Blue catfish, with their telltale whiskers and silvery cerulean skin, are likely even more hazardous than the snakeheads. Known to balloon in size by feeding on an incredible variety of estuarine life, the invasive catfish are gaining notoriety thanks to their abundance.
But Maryland seafood processors argue that the effort to remove blue cats from the bay for commercial sale has long been hampered by regulations. And even as the catfish continue to seize territory in the Chesapeake — endangering key species from blue crabs to Atlantic menhaden — it’s unclear whether there is sufficient momentum to loosen the red tape.
Unlike with other fish species, every time seafood houses plan to cut up a shipment of blue catfish from a waterman, an inspector from the U.S. Department of Agriculture must be on-site, and the seafood house can’t process any other fish at the same time.
The inspection rules were written into the 2008 federal Farm Bill, supported by catfish farmers, who wanted to boost their product with more stringent inspection requirements amid foreign competition. But USDA didn’t actually take authority over catfish from the Food and Drug Administration, which handles other seafood industries, until 2015.
“This was a rule that was many years in the making, because it was unusual,” said William James, a consultant for advocacy groups such as the Catfish Farmers of America. “The catfish industry wanted to be different. They wanted to subject themselves to these increased demands in order to acquire the USDA logo, and enhance the reputation of the product that they sell.”
As a result, USDA inspectors must be present at least once per shift when catfish are being processed. The agency provides the inspections without charge during business hours. And for establishments processing invasive catfish, overtime and holiday pay has been covered by congressional funding since 2021.
Maryland lawmakers from Annapolis to Capitol Hill, desperate to slow the population growth in the bay, have opposed the regulations for the wild catfish industry. But as legislators in Washington draft the next five-year Farm Bill, the future remains uncertain, said Keisha Sedlacek, who directs federal advocacy programs for the Annapolis-based Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
There have been some victories, she said, including language inserted by Republican U.S. Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland into the federal omnibus spending bill for FY2023 requiring the agriculture secretary to ”work with the states in the Chesapeake Bay area to assist fishermen and processors dealing with invasive blue catfish.”
But transferring inspection authority for wild-caught catfish back to the FDA has been more challenging, she said.
What government agency has ever willingly given up authority?
The Wombat came through with Late Night With Rule 5 Sunday: Double-Scoop Swimsuit Edition!