Rocky Rice heads out on the Potomac River as soon as it's light enough to see.
Mostly, it's not blue crabs he's after, but blue catfish. With white bellies and long whiskers, the invasive blue cats have been appearing in recent years in rivers and creeks up and down the Chesapeake Bay. They voraciously eat fish, crabs and clams — whatever they can find, biologists say — and can grow into rounded 100-pound blobs of grayish-blue scales.
"They are in every stem of the bay, pretty much," Rice said. "Will they completely take over the ecosystem in 50 years? I have no idea."
Neither do scientists. Blue catfish, which were first introduced by Virginia officials to the James River for sport fishing, might number more than 100 million in the Chesapeake Bay now, researchers say.
Amid heightened concern that blue catfish already could be spreading out of control, watermen, conservationists and government officials are attempting to stanch their population by catching as many of those invaders as they can and encouraging people to eat their firm, clean-flavored flesh. Blue cats now appear on plates everywhere from Baltimore's ballpark and high-end restaurants to state-run prisons, creating a growing new market for the bay's watermen.
The Harris Creek Oyster Co. stand at Oriole Park offers a blue catfish sandwich. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun video)
Though conservation rules limit the catch of the Chesapeake's most prized catches, such as rockfish, oysters or blue crabs, watermen can and do catch massive bounties of blue catfish, so much so that the species native to the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico is becoming the primary harvest for some like Rice and Pete Springer.
Springer, who also fishes in the Potomac, said he never saw catfish while growing up in Southern Maryland, but in recent years has turned more and more to netting them for his living. Commercial watermen in Maryland and Virginia harvested more than 5 million pounds of them in 2017 — almost twice as much as the states' combined striped bass commercial harvest.
"It has taken over this river," Springer said of the blue catfish.
Scientists say they don't have enough information to predict whether and how the catfish might be throwing bay ecosystems out of whack. They are only just starting to research where the bay's new catfish go to keep warm in the winter and to spawn in the spring, how much saltwater they can tolerate, and just how much their population has grown in the Chesapeake. They think recent wet years encouraged the freshwater species' spread but don't know whether that has helped their reproduction.
The Northern snakehead fish raised alarm when it appeared in the Chesapeake in the early 2000s, raising concerns it would outcompete native species. Since then, the toothed fish capable of breathing in air has become established in much of the Potomac, though its spread has been otherwise limited amid campaigns to educate the public and promote the harvesting and consumption of snakehead.
It has taken over this river.
Pete Springer of blue catfish in the Potomac
Share quote & link
While snakehead didn't quite catch on as a delicacy, could blue cats?
"We're not slowing them down none," said Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. "If they keep gaining and gaining ground, I don't want that to be the primary fish of the Chesapeake Bay."
The catfish are at least helping watermen make a living amid what they say feels like a barrage of regulations and conservation limits on other species and fluctuations in the populations of oysters and crabs. Rice, who now gets more than half of his income from blue catfish, said the invaders have been a blessing in disguise.
Virginia officials introduced blue catfish to that state's rivers in the 1970s, and they have slowly spread up the bay from there. In 2015, Virginia researchers estimated there were about 100 million of them in the Chesapeake, and it's likely the blue catfish population has grown since then.
Last year, amid record rainfall across the Mid-Atlantic, the fish turned up in places where waters were usually thought to be too salty for their liking, including near the mouths of rivers and in the main stem of the Chesapeake itself. They appear in overwhelming numbers in parts of rivers such as the Patuxent and the Nanticoke, enough that it's easy to net hundreds of them in just an hour.
There isn't evidence yet that their growth has translated to a downturn for other species. Testing of blue catfish gut contents shows they aren't picky eaters, devouring everything from blue crabs to mussels and clams to young shad, herring and sturgeon. While many of those creatures are struggling to recover from population losses, and the catfish add one more competitor in the food chain, scientists haven't seen any downturn they could link directly to catfish.
That doesn't mean that won't happen, though.
"They're just so grossly abundant," said Joe Love, a freshwater fisheries biologist at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Such concerns spurred efforts to get more people fishing for blue cats, and more people eating them.
The more blue catfish dishes served, "the better chance we have of getting it out of the bay," said chef David Thomas of Ida B's Table in Baltimore.
Thomas said most customers are "pleasantly surprised" by what he describes as the cleaner flavor of blue catfish. He's sold it for years as a sustainable alternative to traditional catfish, served on top of salads and in a West African stew known as maafe. The restaurant is now selling more than 100 pounds of blue catfish a week.
For the nonprofit Wide Net Project, promoting blue catfish catch is about both protecting the environment and feeding people who are hungry. The group, founded in 2013, works with partners to get the fish to hunger relief agencies as well as the grocery store chain MOM's, where customers can buy it for around $9 per pound.
"It's a twofold problem," said Wendy Stuart, a trained chef and the Wide Net Project's co-founder and executive director. "Get it out of the bay and get it onto the plates of people who need it."
Last year, Maryland officials announced a new program to allow state institutions such as prisons, schools and hospitals to buy cases of the blue catfish from Maryland Correctional Enterprises, a job-training program under the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. At facilities in Hagerstown and Cumberland, cooks serve up spicy catfish to prisoners. Collectively, state prisons are now using 3,055 pounds of blue catfish monthly, paying $5.31 a pound, according to Mark Powell, chief of marketing at the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
With both demand for and supply of blue catfish on the rise, the catch has increased 2½ times over from 2014 to 2017, to nearly 200,000 pounds in Maryland waters. In Virginia, the harvest is twice as large, so there is plenty of room for demand to grow.
Gertrude's is serving two menu items that use the invasive Blue Catfish an an ingredient. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)
"There are more of them out there, but also more people going after them," said Sean Corson, acting director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Chesapeake Bay office. "There's a pretty decent market for them right now."
Conservationists, meanwhile, just hope blue cats continue to catch on with consumers such as Baltimore resident Robyn Williams.
During a recent Orioles home game, she tried a sample of breaded and fried blue catfish on her way to the stands. Harris Creek Oyster Co. opened a stall at Camden Yards this year, offering pink catfish fillets caught fresh from the Potomac and served in sandwiches.
The blue catfish, Williams said, was heartier and meatier than catfish she was used to.
"I would get that again," she said. "Can I have one more piece?"