|Since people first moved blue catfish into some Chesapeake Bay rivers decades ago, these fish—which come from rivers in the middle of the United States—have dramatically increased in number. But blue catfish are voracious eaters, and they have few natural predators.
Lucky for us humans, they are also pretty tasty! Blue catfish in Chesapeake Bay tributaries are now caught and sold commercially. Harvest of blue catfish doubled from 2014 to 2015 in the Potomac River, reaching a dockside value of more than $1.7 million. Bay-area residents and visitors can purchase blue catfish at many restaurants and grocery and seafood stores.
Blue catfish—native to the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio river basins, but an invasive species in the Chesapeake—produce high numbers of eggs, and therefore produce lots more blue catfish. And while they prefer fresh water, they are not picky about where they live, so they have expanded their range to live in most of the major rivers that flow into the Chesapeake Bay. Blue catfish eat plants, insects, blue crabs—and even other fish—and that poses a challenge for native fish species that need the same food the blue catfish are devouring to be their food. In fact, in many Chesapeake rivers, blue catfish pose a significant threat to other kinds of fish.
Many people say blue catfish taste like striped bass. Because they are available in such impressive numbers, in recent years fishermen around the Bay have started catching blue catfish in order to sell them to seafood and grocery stores, as well as to restaurants. Some watermen who traditionally caught blue crabs have switched to blue catfish to focus on that growing fishery. Catching and eating blue catfish is one way to reduce numbers of these invasive fish in our Bay.
Blue catfish can live for up to 20 years. Over that time, they can accumulate dangerous amounts of contaminants in their bodies. To make sure the fish you eat are safe, only eat blue catfish that are less than 30 inches long. Research shows that those fish are young enough to be healthy for people to eat. All stores and restaurants follow the 30-inch rule for blue catfish.
Many recreational anglers like to catch and release bigger blue catfish, which can grow to 5 feet and 100 pounds or even larger, as they are a challenge to reel in.
To learn more about blue catfish biology, how quickly they grow, where they live, what they eat, and how they are affecting the Chesapeake Bay and other species that live here, the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office has funded more than $900,000 in research on these fish. Because research is still in progress, a symposium in November 2017 will bring together scientists studying these catfish so they can share and learn from each other’s research.
This research is used by resource managers as they make decisions on how best to handle the blue catfish population in the Chesapeake Bay.