Maryland’s infamous invasive fishes — blue catfish, northern snakehead, and flathead catfish — were introduced to bay waters without Maryland Department of Natural Resources authorization. These species now pose an array of potential problems for the ecosystems of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.
Even with increased fishing pressure, controlling the abundance of invasives after they’ve become established can be difficult. While the department is investigating other ways of controlling the spread and abundance of these fish, we encourage the method that has been tried and true for centuries – eating them! And the good news is that the illegally introduced invasive fishes in Maryland are not only edible but delicious!
How do these invasive fish affect the Bay?
An invasive species is a non-native species that cause or will likely cause either ecological or economic harm to an environment. In some cases, invasive species cause ecological harm by preying on other species and causing changes in communities.
Both blue and flathead catfish were introduced into the Chesapeake Bay in the 1960s through the 1980s to create new recreational fisheries, a common practice at the time. After their introduction, they quickly spread into Maryland waters. Blue catfish can now be found in several major rivers of Maryland, including the Potomac River, Patuxent River, and Nanticoke River. Flathead catfish primarily occupy some areas of the Potomac River and lower Susquehanna River (above and below the Conowingo Dam). The first reported sighting of the northern snakehead in Maryland was reported in 2002 in Crofton. It was also illegally introduced to Potomac River and Nanticoke River, and has since spread throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Maryland’s invasive fishes affect the Chesapeake Bay in different ways depending on their abundance and location. Many invasive species do not have natural predators in their new habitats, so their numbers can increase rapidly. These invaders eat native fish, although blue catfish tend to also eat a lot of macroinvertebrates, like blue crabs and mussels. Invasive species can also spread viruses or disease. Potentially fatal pathogens such as largemouth bass virus and mycobacteria are found in parts of the Chesapeake Bay, but these pathogens could expand their ranges by hitchhiking along with the highly mobile northern snakehead. When a new species enters a complex ecosystem like the Chesapeake Bay, the ecosystem can change in ways that threaten ongoing conservation or management efforts.
The department has launched many campaigns over the past fifteen years to encourage the public to fish and harvest these invasive fish. As with other predator fish populations, imposing greater fishing pressure on these species will cause their numbers to decline. However, both recreational anglers and commercial markets can be slow to develop an affinity for these ugly fishes and spreading the word of their tastiness takes time.
Blue catfish is now on the menu at most state institutions that have food service. Schools, universities, hospitals and prisons are serving up blue catfish to help reduce their population. The state initiative is twofold: reduce the number of invasive species and provide Maryland citizens a locally sourced and healthy meal option. In addition, introducing blue catfish into the state’s public institutions also creates jobs and supports educational opportunities on invasive species.
To help educate the public on invasive species and as an alternative food source, the department routinely donates northern snakehead and blue catfish to local food banks and public and private events.
How can I help?
Fish and eat; then repeat. Unlike other fish species in the state, there are very few rules for harvesting invasive species. These invasive fish can be harvested any time of year, at any size and in any number. Anglers must use legal fishing gear and have a current fishing license. Anglers should remember that it is illegal to have a live northern snakehead in their possession.
Once you buy a fishing license, not only will you be permitted to fish for these very tasty fishes, but you will support department efforts to engage more of the public, conduct research and share information. The department has online tools to assist you in how to catch and fillet invasive fishes.
If you fish alone or are going for the first time and need some advice, there are a lot of resources available to you. Visit the public access page to find locations to fish, or search the Maryland Angler’s Log for helpful tips from other anglers. If you want to fish with professionals, find a licensed charter boat guide or find a fishing tournament to join. The department maintains a list of some licensed charter boat guides on its website.
Finally, spread the word; share your fishing experiences with others. If you don’t fish, share the story of these invasive fish so that our society can prevent more of them. Are you a photographer and nature lover? Share your photos with the department. Or, if you just like to eat, ask your local restaurant or store for locally caught blue catfish. Increased demand drives product delivery. Tell them you want to help the bay by eating invasive fishes.
How do you like your snakehead?
Snakehead may not be winning any beauty contests, but they’ll serve you well in a cooking contest. The fillets from these species are mild, flaky and generous. These fish are prized as food sources in their origin countries, so it should be no surprise that there are lots of recipes and recommendations for cooking the fillets.
Before cooking snakehead, people usually strip the fillet from the body of the fish. This can be a challenge for folks who are not familiar with the process. First, we recommend buying or borrowing a fillet knife that has a thin, sharp and long blade that can be easily worked through a fish. Use a towel or glove to hold onto the fish’s head, making the fish easier to control during the filleting process. Find a clean space with easy access to a garden hose or other water source. Having the water nearby aids in clean up and will allow for easy rinsing of the fillet. For more information on how to fillet a fish, please visit the department’s website for snakeheads.
Once they fillet the fish, cooks can get creative. We’ve seen the fillets served many ways, including fried and baked, sautéed and grilled, even as ceviche. One of the best ways we’ve tried it is simply cooking it in a lemon-infused olive oil. Top if off with fresh cilantro and a zesty lemon wedge. What’s your recipe? Visit the Maryland Angler’s Log and send us an email with a photo of your prized catch!
For more information on invasive fish in Maryland, please visit our website and search for “invasive.” The department has just updated content and videos regarding northern snakeheads and is in the process of doing the same for invasive catfish.
The department works with Maryland Department of Agriculture’s Seafood Marketing program to help enact the control strategy. While the Department of Natural Resources sets the reasons and rules for harvesting invasive fishes, the Seafood Marketing program helps promote sale and consumption of invasive fishes in commercial markets. For more information on how to harvest invasive fishes, contact the Department of Natural Resources at 1-877-620–8DNR. And for more information on where to buy fillets, contact the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
Joseph Love and Eric G. Wilson work for the department’s Fishing and Boating Services, as a biologist and public affairs officer, respectively. Appears in Vol. 22, No. 4 of the Maryland Natural Resource magazine, fall 2019.
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