On more than one occasion humans have shown a facility for consuming entire species — literally eating passenger pigeons, dodo birds, eastern elk, heath hens, and maybe even wooly mammoths into extinction. Blue and flathead catfish, considered “one of the greatest environmental threats the Chesapeake Bay has ever faced,” make an ideal next target for species extirpation by gastronomy.
Blue and flathead catfish are invasives, introduced into the James, Rappahannock, and York rivers of the Lower Chesapeake in the 1960s through 1980s as a new recreational fishery. Simply put, they are now out of control. According to the Chesapeake Bay Office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, blue catfish have rapidly expanded into nearly every major tributary in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and flatheads are invading lower-salinity tributaries. Voracious predators, they are opportunistic and have a varied diet that includes almost anything in the water.
Blue and flathead catfish feed on menhaden, eel, shad, herring, blue crabs, and an ever-expanding menu of Chesapeake Bay seafood, including other catfish. It is said that the catfish taste like the bay’s iconic rockfish, because the cats eat everything that the rock do, and the cats also eat the rock. On top of the food chain, the catfish can live for 20 years, grow to more than 100 pounds, and annually produce more than 20,000 eggs.
Harnessing the power of the fork
Though anatomically not possible, the invasive catfish do have an Achilles heel: Humans find them delicious, and we do have a talent for using the fork as an agent of extinction. For the past several years, local fisheries experts, such as Tim Shugrue, of Congressional Seafood in Jessup, Md., have begun to market the flaky, sweet, white fillets.
I have eaten the catfish, prepared by Congressional’s chefs, in a gumbo and as “cat cakes,” complete with Chesapeake Bay seasoning. Both dishes were very tasty.
“Slowly but surely, we have been progressing in a methodical expansion,” said Shugrue, a former fisheries researcher. “We have reached Whole Foods and Sam’s Club, Clyde’s Restaurant. ... We sell about 2 million pounds each year, but it is very labor intensive.”
Shugrue estimates that we need to harvest in excess of 40 million pounds annually for the foreseeable future to keep the catfish at a level where they don’t completely adversely affect the native species.
Maryland Ag Department gets involved
Ron Buckhalt, director of the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s seafood marketing, said his organization is actively involved in the ongoing process to introduce people to the flathead and blue catfish. The fish has been featured at the annual Maryland’s Best Buyer/Grower Expo, and Buckhalt mentioned a proposal for institutional use of perhaps 3 million to 4 million pounds annually. But, he realizes that is a stop gap, not a solution.
“Seventy-five percent of the biomass of the James River is now blue catfish,” he said. “The Potomac has more catfish than other rivers, but they are all over the bay. ... We are trying to publicize the cat-fish as it tastes so good, and we’ve got to do something to get it under control.”
A special “thank you” for this month’s very appropriate recipe to chef Cindy Wolf, seven-time James Beard Foundation Award finalist for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic and owner of Charleston Restaurant in Baltimore.
CORNMEAL-DUSTED CATFISH ESCABECHE
1 green tomato
1 heirloom tomato
1 poblano pepper
1 jalapeño pepper
Optional: 1 habanero pepper 2 ounces corn oil
Freshly ground black pepper
1 fillet catfish (flathead catfish or blue catfish are both great local options)
1 quart buttermilk
3 cups fine cornmeal
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 pint corn or peanut oil, for frying Juice of 2 limes
Julienne all the vegetables; season with salt and pepper and sauté in corn oil for about 2 minutes in high heat.
Make a mixture of 3 cups corn-meal and 3 cups flour; season with a teaspoon of salt. Drop the catfish in buttermilk. After dipping the catfish in buttermilk, lightly coat with the cornmeal flour mixture.
Deep fry the catfish in corn or peanut oil at 350 degrees for about 3 minutes, or until catfish is cooked.
Serve fish in the bed of vegetables and drizzle a bit of lime juice over it.
Reed Hellman is a professional writer living in Alberton, Md. Visit his website at reedhellmanwordsmith.com.