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New rules threaten growing blue cat industry

Pamela D'Angelo

In recent years, Chesapeake watermen and seafood processors have begun developing a market for blue catfish, that invasive species that has exploded in regional waters vacuuming up baby blue crabs, shad, striped bass and other economically important fish.

But new USDA inspection rules that hold foreign imports to U.S. standards could threaten that growing market. And you can blame it all on Mississippi Congressman Thad Cochran, who was trying to protect local catfish farmers who were feeling the pressure of Asian imports.

He got a provision written into the 2008 farm bill to make catfish the only fish to undergo the same rigorous inspections as meat, poultry and egg products. That became official in the 2014 farm bill and now the regulations are about to take effect.

That may sound good for the consumer, but Mike Hutt, who promotes Virginia Seafood, says it could be devastating to his state's blue catfish industry.

"The watermen, it's going to put them out of business," he said at a recent USDA meeting in Richmond. "And when you put them out of business it's going to put the boat guys, the equipment guys, the trucking guys, the ice guys, the plants, then the packaging, the processing guys."

He says Virginia has not had health-related problems with blue catfish. And, like Maryland, larger blue catfish—they go better than 100 pounds in some cases--have meal limits due to high levels of PCBs and mercury.

Roberta Wagner, with USDA's food safety and inspection, says EPA standards are used to test for more than 200 toxic residues, including salmonella, banned dies, drug residues, pesticides and heavy metals.

L.W. Nixon, a third generation seafood processor from North Carolina, compared farm raised fish, most of the Mississippi catfish, to the wild caught blue cats. He said the wild-caught industry's catches are tied to weather, tides and other variables that make it difficult to work within new time-structured inspections that can cost processors $70 an hour in overtime.

"You can't put any time or any quantity on a wild-caught item," he said. "That's the biggest issue we face, is how can you regulate and mandate what you've got to do when you don't even know what you're going to have."

Doug Whitmire, who has been harvesting catfish in North Carolina waters for most of his 48 years, worried the changes will require older seafood processors to make expensive updates to their plants.

"If my processor is not willing to spend the amount of money to get up to standard, then my way of life will be put aside," he said. "And my children's way of life will be put aside, and we'll all be looking for a new job."

Additionally, he said, the blue catfish commercial fisheries are seen as part of the solution to the exploding populations of the fish that have invaded Chesapeake rivers. Still, he said it’s an uphill battle.

"We catch them daily, weekly, monthly, yearly and there's more now than when I was born," he said. "You can't deter them. Their evasive, they're taking over."

Greg Casten, a seafood processor who supplies fish to Washington restaurants and federal facilities, said the wild caught fish will lose some of its appeal if "you make it more expensive."

"Chefs, I can assure you, are always looking for the newest thing that nobody knows about," he said. "And when you take away that aspect and the fact that it's doing such a good thing for the environment, it's just really sad that one of the byproducts of probably good-aimed legislation is not going to help our region."

The rule is to take full effect September 1.

Chesapeake: A Journalism Collaborative is funded with grant support from the Clayton Baker Trust, The Bancroft Foundation, Michael and Ann Hankin, The Jim and Patty Rouse Foundation, The Rob and Elizabeth Tyler Foundation, and the Mid-Shore Community Foundation.

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