Maryland embarks on marketing campaign for invasive blue catfish

Published on
January 10, 2024
Maryland Department of Agriculture Secretary Kevin Atticks and Department of Natural Resources Secretary Josh Kurtz pose with blue catfish they recently caught.

For decades, the rivers and shores surrounding the Chesapeake Bay have slowly been taken over by an invasive species – the blue catfish, otherwise known as Ictalurus furcatus.

The U.S. states of Maryland and Virginia, which border the bay, have had to deal with the species ever since anglers introduced it to Virginia’s waters in the hopes of establishing it as a fun and challenging fish to catch. Unfortunately, for all the other animals living in the bay – including important commercial species like blue crab, oysters, and rockfish – it turned out to be the perfect habitat for the invasive blue catfish, which began to multiply exponentially in the decades following the initial release.

Decades later, harvests of blue crab in the Chesapeake Bay have plunged to record lows, with some of the blame falling on the voracious blue catfish. The species can grow to be up to 100 pounds and has no natural predators in the bay.

“I don’t believe that folks back than would have believed the fish would take over the bay as they have today,” Maryland Department of Agriculture Seafood Marketing Director Matthew Scales told SeafoodSource. “Now it’s an invasive species that’s eating everything in its path.”

Examinations of blue catfish eating habits, Scales said, have found all manner of other species in its stomach. At one point, scientists even found a duck that a large catfish managed to swallow whole.

To do something about the onslaught, Scales and the Maryland Department of Agriculture are working to market the species as commercially viable and promote it to residents as a culinary treat.

During National Seafood Month 2023, which takes place in October, Maryland Governor Wes Moore and Secretary of Agriculture Kevin Atticks helped the marketing push by creating a video showcasing how to cook blue catfish, and the state has also set up a website with a list of resources for people looking to purchase the species locally.

The goal, Scales said, is to make more people aware of the species, the problems it causes, and the multiple benefits of consuming the fish. 

“We need to eat more of the blue catfish in the bay,” he said. “As the governor says, ‘We have to eat our way out of this problem.’”

One of the first problems to solve, Scales said, is that many people have never heard of blue catfish, even in Maryland.

“I’m a born-and-raised Marylander, and I’d never heard of blue catfish before,” Scales said.

The second problem is getting people to eat the species once they’ve heard of it.

Promotional efforts like the video made by the state’s governor and getting the species into restaurants so that Maryland-based chefs can showcase the fish's nutritional and culinary merits are starting to pay off.

Scales said the goal is to make wild-caught blue catfish a staple species in Maryland, akin to what rockfish is now.

“You go anywhere in Maryland at a seafood restaurant, and you will see rockfish on the menu. However, rockfish in the bay is not doing so well,” he said. “How can we change those perceptions, turn it, and have people focus on blue catfish?”

Scales said the Maryland’s Best website is also part of the state’s push and is helping people who learn about the species find out where and how to eat it. 

“I was going out to seafood restaurants and other places, and people were asking where you could get it, [adking about] grocery stores, seafood markets, what restaurants,” Scales said. “So, we’ve been building that list up on Maryland’s Best.”

The site also has a new form that allows consumers, chefs, and suppliers to report where they’ve seen the fish on menus in an attempt to build a database so that consumers looking for the fish know where to go.

As part of the push, Maryland is also bringing blue catfish to Seafood Expo North America – which is running from 10 to 12 March in Boston, Massachusetts – to showcase the species to the seafood industry at large.

Through those media blitzes, Scales said the department is hoping to show people blue catfish isn’t a typical catfish.

“I compare it to a mahi mahi. It’s white, kind of firm in texture, and it can be prepared in a variety of ways,” he said.

Another goal is to get the species on the menu at ... 

Photo courtesy of Matthew Scales, Maryland Department of Agriculture

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