How to control invasives? Put a fork in them!
5 Reasons Snakeheads Are a Threat
1. They’re voracious predators and can severely alter the feeding habits, food availability, and behaviors of other members of an ecosystem.
2. They can survive in water with very low oxygen, which other fish species often cannot do.
3. They can breathe atmospheric oxygen, which means they can survive out of water for up to four days.
4. They spawn multiple times a year, releasing 10s of thousands of eggs per spawn, and they protect their young so survival rates are high.
5. They’re built like armor and are difficult to catch because of their heavy mucus covering.
John Rorapaugh from Profish, Ltd., a Washington D.C. seafood company, holds a fresh invasive snakehead.
Snakehead staring right through your soul.
Grilled snakehead with chimmichurri at Alewife in Baltimore.
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April 22, 2012
It’s said that some of the greatest conservationists are sportsmen. Hunters and anglers often lead the way to ensure the fish and game they target will be around for future generations, typically benefiting the entire ecosystem in the process.
We recently met two such fishermen leading a grassroots movement to control the spread of northern snakehead, an invasive species that threatens the future of an ecosystem they know and love. But how do they plan to do it?
These two fishermen happen to be Chef Chad Wells of Alewife in Baltimore, MD, and John Rorapaugh, Director of Sustainability and Sales at Profish, Ltd., a seafood company in Washington, DC. So they plan to do what they know best–create a market for snakeheads and eat them! And true to the spirit of Earth Day, they’re raising public awareness and concern for the environment through this unique approach.
What are invasive species?
Aquatic invasive species are marine or freshwater organisms that have found their way to habitats where they are not native and negatively affect ecosystems. Native to China, Russia and Korea, the northern snakehead (Channa argus) is one such species. First introduced through the live food fish trade, it has taken hold in the Potomac River and its tributaries throughout Maryland and Virginia. It has also been spotted in several other areas in the United States.
How is the spread of snakeheads being controlled?
The Federal Lacey Act prohibits the importation and interstate transportation of snakeheads and viable eggs as they are considered "injurious" to wildlife resources. Several states have made possession of all live species of snakeheads illegal. State resource management agencies advise fishermen to report observations of snakehead. If they catch one, they cannot release it. Snakeheads must be immediately killed, frozen, and reported.
Besides regulations, creative approaches to education and outreach can make a difference. Rorapaugh, Wells, and others, believe that encouraging a market for edible invasives like snakeheads can help mitigate the species’ impacts. “It’s a problem for them to be here. Why not eat them?” Wells says. In Maryland, commercial catfish fishermen catch snakeheads as bycatch in their surround nets and are now permitted to sell them commercially. Without this, snakeheads “never would have been marketed and would have been dumped back in,” said Rorapaugh. He adds, “Not only is there a market but there’s a valuable market. Those guys are used to getting paid 50 cents a pound for catfish, and I’m paying 5 bucks a pound for snakeheads. As a result, they’re going to find a way to catch them.” NOAA has a similar “Eat Lionfish” Campaign which promotes the development of a seafood market for the lionfish, an invasive species threatening reef ecosystems of the U.S. Southeast and Caribbean coasts.
How do snakeheads taste?
Rorapaugh has tried snakehead in a variety of ways. "I've had it broiled, fried, sous vide, ceviche, straight raw–I had to try it every way. And I love it. My favorite might be smoked,” Rorapaugh. For others, the texture of the fish is a big draw. “The texture of the fish is incredible…really dense and firm,” Wells said.
How do you explain the issue to your customers, and how have people responded?
“Any time we serve anything different, we give our servers a list of what to do, what to say…sort of this is why you should be eating it,” Wells says. “And the response has been great–anytime we put it on as a special, it’s gone right away. People now come into the restaurant looking for snakehead. We don’t always have it, but our servers know what to tell them and every single time, they’re able to sell blue catfish, another invasive we serve.”
Have you had any challenges?
According to Wells, “There’s always going to be the argument that if you create a market, people are going to try and keep the market (people raising or releasing the species where they did not already exist). That’s an argument I disagree with because I think that as much as John’s selling, it’s there to be sold at this point. I don’t want to ever sound like we’re accepting it into our ecosystem, but it is there. I don’t think we’re ever going to get rid of it. But if we can’t ignore it, we might as well create a market for it so we are able to control it.”
What sort of impact do you think this is having?
According to Rorapaugh, they’ve been able to take 2,000-3,000 pounds of snakehead out of the water in the past couple months, which means tens of millions of eggs have been taken out of the ecosystem. And they’ve only just begun to get fishermen and the market behind the issue. “We’re just touching the surface now but I think in the next year or two, we’ll find ways to effectively fish snakehead and build the market even further.” Up next for the two? A snakehead fishing tournament and a culinary event with the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern where Wells will be preparing snakehead ceviche.
Why is this issue important to you?
“As sportsmen, we want to help the ecosystem,” Rorapaugh says, “That’s the bottom line.” This issue is one that touches a lot of fishermen. “The way I look at it, every time you’re eating a fish like a snakehead, you’re helping a native fish,” Wells says. “It all comes back to fishing with me–that’s my passion in life besides cooking. I’d hate to see the day where I can’t go fishing, or my kids can’t go fishing anymore because the water’s overrun with things that aren’t supposed to be there. We can’t ignore the fact that our ecosystems are being tainted by things that aren’t supposed to be there. Plus, they taste good.”
And we can agree—Wells prepared a delicious snakehead po’ boy for us. Conservation never tasted this good.