East Coast Alerts

By Mel Neale

Catch and Kill—Snakehead Mania

The northern snakehead fish (channa argus) has invaded the upper tidal Potomac River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, on both the Maryland and Virginia sides. This fish is reportedly almost indestructible, and feeds voraciously on other fish, frogs, even small mammals. It is reputed to walk with its fins over dry land to seek fresh water if its habitat dries up, to live out of water or buried in mud for days and to survive prolonged freezing temperatures. It is of Asian origin and has been imported to the US as a live food fish where it has been sold in live fish markets in New York and Boston. Some call it “Frankenfish” and anglers are asked to catch and kill.

The good news is that they are strictly fresh water fish, so they will not become established further down the Potomac or in the salty Chesapeake Bay, and they cannot make it above the rapids at Great Falls upstream from Washington. So it is hoped that if there is a breeding population, it will remain contained within this area.

We all know that non-native species can play havoc with our environment. Just look at the zebra mussel, or the mute swan. In March 2002, a pond in Crofton MD was found to contain at least 100 juveniles, the result of the release of two adults the previous year. They had been purchased for soup, but the owner released them instead. All were reported to be eradicated through poisoning. In 2003, one snakehead was found in a pond in Wheaton MD and the pond was subsequently drained of all water and other creatures too, but no other snakeheads were found there.

In the summer of 2004, as of August 24, at least 18 northern snakehead fish have been caught in tributaries of the Potomac River in the 14 mile stretch below Washington DC, in both Virginia and Maryland. No nests or juveniles have been found, but several have been egg-laden females. Their ages have been between 2 and 4 years old. The largest was 25 inches and weighed close to 6 pounds. Twelve of the northern snakehead fish have been caught on hook and line, the remainder have been caught with an electrofishing boat. Nine have been taken in Dogue Creek in Virginia. These fish can grow to 40 inches and weigh in at 15 pounds. The big worry is that they will decimate the upper Potomac’s native fish population, including young rockfish and largemouth bass. It has not been determined whether there is a breeding population.

Creative measures are being adopted by our government, environmentalists and private enterprise to locate and eradicate the northern snakehead, and now, you too can help. If you missed one of the several snakehead fishing tournaments this summer, you can still get in on the action (till Oct. 31) through the “Snakehead Reward” program sponsored by Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). All you have to do when you catch one is to kill it humanely with a blow to the head, ice it down, and deliver it to the Hanover, Maryland Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World (7000 Arundel Mills Cir. (Exit 10A off Route 100 at Route I-295). It must be caught with a hook and line, with legal fishing methods by a licensed angler. It must also be reported to the DNR or other resource management agency (see below). You will receive a gift card in the following amounts: $10 for Snakeheads under 12 inches, $25 for Snakeheads 13 to 24 inches, $50 for Snakeheads over 24 inches, and the DNR will give you a “Snakehead Wrangler” cap. They ask that you please do not release a northern snakehead fish should you catch one.

If you are unable to deliver your humanely killed and iced snakehead to the Bass Pro Shop Outdoor World in Hanover, you are asked to save the fish and notify one of the following to report your catch: VA Department of Game and Inland Fisheries: 800 770 4951 (in VA), 804 367 1258 (from out of state); or the Maryland Department of Natural Resources: 410 260 8320 (in MD), 877 520 8DNR, ext 8230 (out of state, toll free). They will want to test the fish for sex and age. This information is posted on numerous signs at marinas around the Potomac River.

Not all snakehead fish are of the northern variety. Many species are tropical aquarium fish, albeit illegal, and kept as pets. It is feared that pet owners will release more into US waterways rather kill them. Some ideas being discussed are to allow aquarium owners to keep their pet fish now in captivity, and to hand out recipes to promote catching and eating snakeheads already in the wild.

Copyright 2004-2005 Tom Neale