Thinking bigger about the snakehead

Creating opportunity from a problem – commercializing an invasive species

April 09, 2012|Dan Rodricks

If we're serious about getting the invasive snakeheads under control before they eat all the other fish in the Chesapeake watershed, then let me suggest that we get serious about the bounty. Those $200 gift certificates from a major outdoors retailer are nice, but there are only three of them, and those who catch a snakehead have to enter a drawing to win them, and the drawing isn't until November. That's not much of an incentive.

Let's engage in some bigger thinking about this.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources says the snakehead is a big problem — serious enough for DNR to announce the bounty program with its modest prizes — so how about a big solution?

What we need is a summer snakehead roundup, a snakehead tournament with major corporate sponsorship and celebrity anglers, a snakehead festival and a new campaign to market the fish to the American public. In short, we need smartly-managed and balanced commercial exploitation of a fish that marine scientists consider a threat to the regional ecosystem. That would be a win-win.

Snakeheads, imported a decade ago from Asia, have scary-looking teeth, and they eat a lot of other fish. They reproduce, too, and a few times each year. They can live for a long time out of water and wiggle their way from river to pond or vice versa. Even with a bounty program — even with a tournament and festival — few in fisheries science believe the snakehead is going to disappear from Maryland and Virginia waters any time soon.

Steve Kelley of Laurel, doing some fishing from his new boat in the Potomac River last month, reported hooking two snakeheads on back-to-back casts. Now you know the invasion is complete — or that the species has firmly established itself — when someone gets two hookups of the same fish on consecutive casts.

Just a few days ago, Jack Jones of Pasadena caught four snakeheads in Mattawoman Creek, in southern Maryland, on the same kind of white spinner bait you'd use for bass or pike. Another angler reported a 30-inch, 15-pound snakehead in Aquia Creek, a tributary of the tidal Potomac in northern Virginia.

So Frankenfish is here in significant numbers — "modest abundance" is the term DNR uses — and anglers are catching them, apparently without trying all that hard.

Some guys are catching snakeheads on fly rods now, and a fellow named Derek Stiefel reports on the Maryland Angler's Log web page that he and his buddies have had a lot of luck bowfishing for snakeheads. In fact, they took 18 out of the Potomac during a 14-hour period in September.

My favorite photograph on the Maryland Angler's Log is that of fried snakehead — prepared from two big ones caught by a fellow named Jake Dull in the Potomac near Belmont Bay, Virginia, on April 6.

"Depending on how it's prepared, snakehead is a bit firmer than other white fish, which means it stands up to a grill better," Candus Thomson, The Sun's former outdoors columnist, wrote last year. "But it's sweet, mild and clean. In the hands of a great deep-fry cook, it might be a great substitute for cod in a platter of fish and chips. More sustainable, too."

So look what we have here — a new sport fish, a new commercial catch (current dockside price is $6 a pound) and a new source of protein.

If anglers are being asked to catch them and kill them, to keep nature in balance, then it's up to the rest of us to do our part. We must eat them.

But I think there might be a problem in marketing this new fish to the American public. So, while we're in the contest mode, how about we come up with a new name and submit it for approval to the Food & Drug Administration? If any fish needs a new name for U.S. marketing purposes, it's the snakehead.

How about something with a softer sound, like "Snowfish."

Can't you just see a spread of white snakehead fillets arrayed on ice at Faidley's in Lexington Market? And there's good ole Bill Devine in an apron behind the counter: "Snowfish, $6.99 pound."

OK, maybe that's not a winner. But I'm taking nominations.

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of Midday on WYPR-FM. His email is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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