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June 07, 2012

Snakehead Fish Fair Game for Anglers

by Steve Baragona

MARBURY, Maryland - An Asian invader is threatening to take over the waters outside Washington, D.C.   The snakehead, an invasive species of fish, arrived about a decade ago, and its numbers have been growing ever since.  Now, wildlife officials are taking an unusual step to blunt the invasion and protect native species.  They are encouraging fishermen to fish the snakeheads to extinction.

On any given sunny weekend, the snakehead is the region’s most wanted fish. An 18-hour competition put more than 600 kilograms of these toothy monsters on ice.

Fishermen like Mike McDermott and Teddy McKenzie say they love going after snakeheads because it’s a good hunt.

“We always joke around, it’s more like rabbit hunting in the water,” said McDermott.  “It’s worse [harder]. It’s like hunting the big buck [deer]," McKenzie added.

​The thrill of the chase - and the $1500 prize - helped draw fishermen to the tournament.  They caught 75 percent more fish than the organizers had hoped.  Director Austin Murphy notes that there were more fishermen this year than at last year’s inaugural contest. 

“That’s a huge success in our book. We more than doubled the amount of participants that are here today," he said. "So, we are really excited.”
  
The goal of the snakehead tournament is to help control a species that only recently arrived in the Potomac river but threatens to take over, according to Josh Newhard of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“They’re not going to have many native predators, and they grow large, they grow fast, and they reproduce in high numbers," he explained. "So they really have a high potential to out-compete other species.”

Once an invasive species like the snakehead takes hold in a new environment, it can be extremely hard to pry loose.  But the snakehead has one major weakness.  Maryland state Department of Natural Resources official Steve Vilnit remembers a conversation he had a few years ago. 

“Someone mentioned that we have snakeheads in the water.  And I said, ‘Well, are they good enough to eat?’ And the biologist said, ‘They’re delicious,’” Vilnit recalled.

In fact, snakeheads are widely cooked and enjoyed in their native Asia.  Vilnit works with local chefs to get them on the menu. Visitors sample snakehead fried, sautéed, and as fish cakes, marinated in lime juice.

And by unleashing area fishermen, wildlife officials hope to win by losing.  Most species have limits on how many fish a fisherman can catch.  It's to keep the population from crashing.  Not this fish, says Maryland’s Steve Vilnit.

“This is the first fishery I’ve been in where I have to eliminate the fishery,” he said.

Skeptics doubt the tenacious snakehead will ever be entirely eliminated in the Potomac. But fishermen, chefs and diners can certainly enjoy trying.