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Lawmakers want Virginians to eat more blue catfish

Blue catfish — an invasive species now flourishing in parts of Virginia — have few natural predators to keep them from eating native wildlife and growing to more than 100 pounds. (Courtesy - Meghan Marchetti / Virginia Department Of Wildlife Resources)
Blue catfish — an invasive species now flourishing in parts of Virginia — have few natural predators to keep them from eating native wildlife and growing to more than 100 pounds. (Courtesy - Meghan Marchetti / Virginia Department Of Wildlife Resources)

The story of blue catfish in Virginia is one of success — and unintended consequences.

In 1974, the  Department of Wildlife and Recreation stocked the James and Rappahannock rivers with the freshwater fish, later doing the same in the York River. The goal was to create recreational trophy fisheries.

This story was reported and written by VPM News

That part was a success: The commonwealth produces truly massive catfish. At  Buggs Island Lake in 2011,  Nick Anderson caught a 143-pound blue catfish — the  biggest in North American angling history. According to DWR, the lake is within the fish’s introduced range; they’re native to the Tennessee River basin in Southwest Virginia.

According to Chris Moore, director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Virginia office, the fish weren’t expected to spread far beyond the fresh waters where they were released.

They have been more tolerant of salty water than expected and can ride fresh runoff from heavy rain events into normally salty areas. They can even enter the brackish Bay before swimming back up a different tributary.

“That has allowed them to basically become established in really all of the Chesapeake Bay tributaries at this point,” Moore said.

The blue cats don’t have enough predators in most of Virginia to keep their population in check. When they grow large enough, they become the apex predator. As far back as  2011, some electrofishing research (when a low-voltage pulse is used to stun large groups of fish) found that blue catfish made up 75% of the fish population by weight in samples of the James and Rappahannock rivers.

“This was like releasing a Siberian tiger out into our ecosystem,” Moore said, crediting the analogy to Greg Garman, director of the VCU Rice Rivers Center.

Blue catfish flourishing in the Bay watershed has sparked concerns for struggling native fish with significant cultural or economic importance, like shad, blue crabs and striped bass. Each are prey to large blue cats.

The most popular solution so far is to simply fish and eat more blue cats. The problem is, a lot of work has to be done to develop a big enough marketplace, as well as processing infrastructure, to make a dent in the population. Moore said additional research needs to be done before taking other approaches to removal.

In 2023, the General Assembly set up a program to build out processing capabilities.  The Blue Catfish Processing, Flash Freezing and Infrastructure Grant Program came out of bills sponsored by Del. Keith Hodges (R-Middlesex) and Sen. Richard Stuart (R-King George).

The first grant from that program went out in  January to Sea Farms, a seafood distributor based in Gloucester and Mathews counties. The company received $250,000 to support improving and expanding its processing, flash freezing and storage capabilities, which is intended to allow the company to buy — and sell — more blue catfish from local watermen.

“As we move forward with processing this, we need to really establish a market. It is absolutely delicious,” said Hodges in a committee hearing on the  catfish bill he sponsored this legislative session.

The new measure, which has been approved by both the House and Senate, would order the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to establish a work group on marketing the fish. The work group would include the Virginia Restaurant, Travel and Lodging Association, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, the James River Association, the Department of Corrections and others.

Moore said DOC would be on the panel as a potential institutional buyer of the fish. Hodges said while presenting the bill that DOC could also have a role in processing.

“Processing with the Department of Corrections makes sense. It helps with recidivism, workforce development — you can flash freeze it, sell it to schools, other prisons,” Hodges said.

Moore said the work group will have to overcome some negative perceptions about the fish.

Catfish are a popular food in the South, but have developed a reputation for being unhealthy to eat, partially due to water pollution and their being bottom feeders.

The  Virginia Department of Health recommends not eating more than two meals of most wild-caught Virginia catfish per month — the same recommendation made for other fish in waters contaminated by mercury, PCBs and other contaminants. Those recommendations assume that the fatty part of the fish — where most contaminants end up — is discarded before eating.

VDH recommends not eating any catfish from the James River east of Richmond that is 32 inches or larger; as they grow, more contaminants are deposited into fat and other tissues.

Although Hodges’ bill received almost unanimous support in both chambers, Stuart’s companion bill stalled in the House. Del. Candi Mundon King (D-Prince William) requested on three consecutive days that a final vote on the bill be delayed.

Mundon King’s office did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.

Hodges’ bill will go to the governor’s desk for final approval.