The name “blue catfish” doesn’t carry the same villainous ring as that of its invasive counterpart, the snakehead, but the whiskered fish are proving even uglier for the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. Having vacuumed their way through local flora and fauna — even some precious Maryland blue crabs — they now outnumber other fish 3-1 in bay tributaries.
A new nonprofit group is putting this source of protein to work for a noble cause, turning its plentiful numbers — and mildly sweet, malleable flavor — into affordable food for Washington’s hunger-relief organizations and the broader market.
“Conceptually, it’s simple. There’s too much fish, so let’s turn this problem into an amazing solution for two different issues,” said Wendy Stuart, co-founder of the Wide Net Project and the consulting practice Food Works Group, which has been working on the project for about a year.
Stuart’s background as an economist and Culinary Institute of America-trained chef complements that of Wide Net’s other founder, Sharon Feuer Gruber, who until recently worked as an adviser to the District’s largest food pantry, Bread for the City.
They have a shared penchant for improving local food systems and, while they’re at it, the region’s natural and social ecosystems.
“What we realized is we can address both of these issues more successfully together,” said Feuer Gruber.
After deciding the blue catfish was a problem bigger than the attention it was receiving, the two had to figure out whether they could address it, and how.
Introduced into three Virginia rivers in the 1970s as a game fish, the catfish have acclimated quite well, growing to more than 100 pounds during their 20-year lifespan. They now make up an estimated 75 percent of total fish in local rivers. The Maryland Department of Fisheries says catching and consuming them is the best way to reduce the fish’s population.
Native bay species including blue crabs, menhaden and herring have become easy prey for this rapacious eater, but very few species eat blue catfish.
The fish is so abundant in local rivers that scientists have caught more than 6,000 of them in one hour during population surveys, according to the Blue Ocean Institute. The research organization recently gave the Chesapeake-sourced fish its highest sustainability rating, meaning that eating more of it is actually good for the bay.
Meanwhile, restaurants, universities and other large institutional buyers are increasingly looking for local, sustainable fish options. And if those options are offered at the same price as, say, farmed tilapia from China, “it sort of becomes a one-plus-one-equals-three scenario,” said Stuart.
For Wide Net, the key to selling buyers on that equation was finding the right partner.
Instead of investing in the infrastructure to catch, process and distribute the fish, Stuart and Feuer Gruber decided to work with J.J. McDonnell, the Jessup seafood supplier that will be the project’s exclusive distributor. The company had already been marketing the fish and sold 190,000 pounds of it last year
Connor Boney, marketing manager for J.J. McDonnell, quickly embraced the concept, which has the potential to increase demand for a fish that is easy to catch, needs to be harvested in greater quantities and can be sold cheaply to those most in need.
“From our perspective, it’s fantastic. Why wouldn’t we want to be involved?” he said. The company will distribute only blue catfish that weigh eight pounds or less, to avoid toxicity problems sometimes found in older, larger fish.
J.J. McDonnell is, in many ways, making the project’s current model possible, offering a special price on catfish sales to Wide Net for new customers the project brings in. That allows Wide Net to charge the usual market price to institutional buyers such as hospitals and keep a portion of the revenues to subsidize the cost of catfish for hunger-relief organizations.
The distributor will also ask its existing customers whether they want to participate in the project, meaning those sales would be funneled through Wide Net, which could keep a portion of the proceeds. Although Wide Net operates in some ways like a for-profit business, it also accepts donations to fund the educational and marketing components that are key to spurring demand for the fish.
Feuer Gruber has seen firsthand that seafood is the second-most-requested protein, right behind chicken, at places such as Bread for the City. Faced with a lack of food, some of the city’s poorest residents fish in local waterways, despite dangerous toxicity levels in the Anacostia and other rivers.
“We needed to look creatively at food sourcing from the hunger-relief perspective,” she said. “From a bay perspective, since the only guidance about managing the population is to eat more of it, a program has to exist to make more of that happen.”
Even as it launched last month, the project already has garnered support — and a few customers.
Allison Lilly, sustainability and wellness coordinator for the University of Maryland’s Department of Dining Services, said the project is a “serendipitous” match for her efforts. The university was already increasing its sustainable food offerings but had started quite literally with the low-hanging fruit (along with vegetables). Seafood, she said, sounded too complicated to tackle right away.
But when Wide Net approached her, she found that local catfish could fit into her program. She saw an opportunity to replace other white fish that was sometimes delivered with no indication of a country of origin, let alone a guarantee of sustainability.
The program’s executive chef, John Gray, was a harder sell. Like many people aware of the muddy flavor of bottom-feeding catfish, he was convinced he didn’t like it.
But this blue catfish, he noted, was different. Because these apex predators are not relegated to the bottom of the tributaries they run in, they take on a cleaner, more versatile taste.
“It’s challenging to go to a chef and say, ‘No, this is not the catfish you’ve tasted for the last 20 years. You need to try it,’ ” said Stuart, who offers recipes she has created to show the fish’s versatility. She says the blue catfish can be used like any other flaky white fish: seared or fried; in fish cakes, tacos or nuggets. “I’ve cooked it a couple dozen different ways, and it’s good every time.”
Lilly said university students responded well to both the taste and message of the catfish project when it was introduced at a recent event. She’s considering adding the fish to the school’s salad bar or value menus.
Wide Net also will be providing catfish to Union Hospital in Cecil County, Md., which has won awards for sustainable food service.
“A project like theirs is great,” said Steve Vilnit, director of fisheries marketing for Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources. “Anywhere we can get the product out there. The more consumption and awareness, the better.”
About 400,000 pounds of blue catfish were commercially harvested from the bay watershed in 2012, with no obvious impact on restoring biodiversity, according to the Maryland Department of Fisheries. In its first year, the Wide Net Project aims to move an additional 100,000 pounds of the fish out of the bay and into Washington area markets.
“A big piece of this is we want to scale up so that, as big as the demand gets, we can service it,” said Stuart. And, she added, if the project can help the fishing industry move the needle on catfish consumption, “maybe we’ll make a dent this time.”
Pipkin, a freelance writer who lives in Alexandria, blogs at ThinkAboutEat.com and writes for the Chesapeake Bay Journal.