Alarmed by plummeting stocks of commercial fisheries in the Chesapeake Bay, officials in Maryland and Virginia are scrambling to control invasive fish species that are causing at least part of the problem.

On Thursday, Gov. Wes Moore asked the federal government to carry out an evaluation to determine if the situation amounts to a declaration of a “commercial fishery disaster,” which would qualify the state for federal assistance.

In a letter to Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, Moore said the state is increasingly concerned about the explosive growth of invasive fish species in the Chesapeake Bay, including blue catfish, flathead catfish and snakehead. “There is mounting evidence around the deleterious impacts of these species on the native ecosystem and the communities dependent on the commercial fisheries,” Moore wrote.

The blue catfish, flathead catfish and snakehead were Introduced in Virginia in the 1970s to create a recreational fishery. They have since spread to tributaries throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

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The Chesapeake Bay office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) identified invasive catfish as a persistent challenge facing the Chesapeake ecosystem several years ago. Known for its voracious appetite, catfish out-compete native species for both habitats and food and threaten key commercial fisheries, including blue crab, striped bass, white perch, yellow perch and American eel.

“We are beginning to see disturbing trends in both our commercial fishery landings and our survey data,” Moore said in the letter, adding that the stocks of Maryland’s seven commercial fishery species have declined from 27 to 91% since 2012. Consequently, the dockside value of the catch plummeted from 12 to 85%.

In Maryland, commercial fisheries — including blue crab, striped bass, yellow perch and others — have netted on average $64 million yearly in dockside value during that time, causing a significant loss for commercial watermen and the state’s economy.

Thomas Miller, professor of fisheries science at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said that disaster declarations usually free up federal money to offset the loss of income in commercial fisheries. “They usually provide relief that could be targeted to direct income support,” he said. “They have been used in the past and are not uncommon at the national level.”

Miller said that the blue crab fishery received a disaster declaration when Moore’s predecessor, Gov. Larry Hogan, first came into office. The federal assistance can be used for investments that would allow fishermen to retrain for a different type of fishery, Miller said, which often requires significant capital spending on gear that targets a particular species.

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“If you were a crab fisherman, for example, it’s not easy to become a straight bass fisherman because of the cost of the gear and the investment that you’ve made in a particular boat or particular licenses,” he said. “So, disaster relief has been used to do that.”

Invasive fish species like blue catfish fundamentally change the ecosystem and it’s very hard to change it back, Miller said, adding that blue catfish are a delicacy highly sought-after by the restaurant industry. “One of the things that disaster relief could be used to do is encourage the development of fisheries for blue catfish, for example,” he said.

Separately, in January, two Republican lawmakers in Virginia introduced legislation to help establish a blue catfish fishery. Anticipating the depleting native fish species in the bay, the bill authorizes the governor to award grants and loans of up to $250,000 to support blue catfish processing, flash freezing and value-added facilities using blue catfish. The legislation has cleared the house and the senate and now awaits Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s signature.

J.C. Hudgins, a veteran fisherman and president of the Virginia Watermen Association, said the bill is needed to control the invasive blue catfish. “This species is rampant in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries that is affecting blue crabs, shad, herring and menhaden, and also striped bass,” he said.

Hudgins said the bill would put watermen to work and improve shoreside facilities to expand production, increase employment at these facilities and improve blast freezing for sales, which will level out production ups and downs.

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“Maryland, Virginia and other Atlantic Coast states have made wise and measured changes to many of our fishery regulations to protect our iconic species, but we have an emerging crisis on our hands that could undermine those measures,” said Josh Kurtz, secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “The impact of invasive species cannot be underestimated, nor can we delay action to address the damage they are causing.”

The department’s blue crab dredge survey last year put the estimate for the Bay’s prized blue crabs at $227 million — the lowest in the survey’s history. The population has declined for female, male and juvenile crabs, with the number of adult male crabs also at an all-time low since the survey began. Its annual Striped Bass Juvenile Index, conducted in coordination with Virginia, also showed a decline.

A direct scientific link between invasive species and the declining fishery numbers has not yet been established, but the Maryland Department of Natural Resources said it has increased monitoring of invasive fish and is urging recreational anglers to target them to help downgrade their numbers.

The Chesapeake Bay is the source of more than one-third of the total blue crab supply in the United States, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program, which tracks the bay’s signature species. Considered the most valuable commercial fishery in the Bay, the value of blue crab in Maryland is estimated to have hovered around $45 million annually for the past decade. Virginia took in close to $28 million from the commercial harvest in 2020 alone.

Moore, in his letter to the commerce secretary, said that action is needed now “to mitigate the effects of the invasive species and to provide assistance to the commercial fishing industry that is already being heavily impacted by what is becoming a substantial shift in species composition within Maryland’s portion of Chesapeake Bay.” Moore said that disaster assistance “could put Maryland into a position where commercial fishing communities are both supported in the present and positioned for a future of invasive species harvest.”

This story is published in partnership with Inside Climate News, a nonprofit, independent news organization that covers climate, energy and the environment. Sign up for the ICN newsletter here.

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