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One Fish, Two Fish, Catfish new Fish

Apr 01, 2018 07:00AM ● By Brian Saucedo
By Jim Lodico

Watermen are buying into alternative catches, new marketing tools, and state supported programs to supplement their maritime livelihood, but will consumers catch on?

Watermen have harvested the bounty of Chesapeake Bay since before the first European settlers arrived in Maryland. The site of crab boats pulling pots at sunrise or a lone waterman tonging for oysters in the cold of winter are iconic images throughout Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay. A waterman’s work has never been easy but in recent times, disease, habitat loss, over fishing, and other issues have made it harder and harder to earn a living from the Bay’s tributaries. As a result, many watermen are turning to new ways to supplement their income and keep up with the changing nature of the Chesapeake Bay environment.

For some, these changes are an adjustment in the traditional methods watermen have used for generations. For others, they entail a complete redefinition of what it means to be a waterman. 

A New Catch 

Watermen today face a bureaucratic world of regulations designed to preserve the limited resources of the Bay. Even with these regulations, the supply can fluctuate leaving watermen scrambling. For example, according to Ron Buckhalt, director of Seafood Marketing at the Maryland Department of Agriculture, the 2017 crabbing season started out looking good but the stock dwindled, forcing an early the end to the season.

“This past year we had a great opening season. There were lots of crabs at low prices,” Buckhalt says. “The numbers fell off though and by the end of October the season had to be shortened in order to make sure there were enough juvenile crabs wintering over at the mouth of the Bay to ensure next year’s crop.”

Waterman Rocky Rice has found a new catch that isn’t bound to annual harvest limits. If anything, he is encouraged to increase his harvest. Rice is one of a handful of Chesapeake watermen who catches blue catfish, an invasive species working its way around the Chesapeake Bay.  

Everyone thinks of catfish as a bottom sucker but this is a predator with eating habits like the striped bass. It’s a good white fish.”
—Rocky Rice

“I’ve been a waterman my entire life,” Rice says. “My father was a waterman and I’ve worked around the water since I was old enough to climb onto a boat. Crabbing, eels, and rockfish were always my bread and butter. Rockfish are a limited fishery and with the instability of crabs, they can be all over the place. I expanded into the blue cats as another piece of the pie and it took off.” 

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), blue catfish were first introduced to the James, Rappahannock, and York rivers as a game fish during the 1970s and 1980s. Since that time, their population has exploded and they can now be found in most of the rivers feeding into the Chesapeake Bay. A predatory fish, they can live for 20 years, grow to be more than 100 pounds, and pose a threat to natural species living in the bay. 

Although the fish have been plentiful in some rivers of the Chesapeake for some time, the demand for blue catfish is relatively new.  This growing demand didn’t come about by accident either. NOAA, Maryland Department of Agriculture, and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources have worked with regional chefs and others in the seafood industry to introduce the fish as viable seafood product. 

According to Buckhalt, catfish have something of a bad reputation. This is partially due to foreign imports and species that aren’t as favorable as the blue catfish. Only recently are they being accepted by chefs and served at area restaurants. 

 “It’s such a good fish,” Rice says. “Everyone thinks of catfish as a bottom sucker but this is a predator with eating habits like the striped bass. It’s a good white fish.”

Rice said although he only started fishing for blue catfish the past four or five years, the fish were plentiful long before that. “The fish were already there but the demand had to catch up. The DNR and others have really focused on it the past four to five years and it has really grown.” 

Rice adds that like other watermen, he felt the crunch of the inconsistency of blue crab and with the efforts to establish a growing market creating an increasing demand, the opportunity was there. “Watermen are all business people. Obviously, the supply was there. If you can create a demand for it, we are all working toward a common goal.”

For Rice, adding blue catfish to his catch is just another piece of the waterman pie. Instead of crabbing six days a week, he is fishing about three days a week giving his crab pots more time to “soak.” 

It’s not a small catch either. Using traps, rice sets a daily goal of 1,200 to 1,500 pounds of fish with the ideal fish weighing between 3 and 15 pounds. Less than three pounds and they are too small to fillet. Larger than 15 and, as with any older fish, mercury becomes a concern. 

Although he doesn’t always make his goal, he finds that catfish are more consistent than crabs. Crabbing is still productive because with the demand in Maryland so high, the price for crabs is high. As the demand for blue catfish increases though, the price has also gone up with blue catfish bringing in 50 to 70 cents per pound.

 “Once the price got up around 50 cents per pound, you could make some good money at it. That’s when people started really getting into catfish,” he says. He adds that on the Potomac River, at least, it’s become popular enough that he is starting to see a number of people who work 9 to 5 jobs running catfish lines on the side to make a little extra money.

“The biggest thing has been educating the market. Once the chefs start seeing them (blue catfish) at trade shows and stuff, people get to taste it and realize it’s a good tasting fish and it’s relatively inexpensive when compared to rock fish.” 

For Rice, this marketing push has created a new way to supplement his income as a waterman. However, the push to create a market for blue catfish goes beyond economic impact. Creating a commercial demand is one of the only ways to control this quickly growing invasive species.

Buckhalt sums it up when he says, “The only way to take care of aninvasive species is to eat our wayout of the problem.”

A Changing Harvest

Up until the early 2000s, Skipjacks could be seen in the winter dragging their rakes across the oyster beds of the Chesapeake Bay. But as disease and other environmental pressures took their toll on the Chesapeake oyster, they also took their toll on traditional oystering methods such as the Skipjack. By 2011, a University of Maryland study showed that the Chesapeake oyster population was only 0.3 percent of what it was in the early 1800s.

One approach to rebuilding the Maryland oyster harvest is through aquaculture.  Since 2009, changes in the law have greatly expanded oyster farming on the Chesapeake Bay. Closer in practice to agricultural farming than fishing, farm raised oysters now make up the majority of oysters found in restaurants around the region. 

This new industry has also brought new disease resistant oysters, new ways of growing oysters, and a new type of watermen to the Bay. Tal Petty, owner of Hollywood Oyster Company in Hollywood, Maryland, will tell you that he’s not a waterman at all.

“I’m a farmer. I manage my inventory and I manage my harvest schedule just like any other farmer. Aquaculture really is agriculture. It’s different than what a waterman does,” Petty says. 

And unlike watermen who often follow in the footsteps of generations of watermen who came before them, Petty is a newcomer to the industry. His family owned a 300-acre farm in Hollywood since the early ’70s. Petty started growing oysters on weekend visits to the farm and he’d share them with friends. When the laws changed in 2009, Petty applied for an oyster lease and in 2013, moved from his home in Bethesda, Maryland to farm oysters full time. 

Now with seven acres on three leases (a plot of Chesapeake Bay bottom leased by the state for harvesting oysters), around two thousand oyster cages, and a complete processing and packaging plant, Petty has turned his love of oysters into a completely sustainable operation, which starts with oyster seeds purchased from a hatchery and ends with delivery to the restaurant. He even powers the entire operation with solar panels on the property. 

While the majority of Maryland oyster leases are for wild oysters, Petty’s leases are for water column farming. Instead of building a natural reef to grow oysters on the floor of the bay, Petty plants oysters from seed just as you might grow any other agricultural crop.

With the expanded market provided by the leases, Maryland oysters can now be on the market year ’round. Seafood buyers look for that.”
—Rachel Dean

Petty starts with 1 millimeter oyster seeds that are grown in 50 or 60 silos on the dock. Considering that one million oyster seeds would amount to about a gallon in volume, the dock can have millions of oyster seeds growing at one time. Once the oysters grow to around 3/8 of an inch, they are sorted and transferred to bags until they are large enough to be moved to cages where they grow to maturity. 

Most farm-raised oysters grown in this manner are triploid oysters. Petty compares triploid oysters to a seedless watermelon in that they don’t reproduce. More important, they are resistant to the diseases that can have such a devastating affect on the wild oyster population. They also grow fast, going from seed to oyster in less than two years. Because they are grown in cages, they are also less prone to predators resulting in a larger ratio of meat to shell than wild oysters, which need a thick shell for protection. 

Petty directly sees the environmental benefits of this type of oyster farming. “The habitat we create is a benefit to the Bay. We had hard sandy bottom, which is not hospitable to small fish. We put an oyster cage out and it is amazing the creatures and plants that grow along with it. We are creating an ecosystem where it was once barren,” Petty says.

He also sees the economic potential of oyster farming. “When you look at the miles of shorefront around the Chesapeake, a great majority of it is rural. Oysters are a cash crop that can be capitalized.” 

Oyster farming isn’t without its controversy. Watermen have traditionally seen the bottom of the bay belonging to everyone. Oyster cages prefer shallow water, but so do crabbers using trot lines. And while a crabber can trot line on top of oyster reefs, they can’t set them on top of cages. There is also a limited amount of bottom space available. However, this doesn’t mean that Maryland watermen haven’t also taken up oyster farming. Many are adding wild leases as a way to supplement their harvest. 

Rachel Dean and her husband, Simon, harvest oysters out of Solomons Island. They have added their first lease and are in the process of obtaining a second. Unlike the cage oysters that are grown from seed, their lease—a submerged land lease or ssl—allows them to grow oysters directly on the bottom of the bay.  Instead of cages, oysters farming this type of lease creates an environment simulating a natural reef. Small oysters or spat are added to the reef in the hopes of getting a natural “set” or oyster growth. 

These oysters, along with wild oysters caught on public grounds, make up the majority of the oysters going to shucking houses and small seafood stores. 

 Dean says that, in general, she sees the two industries (farm raised and wild oysters) helping each other. One advantage is that harvesting oyster leases, both farm raised and wild, are not limited to the same restrictions as other oyster harvesting. “With the expanded market provided by the leases, Maryland oysters can now be on the market year ’round,” Dean says. “Seafood buyers look for that. Previously, we didn’t have summertime oysters but we do now. That can be marketed for all of our benefit.” 

A Changing Role

During the years leading up to the 2008 season, the Chesapeake crab harvest was hitting record lows. There was concern that the blue crab population might reach a critical point that would be very hard to recover. In response to the declining harvest, tighter regulations were put in place and money was made available for restoration efforts. Crabs weren’t the only population that was suffering though. Watermen who fished the crabs were also feeling the pinch.  Many left their boats behind and sought other ways to earn a living. 

In an effort to support watermen, grant money was made available to teach them how to share the work they do and the lives they live with the general public by training them as tour guides. Since the implementation of the Waterman Heritage Tour training program, more than 100 Maryland watermen have been taught how to diversify their revenue by offering tours of the Bay, the waters where they work, and the daily life of the Maryland watermen. Dean and her husband took the training in 2011 and have since developed Solomon Island Heritage Tours.

“The program brings watermen in and let’s them know that there are people who are interested in what they do,” Dean says. “The life of the watermen isn’t understood because it’s not something you see every day.” 

Dean adds that for many of these watermen, playing the role of tour guide is a far stretch from the norm. “These guys are not your typical tour guide. They are on a boat, the last frontier. My husband likes to be out on the boat by himself but he lights up when he gets to tell people about it.” 

Watermen Heritage Tours are as unique as the watermen who run them, each one offering a different glimpse of their world. While some run dockside demonstrations, others show guests their oyster beds. Each has their niche. Dean and her husband are both licensed Captains which allows them to take people out with them on the water. These on-the-water tours have become their specialty. She says that although they offer scenic lighthouse tours and other boat trips, bait fishing is the most popular.

“The bait pots are hugely popular. We pull up puffer fish, seahorses, and other little creatures. Since we fish in shallow, protected water, the kids can see how the winder works and pull the traps up themselves.” She says that she has had kids so excited about the natural treasures found in each pot that she couldn’t wear them out. They just keep pulling pot after pot without even using the aid of the winder. 

“I’ve never had someone say it’s boring,” Dean says. “People are in awe.”

Dean says that the priority is still fishing. They only offer the tours if it doesn’t interrupt her husband and her brother’s regular fishing operation. On a busy summer weekend, they may do as many as three tour trips and sometimes find themselves turning people away due to the number of passengers they can take.

This new revenue stream can also help the local economy as tour patrons stay at area hotels and visit local businesses. She says that since they can’t pick up passengers from their dock, they often partner with area restaurants using their piers to pick up and drop off passengers, which in turn brings potential customers to the restaurant. 

"The program brings watermen in and let’s them know that there are people who are interested in what they do.”
—Rachel Dean

Like with their oyster lease, Rice’s catfish harvest, or Petty’s oyster farm, Watermen Heritage Tours are another way that Maryland watermen have evolved and diversified over the past 20 years to continue the commercial viability of the Chesapeake Bay.

Jim Lodico is a freelance writer and photographer, specializing in drone photography, living in Annapolis, Maryland. He has contributed articles to What’s Up? Media over the past decade.