DOWNSVILLE — The peculiar-looking creature with the snake-like reference that Casey Shank reeled into his friend’s boat on the Potomac River earlier this month was not something state wildlife officials wanted to see.
The 27-inch, 5-pound catch was representative of one of several invasive water species in Maryland which authorities say could spell trouble for the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.
This one is called the northern snakehead and the fact that Shank snagged it while fishing at Dam No. 4 south of Downsville was of particular concern to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
That’s because the location is the farthest north on the Potomac River that the snakehead has been found since it was first discovered in the state — in Crofton in Anne Arundel County in 2002 — said Michael T. Kasiwagi, Western II Regional Fisheries Manager for the DNR .
The northern snakehead will eat fish, reptiles and amphibians and can “strike like torpedoes,” according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
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‘Not great news’
Kasiwagi said there are established snakehead populations in watered sections of the C&O Canal along the Potomac River in Montgomery County. State wildlife experts believe that during high water flows on the river, snakeheads have been able to get from the canal into the river and go north. Other invasive fish species in the state include the flathead catfish, which was first found in the Potomac River in the Williamsport area and has steadily increased in population over the last six to eight years, he said.
Snakeheads can make long upstream movements, Kasiwagi said.
“It’s not completely unexpected, but it’s not great news,” Kasiwagi said of their arrival here.
Shank, of Keedysville, was fishing with his friends Kevin Murphy and Trevor Knode when he caught the fish on June 10.
The three, who fish on the Potomac throughout the year, were in Murphy’s 18-foot River Rocket boat that day at Dam No. 4, and weren’t having a lot of luck, Murphy recalled.
That changed at about 5 p.m.
Shank was casting an artificial surface lure when the snakehead went for it.
‘Going to stir stuff up’
“It exploded on top of the water,” Murphy said of the fish’s attack. “It fought all the way in,” he said.
The three knew what it was because they had caught snakehead much further south down the river. But because this one was caught this far up the Potomac, they contacted Department of Natural Resources officials, who responded to document were it was landed, Murphy said.
“I know it’s going to stir stuff up because it’s an invasive species. There’s going to be some unhappy bass fishermen,” Murphy said.
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The initial discovery of the snakehead in Maryland at the Crofton location occurred when an angler caught one in a small pond there behind a post office, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. There are various theories about how the species, which is native to Russia, China and the Korean Peninsula, got in the pond, Kasiwagi said.
Biologists quickly responded to the pond with a substance to kill the snakeheads. To their surprise, there were thousands of younger snakeheads in the water, according to the fish and wildlife surface. Unlike many other fish species that spawn only once a year, snakeheads can spawn multiple times in a season and males and females aggressively protect their young, according to the service.
Kasiwagi said his agency has received multiple reports of anglers catching snakeheads at Dam No. 4 in the past few weeks. Although he believes snakehead numbers are low in the upper Potomac, he thinks they are congregating below Dam No. 4 because they can’t go any farther upstream due to the hydroelectric dam.
When asked if he thinks the fish could get above the dam, Kasiwagi said the DNR will be relying on anglers to help control the population. The species could be introduced to the river above the dam if someone releases a live snakehead in that section.
“We don’t encourage people to move snakeheads anywhere,” Kasiwagi said.
Snakeheads for dinner?
One way state wildlife officials will be able to see if snakeheads are impacting native fish species is through “electro fish surveys” in which electrical currents are directed into waterways, Kasiwagi said. It temporarily stuns fish, which allows officials to count populations, he said.
Its unclear so far how snakeheads might be impacting other species in the state, Kasiwagi said.
Until then, the DNR has another suggestion: Eat them.
Wildlife officials say heavy fishing pressure for snakeheads will help control their population. To help educate the public on invasive species and as an alternative food source, the DNR routinely donates invasive fish species like snakehead to local food banks and public and private events, the agency said.
“Snakehead may not be winning any beauty contests, but they’ll serve you well in a cooking contest. The fillets from these species are mild, flaky and generous. These fish are prized as food sources in their origin countries, so it should be no surprise that there are lots of recipes and recommendations for cooking the fillets,” the DNR says on its website.
Although possession of a live snakehead is illegal, there are few rules regulating the harvesting of invasive species, the agency said.
Shank took his home to eat.
When snakeheads were first discovered in the state, some people were afraid to let their kids or pets near bodies of water for fear of the species. Other names were pinned to them, such as “frankenfish” and “fishzilla,” according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Despite their name and appearance, they are not dangerous to tubers, swimmers and anglers on the river, Kasiwagi said.