More than a decade ago, the northern snakehead was Public Enemy No. 1 on the Potomac River, an air-breathing, snaggletoothed invasive species that walked on land, dined on small reptiles and, in its way, plotted revolution on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland.
The snakehead is a lap dog compared with the blue catfish.
Since its introduction to Virginia waters in the 1970s, blue catfish have come to dominate several Chesapeake waterways, using their black-hole-like mouths to vacuum up whatever marine life gets in their way. Earlier this decade, the problem with predation became so acute that some nonprofit groups, watermen, seafood processors and retailers devised a lethal solution: They would work together to catch, market and serve blue catfish for dinner. Their plan has been such a hit that, in a few years, seafood processors have gone from handling zero blue catfish to millions of pounds of them annually.
But experts say a new federally mandated catfish inspection program threatens to hamper these efforts to control the swelling population of so-called blue cats.
With a provision tucked into the 2008 Farm Bill, Congress shifted authority for catfish inspections from the Food and Drug Administration to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, arguing that the public needed the extra layers of protection from a potentially hazardous fish. Hundreds of members of the Senate and House have since been working to kill the program, calling it a waste of resources designed to protect a few Southern states whose catfish farms have lost millions of dollars to overseas competitors, which have to meet the tougher USDA standards.
The Senate has voted to scrap the program, but a similar measure has stalled in the House. As it stands, the new inspection program is set to become fully operational Sept. 1. Inspectors with the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service will then become a daily presence in plants that process catfish, reviewing the fish, sanitary conditions and other aspects of the process, a departure from the periodic site visits from FDA inspectors.
Daily USDA oversight is expected to be such a burden that some facilities will simply stop handling catfish, including blue catfish, says Tim Sughrue, executive vice president and partner with Congressional Seafood, a Maryland processor and supplier. The program probably won't affect large, state-of-the-art operations, such as Congressional's, Sughrue adds. But older plants could suddenly need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to upgrade facilities to meet rigorous USDA standards, which were designed to regulate meat, poultry and egg products, foods generally considered a higher risk for pathogens than seafood.
It's impossible to know how many plants may quit processing catfish because of the program. Seafood industry experts say hundreds of facilities handle catfish, often as part of a larger operation that processes other fish. Should a USDA inspector decide a facility needs improvements, industry officials say, there would be little incentive to make the renovations. The investment, after all, would serve only catfish. All other seafood will remain under FDA authority, including tuna and oysters, which are statistically more hazardous to human health than catfish.
"The unnecessary USDA regulation is running them out of the blue catfish trade, not because they don't want to help get rid of an invasive species, but because they can't put the rest of their operation on hold just to service one fish," says Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, a nonprofit organization that represents the seafood industry.
The inspection program could also stress catfish facilities in more routine ways. Processors say that wild-caught catfish and blue catfish, unlike cattle, just can't be herded into a plant to meet an inspector's schedule. Facilities process fish whenever the catch comes in, whether that's late in the day or on weekends. Arranging inspections outside the previously scheduled 40-hour work week will require processors to pay the inspector's hourly wage, as much as $70 an hour.
"There is going to be a cost, and that cost is going to be passed on," says Steve Vilnit, director of marketing and business development for J.J. McDonnell in Elkridge, Maryland.
Fewer processors and increased costs could result in a slowdown in the embryonic market for blue catfish, which could be sensitive to sharp price hikes. Blue catfish's affordability, after all, is one reason chefs and supermarket managers have latched onto blue cats. Another reason?
"It's a very delicious white fish. The flavor is very similar to striped bass, because they eat so much striped bass," says chef Mackenzie Kitburi, who worked at Marcel's and Fiola before launching Capital Taste Food Group, which hosts pop-up dinners to educate consumers on environmental issues. Kitburi's June 23 pop-up at Mess Hall will focus on the Chesapeake Bay, including the invasive species threatening it.
In December, Bart Farrell, director of food and beverage for the Clyde's Restaurant Group, testified before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, saying the USDA catfish inspection program will drive out "many processors and distributors." This, in turn, will break the increasingly lucrative supply chain between restaurants and watermen, who have been turning to blue cats as a source of income.
What's more, he told the panel, the "Chesapeake Bay and rivers in North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and Delaware [will] all suffer from the unfished, invasive species of wild blue catfish."
How much more could the bay's waterways suffer? That's uncertain. Several tributaries are already overrun with blue catfish, whose population is estimated between 94 million and 111 million.
But population numbers alone don't tell the full story. Blue catfish represent between half and three-quarters of the biomass in the James, Rappahannock and York rivers on Virginia's western shore of the Chesapeake, says Chris Moore, senior regional ecosystem scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Those blue cats, naturally, are getting fat on the native flora and fauna, and they are thought to be invading tributaries in the northern part of the Chesapeake, abetted by rainwaters that lower the bay's salinity levels and allow the freshwater fish to migrate.
"More fish spawn in the Choptank than any other tributary" of the Chesapeake, Congressional Seafood's Sughrue says of the northern Delmarva river. Blue cats "will dominate that river eventually, whether it's 10 years from now or 15 years from now."
State natural resource managers know blue catfish have had an adverse impact on the bay ever since the fish were introduced to the James, Rappahannock and York Rivers during the 1970s and 1980s. Native to the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio river basins, blue cats were stocked in Virginia waters for sport fishing, which made sense, given the fish can reach weights in excess of 100 pounds, perfect for the requisite man-and-leviathan photo.
But those sea monsters come at a cost. Bay scientists, resource managers, seafood processors and the like regularly disagree about how big an impact blue cats alone have had on local fish and shellfish populations. Some talk as though they hold the invasive species solely responsible for the declines in American shad, blueback herring, American eel and other fish.
During spawning season, blue cats "are following American shad up the river and eating their eggs," says Sughrue with Congressional. "They repress other species' ability to reproduce. How else do you get to 74 percent of a biomass?"
But others, like Bob Greenlee, think the native fish face threats other than blue cat predation, including pollution, overfishing and dams that block migration. Greenlee is the Eastern region fisheries manager for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and he has been following a multiyear Virginia Tech study that's trying to determine the blue cat diet. Results won't be final until later this year, but Greenlee says DNA tests show blue cats don't feast on a lot of American shad, American eel or other scarce species.
The one concern, however, is blue crabs, the prized "beautiful savory swimmer" of the Chesapeake. The shellfish are fairly abundant in the blue cat's diet, Greenlee says, and state officials must consider this predation in managing the blue crab population. State officials privately worry the USDA inspection program will hamper one of their management tools: commercial fishing.
Both the Trump administration and Congress have been trying to ditch the inspection program. President Trump's 2018 budget calls for its elimination, perhaps because many have described the program as a non-tariff trade barrier, which may not stand up to scrutiny with the World Trade Organization. The Senate last year passed a joint resolution to nullify the USDA catfish inspection program. A similar measure in the House has gone nowhere despite the fact that more than 170 members have signed a letter urging leadership to put it to a vote.
Critics say it's a matter of politics over food safety. They point to Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and his colleagues from other Southern states, where the farmed catfish industry generates hundreds of millions of dollars annually, revenue that has been deeply impacted by cheaper imports over the past decade. The United States is the leading export market for Vietnamese catfish, sold under such names as "basa"and "swai."
Southern lawmakers have argued that USDA inspections will protect consumers from the farm-raised catfish from Vietnam and other countries, where safety standards are not as rigorous as they are in the United States. The lawmakers say less than 2 percent of catfish imports were inspected under the FDA's authority. They also say that since the USDA started to inspect every foreign shipment of catfish, the agency has rejected several from China and Vietnam. One shipment, containing more than 39,000 pounds of catfish, was turned away after testing positive for a suspected carcinogen.
Still, the U.S. Government Accountability Office has urged Congress to repeal the USDA inspection program, calling it an "inefficient use of resources" that would "not improve catfish safety." The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Foodborne Outbreak Online Database likewise indicates that catfish is a low-risk product. From 1998 to 2015, the last year with finalized data, the CDC had logged 56 reported cases of illness from catfish. Two required hospitalization, and no one died. Over the same period, both oysters and tuna led to more reported cases of illness (2,742 and 3,083, respectively), hospitalizations (73 and 126) and deaths (two and three). Oysters and tuna remain under FDA authority.
This government stalemate has at least one catfish processor taking a wait-and-see approach. L.W. Nixon, a third-generation operator at Murray L. Nixon Fishery in Edenton, North Carolina, says the company processes tons of catfish a year, most of it blue catfish. The Nixon family is holding off on new packaging labels, as required under USDA regulations. The labor involved in producing the labels, Nixon says, adds up, and the company wants to see if the new inspection program withstands the pressure in Congress.
Come September, if the USDA inspection program stands, Nixon Fishery is now playing another waiting game: The company will have to see whether the blue catfish market can bear the added costs that will inevitably come with inspecting the fish. Nixon's fear is that everyone will simply give up on blue cats. That won't be good for business or the environment.
"I really don't see anything good in this at all," he says.