U.S. Senator Ben Cardin

Letters From Ben

March 16, 2024

Blue Catfish on the Menu

Dear Fellow Marylanders,

Do you have a favorite recipe for blue catfish? You should find one. By most accounts, blue catfish are both tasty and nutritious. And there are far too many of them in the Chesapeake Bay, so eat up and help the Bay.

Blue catfish are not native to our region but were introduced into Virginia tributaries in the 1960s and 1970s to expand recreational fishing. These non-native species have since spread, inhabiting nearly all major tributaries of the Bay watershed.

Blue catfish populations have expanded so quickly, there are increasing concerns about impacts on the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. The species, now officially considered invasive, prey on a wide variety of local species, including those of economic importance and conservation concern, such as Maryland’s iconic blue crabs.

Last summer, when I was Chair of the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, I led a productive field hearing in Berlin, Md., to talk about the challenges facing our rural small businesses. One of the Marylanders who testified at our hearing was Nick Hargrove of Tilghman Island Seafood. Hargove talked about how he had turned a former oyster house into a USDA certified blue catfish processing facility. The company currently is processing 15 thousand pounds of fish a day, selling to the Maryland and Capital food banks as well as government institutions.

As I said, these catfish are relatively new to the Bay, and new to Marylanders’ plates, but consumer demand has risen over the past few years, which has helped the commercial fishery for blue catfish to expand. However, the Chesapeake Bay Program Invasive Catfish Workgroup, in its 2020 Invasive Catfish Management Strategy, found that difficulty of processing the fish makes establishing a commercial market to meet the demand challenging. Hargrove talked about some of those challenges at our hearing, and again just yesterday when I visited his Tilghman processing plant.  

I was there Friday with Senator Chris Van Hollen to celebrate several catfish victories in the most recent federal funding legislation, which was signed into law last week.

We secured the first federal investment in increasing catfish processing capacity in the Chesapeake Bay. The appropriations bill provides $3 million for the USDA Rural Development’s Meat and Poultry Production Expansion Program with language that encourages Rural Development to prioritize proposals that support the processing of invasive wild-caught catfish.

The funding bill also encourages the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service to include wild caught catfish in their Section 32 procurement program. Inclusion in this program will help support Maryland’s burgeoning blue catfish industry by providing much needed stability for seafood businesses.

Additionally, the Food Safety Inspection Service received $1.1 million, of which up to $1 million may be used for the inspection of wild caught invasive species – like the blue catfish.

How we deal with an invasive species such as the blue catfish is multi-faceted and so too are the solutions.

We have to invest in science and monitoring activities to learn more about the populations in the Bay and how best to contain as they continue to colonize new tributaries.

Simultaneously, we must also support a new processing industry and help our businesses get their product to market. Our Friday announcement was a step in the right direction for this.

In addition to the funds mentioned above, the FY24 legislation signed into law included $500,000 for invasive catfish control. This specific funding supports research like population monitoring and data collection. There is still so much we do not know about how blue catfish are impacting the Bay and this funding will help fill those knowledge gaps.

Positive news this week on blue catfish was coupled with great news out of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which approved a package of bills called the America’s Conservation Enhancement (ACE) Reauthorization Act. Collectively, these bills reauthorize important habitat and wildlife conservation efforts throughout the country, including the Chesapeake Bay Watershed region. It includes record authorizations for the EPA Chesapeake Bay Program, Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Watertrails Network, and the Chesapeake Watershed Investements for Landscape Defense (WILD). and extends the critical National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Network, and the National Fish Habitat Partnership, among other programs.  Once this package clears the full Congress and is signed into law, it will be a tremendous boost for Maryland and the entire Bay watershed region.

So this weekend, enjoy some blue catfish for dinner. Click here for a recipe for Crispy Maryland Blue Catfish. It’s a great place to start, but don’t stop. Keep exploring and eating. It’s one of the tastiest ways to Save the Bay!

Thank you for your time. Please feel free to reply to this email with your thoughts on this topic or even a favorite recipe.