by Dylan Reynolds
July 19, 2019
At first sight, you might liken them to aliens. Others have dubbed them a “frankenfish” or even “fishzilla.” But ask anyone who attended the Freedom and Fishing Snakehead Derby on June 8 and they will have a different name for the toothy fish that may be wreaking havoc on the Chesapeake Bay: dinner.
Originally native to China, Russia and Korea, the northern snakehead is considered an invasive species in the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers. These fish were likely imported into the United States from Asia to create new market opportunities for local fishermen and for use in exotic aquariums. However, as snakehead numbers have continued to grow in recent years, these invasive fish have become a potentially destabilizing threat to the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. With monstrously sharp teeth, an insatiable appetite and a large diet, the snakehead has been free to capably chew its way through the local food chain with few predators to keep it in check.
While the Chesapeake Bay is no stranger to invasive fish, unique characteristics of the snakehead’s biology make it a potentially unprecedented threat. Female snakeheads reach sexuality maturity at just two years old and are capable of laying up to 15,000 eggs at once. They can lay eggs up to five times a year, and they typically hatch within two days of being laid. Their rapid reproductive rate means that once snakeheads have been introduced into a body of water, they are likely to only grow in number.
Additionally, specialized “air bladders” in the snakehead allow the fish to live and travel on land for up to four days at a time, meaning they can migrate to new, isolated bodies of water, such as ponds and lakes. Snakeheads are highly resilient to changes in salinity, temperature and diet, and can flourish under a variety of harsh environmental conditions. There is no telling where these all-terrain fish might appear next, nor how many will follow.
While it is currently unclear exactly what effect these invaders will have on the Bay, there is growing concern among scientists that they will be able to one day outcompete native species of fish for food. In response to this potentially devastating ecological threat, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service organized the Freedom and Fishing Snakehead Derby to spread awareness about this invasive fish.
The derby, which was held at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park in Church Creek on Maryland's Eastern Shore, provided an opportunity for more than 100 anglers from around the region to learn the most effective fishing practices to target snakeheads and to try their hand at landing one of these feisty fish themselves. The snakehead’s long, powerful body and disagreeable attitude makes it a challenge for fishermen to catch. Snakeheads will use their muscular bodies to spastically wriggle, flail and fight until they have been pulled ashore, at which point they will continue to struggle until killed.
Once caught and cooked, these fish promise to be a tasty treat. At the derby, anglers learned how to filet and prepare these fish to eat. By encouraging snakehead consumption among local watershed residents, resource managers hope to develop a sustainable method for controlling the fish’s explosive population growth and subsequent ecological damage.
While it seems unlikely that snakeheads will ever be completely eradicated from the Bay area, conscientious fishing practices and targeted efforts can certainly help to control their spread. Many regions throughout the watershed have put measures into place to help control the continued spread of snakeheads, so if you want to catch one yourself, here is important information to know before you go:
- Delaware: It is illegal to transport, purchase, sell, stock or possess live snakeheads in Delaware. Anyone who catches a snakehead is encouraged to kill it and notify the Division of Fish and WIldlife by calling (302) 735-8653 or (302) 739-9914, or emailing email@example.com.
- Maryland: It is illegal to possess, import or transport live northern snakehead. Anglers are encouraged to harvest snakeheads when caught. However, anglers are not required to kill snakeheads, so long as they are immediately released back into the body of water from which they came. If you catch and want to keep a northern snakehead in Maryland, you are required to kill it. If you have any further questions about catching or harvesting snakeheads, please contact the Maryland Department of Natural Resources by calling (410) 260-8300 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Pennsylvania: Anglers who catch a snakehead are encouraged not to release it. It is illegal to introduce or import snakeheads into Pennsylvania waters, or to possess live snakeheads. If you catch a snakehead in Pennsylvania, please contact the Fish and Boat Commission at (610) 847-2442 or via email using this contact form.
- Virginia: It is illegal to possess, import or transport live northern snakehead. Anglers are required to report snakeheads kept to the state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries by calling (804) 367-2925, but they are not required to kill them if caught and immediately released. However, the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries asks that all snakeheads be killed if possible. Any snakeheads in someone's possession must be dead.
Learn more about the northern snakehead in our Field Guide.