Congressional Seafood Company, which already sells invasive blue catfish to Whole Foods Market and other major buyers, is aiming to significantly grow sales of the fish in the state of Maryland.
Around four years ago, Jessup, Maryland-based Congressional began selling blue catfish, an invasive species in the Chesapeake Bay, the Potomac River, and other waterways. Blue catfish feeds on many native species, including blue crabs, rockfish, and mussels.
“I started reading about this environmental crisis because of the explosion of the fish in the tributaries, and knew we had to try to sell it,” Congressional founder and executive vice president Tim Sughrue, told SeafoodSource. “However, one of the hardest thing I’ve had to do ... is create a market for a fish that has never been sold before.”
Blue catfish has a great flavor and it tastes similar to snapper to rockfish, Sughrue said. However, its meat yield is 25 percent on average, versus around 65 percent for mahi and 70 percent for tuna.
After contacting several restaurant and retailer chains, Congressional got its “first big break” in 2014, when Clyde’s Restaurant Group, based in Washington D.C., agreed to menu blue catfish regularly, according to Sughrue.
In 2015, Congressional got another break when Whole Foods Market’s mid-Atlantic region came on board.
“I had been meeting with Whole Foods for a while, but it wasn’t until blue catfish was rated ‘green’ by Monterey Bay Aquarium’s SeafoodWatch program, that they said they could sell it,” Sughrue said. "That allowed us to gain a market for it.”
In addition to Clyde’s and Whole Foods, around 200 individual restaurants also buy the catfish – amounting to around two million pounds annually. However, Congressional’s blue catfish sourcing is only a fraction of what could be sustainability sourced from the Chesapeake Bay annually – a total Sughrue estimates at 40 million pounds.
To that end, Congressional hopes to sell much more blue catfish to the state of Maryland via a new program from the Maryland Department of General Services (DGS), in partnership with the Maryland Department of Agriculture and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
DGS awarded contracts to Jessup, Maryland-based Reliant Fish Co. and Congressional for a program that will create sales of Maryland-harvested blue catfish to state institutions providing food services.
“This statewide purchasing program will allow us to curb population growth of this destructive species while building new, sustainable markets for our watermen,” Maryland Agriculture Secretary Joe Bartenfelder said in a joint press release from the three agencies. “The blue catfish is also an excellent source of protein, and we view this program as a win-win for the state.”
Maryland watermen have the means and ability to harvest blue catfish but have been lacking a strong market for their catch, according to the agencies.
“The Department of Agriculture’s seafood marketing program continues to make a concentrated effort to raise public awareness and promote the consumption of this flaky white fish. In addition to these efforts, the statewide purchasing program creates a steady, reliable market for blue catfish,” Bartenfelder said.
Now, state institutions, including correctional facilities, higher education institutions, hospitals, and public schools, can purchase cases of blue catfish directly from Maryland Correctional Enterprises – a program within the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services that aims to provide structured employment and training to offenders in order to improve future employability and reduce recidivism.
In addition, the new statewide contract can be used by Maryland counties, municipal corporations, and public agencies.