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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.


More Information

Maryland Department of Natural Resources

National Invasive Species Information Center


 

Aquatic invasive species are marine or freshwater organisms that have found their way to non-native habitats and negatively affect ecosystems, economic development, and/or human health. While the Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force—an interagency organization co-chaired by NOAA and the US Fish and Wildlife Service—works to coordinate management efforts, local fishermen are playing an active role in controlling invasive species, too.

We met two fishermen leading a grassroots movement to control the spread of northern snakehead. Chef Chad Wells of Alewife in Baltimore, Maryland, and John Rorapaugh, director of sustainability and sales at Profish, Ltd., a seafood company in Washington, DC, plan to do what they know best—create a market for snakeheads so people can eat them.

Why is the northern snakehead a problem?

Native to parts of Asia, the northern snakehead (Channa argus) was first introduced through the live food fish trade. It has taken hold in the Potomac River and its tributaries throughout Maryland and Virginia. Snakeheads are air-breathing, sharp-toothed, fierce top predators that can decimate populations of native fish, having serious ecological consequences.

How is the spread of snakeheads being controlled?

Rorapaugh, Wells, and others believe that encouraging a market for edible invasives such as 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 nets and are permitted to sell them commercially. Without this permission, 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 [fishermen] are used to getting paid 50 cents a pound for catfish, and I’m paying $5 a pound for snakeheads. As a result, they’re going to find a way to catch them.”

In addition to these proactive activities by fishermen, the Lacey Act prohibits the importation and interstate transportation of live snakeheads and viable eggs, as they are considered "injurious" to wildlife resources. Several states have made possession of all live species of snakeheads illegal, and others advise fishermen to not release any snakeheads they catch.  

The Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force also adopted a federal snakehead management plan to guide prevention, control, and management of this invasive predator throughout the U.S.

Are snakeheads tasty?

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.” 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 invasive snakehead 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 about why they 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 to creating a snakehead market?

According to Wells, “There’s always going to be the argument that if you create a market, people are going to try to maintain it (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 [Rorapaugh] is 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 and sell about 8,000 pounds of snakehead from the Potomac River annually, which means tens of millions of eggs have been taken out of the ecosystem, and they’ve only begun to get fishermen and the market behind the issue. Rorapaugh stated that, “Since 2012, we’ve been taking more and more snakehead from the Potomac River and have had great feedback from customers.”

Rorapaugh and Profish, Ltd. have been co-sponsoring the Potomac River Snakehead Fishing Tournament since 2011. The tournament attracts both hook-and-line anglers and bow fishermen and has popularized the snakehead sport fishery in the Chesapeake Bay. According to Austin Murphy, tournament director, the 2014 snakehead tournament yielded 216 fish weighing more than 1,500 pounds. To promote the palatability of the meat, Wells served prepared snakehead for tournament participants. Because of the great taste of snakehead and Wells’ culinary ability, he has also been highlighted on the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern for his use of snakehead as a food fish.

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. Plus, they taste good,” 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 when 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.” 

What can the public do to prevent spreading the northern snakehead and other invasive species?

Learn how to identify the northern snakehead and report new sightings. Early detection of new populations might help slow or restrict the spread of the snakehead. If you find a snakehead, kill it and put it on ice, then contact your state’s natural resources agency and report it online.

Some tips for preventing aquatic invasive species: