, samples of which were served at the media event April 8.
“We’ve been stressing to the chefs that we want to catch the last blue catfish in this area and serve it on the local menu,” said Steve Vilnit, the Maryland DNR’s fisheries marketing director. “We went to wholesalers several years ago and introduced this fish to them and said, ‘This is a cheap fish that we can get locally, and not only is it cheap and local, but you can help the environment by getting rid of it. You can reduce the pressure on the native catfish and increase the pressure on this invasive catfish to give our local catfish a break.’”
Channel catfish is the species most often served in restaurants.
Anglers are encouraged not to release the species.
“We’re concerned that these new fish in the bay region that are spreading are going to start having a negative impact on these valuable resources that people rely upon for commercial purposes, recreational purposes or even play an important ecological role,” Dawson said. “We have a problem here.”