By now, the snakehead controversy is fishing folklore. After 20 years of national news coverage, scientific research, political opinions and angler effort, the tale of the invasive species called Frankenfish is well-known.
Snake bit: What should we do about invasive snakehead?
To recap: Snakehead are native to Asia. They are voracious predators, prolific breeders and can live for hours out of water. Mythology says the fish can even slither across land like a snake.
When snakehead were discovered in a Maryland pond in 2002, the media-fueled fever of a monster fish resulted in mass hysteria and poisoning of the pond to kill all inhabitants.
Too late, snakehead were soon discovered in the Potomac River and, over the past 20 years, the fish have spread along both sides of the Chesapeake Bay and into the Susquehanna watershed.
Over time, snakehead created a controversy. Some people say snakehead should be treated as a sportfish. Other people say snakehead are an invasive predator capable of decimating native species. My question is: what should we do about snakehead? For an answer, I hit up proponents of both sides of the argument.
No one contests the fact that snakehead are fun to catch. The fish favor shallow, muddy, vegetation-choked tidal creeks, perfect for kayaks. They readily take a topwater frog imitation worked seductively through the river cabbage. Anglers also catch snakehead with live bait and bowhunters have turned the fish into a target.
Their bite is explosive. Snakehead grow up to 30 inches and 20 pounds with concrete jaws and heads like a rock. If they don’t break the line on the initial run, they might cut through it with their jagged teeth. Snakehead jump, run and dive, but they save the best for last. Once in the boat, a snakehead pulls out a can of whoop ass, often going berserk and jumping out of the kayak.
Dave Nacrelli, host of Snakehead-Catch and Release group on Facebook, chases snakehead out of Baltimore, Maryland. “Snakehead are fun to catch and wonderful to eat,” he defends, “I’d like to see a creel limit on them.”
Also fishing around Baltimore, Scott Sewell is the conservation director of the Maryland B.A.S.S. Nation. “Snakehead are strong fighters, but I support harvesting each and every one of them.”
The division continues to the state level with Virginia and Maryland taking different approaches. At the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF), biologist John Odenkirk has been following the snakehead story since day one. “I remember when the call came in,” he says of the day in 2004 when snakehead were first reported in Virginia.
Odenkirk takes a wary approach to snakehead management. After years of research, data collection and meetings, Odenkirk says the snakehead problem isn’t cut and dry. Looking at other areas with snakehead infestations, the fish’s effect on local ecosystems is inconclusive. “What I have been trying to do for the last 20 years is look at the reality in my jurisdiction. They are not harming the bass fishery. People love to fish for them.”
From the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), program manager Joseph Love has a different experience with snakehead. “Our department has worked with snakehead since being first discovered in Crofton in 2002.” Love has worked on snakehead management and research since 2010.
While Odenkirk is cautious on the snakehead’s behalf, Love at Maryland DNR is more concerned about the snakehead’s effect on the environment. Based on risk assessments and the snakehead’s classification as an invasive species, Maryland’s primary approach is to remove as many snakehead from the water as possible. Love explains, “Increased fishing mortality has often been attributed to decreases in biomass and/or range of population sizes of fishes.”
Currently, the states share common regulations. There is no size or creel limit. If the angler keeps a snakehead, the fish must be killed. It is illegal to transport live snakehead. Neither state requires anglers to kill snakehead, but Maryland encourages anglers to kill the fish. Virginia has a mandatory reporting system requiring anglers to report the location of each snakehead catch.
A muddy future
Neither side is happy with the status quo. Scott Sewell, conservation director at Maryland Bass Nation, is for strict measures: “I agree with the no closed season, no size limits and no limits on possession. I support laws prohibiting the possession of live snakeheads, period.”
His neighbor in Charm City, Dave Nacrelli, defends his conservation approach including bag limits and closed seasons. He adds, “States could sell a separate tag—like a trout stamp. By managing the fish, they can gain insight into their population and environmental impact all while making some money.”
Both anglers rely on observations to support their position. Nacrelli points out bowhunting has taken a toll on the species. “It’s a free-for-all, some people are harvesting them by the hundreds,” he says.
Sewell has a different perspective. “Snakehead are becoming the dominant species in many areas.” He points to Blackwater Wildlife Refuge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and his home waters on Hog Pen Creek outside Baltimore. Sewell has noticed a decline in minnow populations since the snakehead’s introduction. “My fear is the destruction of our diverse fishery—panfish, crayfish and minnows are a food source for snakehead.”
Virginia’s John Odenkirk is a voice on the conservation side. After 20 years, he sees snakehead as another actor in the ecosystem. “When we opened the topic to public comment, the overwhelming majority were for conservation,” he says.
After reviewing the data and comparing other invasives, Odenkirk is confident snakehead will eventually reach homeostasis with their adopted environment. “In a few years, we’ll have data to prove the impact is negligible,” he says.
Odenkirk admits there are sticking points, especially where snakehead could possibly impact endangered species. “There could still be a downside we don’t see.”
Virginia has increased the penalty for transporting and illegally stocking snakehead. The most important thing is stopping the spread, although Odenkirk doesn’t see much hope. “Every pond and lake in my region has snakehead,” he points out.
Not only are snakehead great natural travelers, capable of moving between waterways on spring floodwaters, but there is great motivation for people to introduce the fish into new waterways for sport or commerce.
Joe Love at Maryland’s DNR would rather not take a chance. In addition to encouraging recreational anglers to harvest and consume snakehead, the state has ramped up efforts to encourage commercial fishing for snakehead.
Maryland offers special permits to sell the fish whether caught by hook and line or shot with bow and arrow. “Recently, additional funding has been allocated to help increase public participation, expand fish consumption advisory work and broaden marketing efforts to spread public awareness and increase consumption of invasive fishes.”
Odenkirk counters with his theory of snakehead hysteria. Field research shows snakehead numbers fluctuate. When the fish first invade a waterway, their population spikes. Eventually, the efforts of anglers and natural predation bring the numbers under control.
That’s where angler Dave Nacrelli is. “I believe the state should set a manageable daily catch limit on these fish. I would ban bowhunting and commercial selling without a license. And I would make sure no one can tell you that you must kill something—not even the government.”
Sewell doesn’t agree. “I hope we can wipe out as many as possible,” he says. If Sewell were king of the world, he would “kill them all.”
Only time will tell who is right. Applying a variety of experiments to snakehead management will lead to a single solution.
Everyone agrees snakehead fishing is fun. | Feature photo: Dave Inscore