Wild Tales: The growing problem of the predator snakehead fish
By Brady Keefe
A fisherman catches a 24-inch snakehead from his fishing kayak in the Twin Ponds at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.
When I first heard about the snakehead fish, I thought it was a fish with a head similar to that of a snake. What could be so terrible about that? After doing some more digging — as any good detective would do — what I found was both concerning and interesting.
First, the snakehead can breathe out of the water. The fish has an organ that allows it to breathe air like humans. This does not mean that the fish is going to sprout legs; the organ is used primarily when the fish needs to migrate. Second, it is a predator and a threat to the Chesapeake Watershed and the surrounding rivers. It’s high up on the food chain and known to feed on smaller fish like the small-mouth bass. Both of these facts surprised me, but what I found most shocking is that the fish was found in Maryland in 2002 and the threat of this fish hasn’t lessened at all.
How did we get here?
In 2002, the snakehead fish was discovered in in a pond in Crofton, Maryland. The pond was poisoned and all the fish along with the snakeheads were killed.
Problem solved, right?
No one knows how the fish spread into the Watershed. The Delmarva Peninsula came up with a plan: Catch and kill all of the invasive species. With no limitations to how many snakeheads one could catch and kill, we again assumed that the problem was solved.
Wrong again. It is now 2020 and the fish has not gone anywhere. In fact, the population of the fish has increased, while other species like the yellow perch and bluegill have significantly decreased. Something needs to be done with this fish.
In talking to many locals, I got one of two reactions:
“The snakehead is delicious, and I wish more places carried it.”
“It’s ugly! Why would I eat such a creepy fish? It even breathes on land and has teeth! No way!”
Sympathizing with the second reaction, I found myself thinking about the first. If the states of Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware encouraged anglers to catch and kill as many snakeheads as they want, why don’t I see this fish at my local supermarket? I believe the answer is simple: We’re afraid of both the name of the fish and the threat it poses to the local wildlife.
I propose that instead of being afraid of the predator, that we see it food. In the Caribbean, the once unwelcomed lionfish has been transformed into a commodity for consumption.
I spent four years in Pensacola, Florida for college. When I was there, many restaurants had lionfish on their menus. The ability to catch and kill the lionfish not only benefitted the environment, but also brought in great revenues to the places that sold the exotic fish.
The Eastern Shore shouldn’t be afraid of a fish just because it is ugly or can survive on land for a short time. Markets and restaurants in D.C. sell the fish at a premium, and I suggest that fishers of the Eastern Shore do the same thing.
There are several ways to quell the fear of the snakehead fish. First, let’s rename the fish. Many places simply call it by its scientific name, Channa, on their menus. Others give it names like Potomac pike or northern snakehead. Second, focus on how delicious the fish can be.
It’s clear that the snakehead fish needs to be stopped from disturbing the delicate ecosystems of the Bay. We can better protect the Bay by using the fish as a source of food and educating each other that it is not something to fear, but something to use to our advantage.