In Chesapeake Bay the blue catfish is an unwelcome intruder. But a restaurant is helping out by putting it on the menu.
In the Chesapeake Bay region of the United States, the blue catfish is an unwelcome invasive species. So an ecofriendly, farm-to-table restaurant operating in nearby states decided to help to reduce the numbers by designing a blue catfish sandwich and putting it on the menu.
The “Invasive Species Sandwich” became available in March at Farm Burger, a chain of 12 stores first launched in 2010. They’ve made their name serving grass-fed beef, sustainably raised pork, locally sourced produce and the famous “Impossible” vegan burger.
So when co-founder George Frengos had the chance to add casual-dining fish, it seemed logical to boost the cause of food sustainability while connecting it to a win-win solution to help control invasive species. In this case, it was by adding the blue catfish sandwich and ensuring that there is value to removing catfish.
Frengos, speaking on a foodie podcast hosted by iHeart Radio, explained that when the chain was smaller, just three or four stores, guys would bring their locally caught catfish to them and Farm Burger would find a way to work it into the menu. In a broader way, the blue catfish is a good fit with their ethos and mission – a solution that Frengos heard about from Washington D.C. chefs working in the Chesapeake region.
“It’s wild caught and it’s a great-tasting fish and there’s a need to have a market for it cause it’s just really grown out of control and overtaking fish populations,” he said.
The fishing industry and conservationists have been trying to deal with the fish since the 1970s when it was introduced to the Chesapeake and rapidly spread into every river in the region. It’s especially troubling because these waters support oyster, crab and native fish species, and they’re already under stress because of climate change. A 2017 report on invasive catfish detailed the scope of the challenge.
Of all the ictalurids, the scientific name for the catfish, the blue is the most migratory so it spreads everywhere and even tolerates some salinity. The catfish, which are native in other parts of the country, can live up to 20 years so they don’t go away fast. They’re voracious predators, eating up the food chain at the expense of other native species. Above all, there wasn’t enough awareness about the catfish issue.
What the Chesapeake report and symposium also focused on, though, was expanding the market for blue catfish in grocery stores and restaurants. One representative said he had to convince chefs and customers to try it but when they did, they liked it. Some problems still remain because of seasonal changes in harvest, which means inconsistent menu availability, and with regulatory oversight.
That hasn’t stopped Farm Burger from putting the “Invasive Species Sandwich” proudly on its menu, and it’s been well-received. “Our goal is always to do right by people and planet,” said CEO Jason Mann. “If this offering can spark a conversation among people who may not be aware of this environmental issue, that’s positive momentum in my opinion.”