Commercial waterman Wayne Fisher and his son Aaron land blue catfish caught in a pound net in the Rappahannock River near Fones Cliffs in 2015. (Bill Portlock / Chesapeake Bay Foundation)
Two Republican lawmakers are floating proposals to create a catfish industry to prevent depletion of other species in the Chesapeake Bay.
Del. Keith Hodges, R-Middlesex, is proposing the creation of a Governor’s Blue Catfish Industries Development Fund to provide grants and loans to government bodies that support the creation or expansion of businesses involved with “blue catfish processing, flash freezing, or value-added facilities using blue catfish.” Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Westmoreland, is carrying the Senate companion.
A House Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources subcommittee voted unanimously Monday to advance Hodges’ bill, which will now go to the Appropriations Committee.
The intent of the bill is to address the invasive blue catfish species that was introduced into tidal and freshwater rivers in the 1970s and 1980s, Hodges said. Blue catfish eat shad, herring, rockfish, menhaden, and clams.
Blue catfish also eat crabs, Hodges said, pointing to a study by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources that found the crab population in 2022 reached its lowest number since 1990. The recent biennial State of the Bay report from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation also noted catfish are depleting the shad population.
“There are 100 million of them. When you do the math … they eat well over a million tons of food,” Hodges said during the subcommittee hearing Monday afternoon. “They will swallow 400,000 rockfish eggs in a single gulp.”
Hodges is also seeking a budget amendment for fiscal year 2024-25 to provide $4 million in grants for processing infrastructure, equipment and marketing as well as tools to help watermen catch the fish.
Only two blue catfish processors in the state currently exist, Hodges said. Blue catfish are the only species of fish that undergo inspections similar to meat, poultry and egg products, Hodges told the Mercury after the hearing.
“Harvesting blue catfish will create much needed rural coastal jobs and help to restore better ecological balance which this invasive species has disrupted,” said Lewis Lawrence, executive director of the Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission. “We are watching out for the baby Blue crabs and baby menhaden while simultaneously supporting the growing recreational fisheries.”
The fishery would be monitored by the state Department of Wildlife Resources and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, which oversees fisheries in the state.
“We want to eliminate [blue catfish] but the only way we can do that, that we’ve come up with right now, is to eat our way out of it,” Hodges said. “It’s a delicious fish. I’d put it up against pretty much anything you can find out there.”
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