Eighteen months ago, two guys were on a bass fishing trip in Kentucky, when they heard the problems Asian carp were causing for the bass fishery. Then they heard about a new opportunity for harvesting and selling Asian carp and how that benefited southern lakes and rivers. They heard that Atlantic herring, the fish most commonly used by Maine lobstermen had experienced a huge drop in quota and that Asian carp, the scourge of southern waterways was now providing an alternate bait source for those lobstermen. Upon his return to his home state of Alabama, Baron Huber kept thinking about the Asian carp and bait and opportunity. It was on a trip to a local catfish farm owned by a close family friend that everything clicked.
Across Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas and Louisiana, catfish farms occupy the land once used by plantations. Ponds 10 to 20 acres in size are built in clay rich soil and filled with freshwater to a depth of four to six feet. Producing over 475 million pounds per year, catfish farms provide a product that enters the market as fresh or frozen usually in filets. While catfish stocking and breeding began as early as 1870’s it wasn’t until the 1960’s and 1970’s that catfish farming became popular and economically viable. Improvements in farming methods including disease management, water circulation and feed distribution systems brought catfish farming to its peak level. “The catfish industry is highly regulated” explains Baron. “It is more regulated than poultry or beef.” It also has a large by-product business.
Catfish by-products are used in fish oil and bone meal but 98% of the by-product ends up as animal or pet food. “Catfish heads are 20% of the fish” says Baron, a fact that galvanized him to think about catfish heads as lobster bait. Joining up with his friend Mike Sielicki, a Maine native and bass fishing buddy, the two brought samples to a New Hampshire co-op for a trial run in June 2019. It fished well, there was interest and they realized they had a market. For the next phase, Huber and Sielicki approached the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) to find out how they could get their product approved. “Maine DMR was phenomenal to work with. They were very helpful, provided no obstacles, were accessible and set a very high standard” observed Huber. The two partners were required to prove that freshwater catfish offered no risk to Maine’s ocean environment. So, they reached out to University of Prince Edward Island, Auburn University and Mississippi State University who all collaborated to produce a 27-page scientific analysis that could be provided to the Maine bait board. This process though expensive, had results. The six members of Maine’s bait board determined that the risk assessment was positive, meaning there would be no negative effect on Maine waters and so catfish heads were approved in July 2020.
Working with catfish processors down south, the duo, newly incorporated as M&B Fish Co., have a passion and plan. “Our goal is to not only grow our product but grow American products. Too much catfish bought in the US comes from Asia right now” says Huber. “We’ve been trying to find answers and help people all the way around” added Sielicki. Because catfish is a year-round, farmed product, the intention is to bring a consistently sized, consistently priced product to Maine where more and more lobstermen are fishing year-round. And since farmed fish are fed a consistent grain-based diet and must be located outside of flood areas, just part of the strict regulations governing that fishery, Maine lobstermen can expect a quality bait to hit the market in the coming months.
As southern catfish farmers work to keep their product front and center for American markets, combatting the import of a similar whitefish from Vietnam, Huber and Sielicki hope to do their part in bringing awareness of the benefits of catfish here in Maine. Catfish heads anyone?