On Thursday, March 16, Maryland Governor Wes Moreland asked the federal government to declare a state of disaster to address the proliferation of blue catfish and other invasive fish species living in the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake Bay. In a letter to the Department of Commerce, Moore said that the invasive fish are devastating native species and causing severe declines in commercial catches. If granted by the feds, the declaration would qualify the state for millions of dollars worth of federal fishery disaster assistance.
“In recent years, the state has become increasingly concerned about the explosion in the abundance of invasive fish species in the Chesapeake Bay, including blue catfish, flathead catfish, and snakehead,” Moore said in a statement released last Thursday. “It is critical to act now to mitigate the effects of these invasive species and to provide assistance to the commercial fishing industry.”
According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, commercial fishery species that share habitat with invasive blue catfish, flathead catfish, and snakeheads have declined by as much as 91 percent over the past decade. Sharp declines in blue crab and striped bass populations have caused the most concern among commercial fishermen—who harvested an average of $64 million worth of native fish since 2012.
In his letter, Moore highlighted the impacts that blue catfish in particular have on the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem off the Eastern Shore of Maryland. “They are voracious eaters,” he wrote. “They consume other fish, crustaceans, and even other catfish. They out-compete the native species for both habitats and food and threaten key commercial fisheries including blue crab, striped bass, white perch, yellow perch, and American eel.”
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Blue catfish were first stocked in Virginia rivers in the 1970s for recreational fishing purposes. Their ability to thrive in saltwater environments was unknown at the time but has since allowed the species to expand into nearly every Chesapeake Bay tributary. A low mortality rate combined with a high reproduction rate has created a population explosion in the area. Today, in some Chesapeake Bay tributaries, they have been estimated to make up 75 percent of the total fish biomass.