- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 30, 2012

If Maryland has its way, an invasive enemy could become a nontraditional entree.

Ten years after the northern snakehead was first caught in a local pond, the animal once dubbed “Frankenfish” has established a habitat and lived up to its reputation as an adaptable, aggressive and all-consuming predator.

But unlike the protections afforded to the other mascots of Maryland’s waterways, the sacred blue crab and the beloved rockfish, environmental officials are encouraging area anglers to kill and cook as many of the scaly monsters as possible — a prospect local chefs say is surprisingly palatable.

“The big difference between snakehead and regular fish is, it’s very dense and very clean tasting,” said Baltimore chef Chad Wells. “It tastes more like an ocean fish would taste. It’s very mild. You grill it up like a piece of chicken, but it’s flaky like a fish.”

On Saturday, Smallwood State Park in Marbury, Md., plays host to a snakehead-fishing festival — a combination tournament and cookout that organizers hope can make a dent in the snakehead population.

What’s on the menu? Fresh-caught Frankenfish, of course.

“The goal of this is to eat the last fish, eat the last bite,” said Mr. Wells, who is set to make seviche from the fish on Saturday. “We’re all there for the same reason, to try to protect that watershed. This is something we can feel good about killing.”

Potomac Snakehead Tournament director Austin Murphy called Saturday’s event “a small tournament with a huge environmental impact.”

“We’re looking to harvest at least 800 pounds of snakeheads out of the water,” he said. “That’s the minimum goal.”

A haul of nearly a half-ton might seem like a lot, but consider that last year’s tournament brought in more than 400 pounds of the feisty fish. The largest snakehead fish on record weighed around 18 pounds.

“They’re a top predator,” said Joshua Newhard, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fisheries biologist and snakehead monitor. “They’re likely to compete with other top predators over food. They’re practically in every tidal freshwater tributary. That’s the big worry, too. There might not be negative impacts, but we don’t want to wait until it becomes a problem.”

Exactly how the northern snakehead found its way into the Potomac River has taken on the mystery of any “fish tale” worth its gills, but environmental officials agree the fish should not be allowed to thrive.

“The fish are not supposed to be here,” said Joseph Love, a tidal bass manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “They were introduced, and we don’t want them here. They are a competitor with other sport fish. We may have to live with them, but they’re certainly not a species that we want dominating.”

A native of Asia, snakeheads are recognized for the large scales on their heads — giving them a snakelike appearance — long dorsal fins, and large, protruding mouth that contains sharp teeth.

The finned nightmares can grow about 8 inches per year, and it’s not uncommon for one to weigh between 15 and 17 pounds.

“They eat pretty much what a largemouth bass would eat,” Mr. Love said, including some species of fish and crayfish. A fisherman told him once that he pulled a small rodent out of one snakehead’s belly.

Hampshire County, W.Va.., resident Derek Stiefel had never seen a snakehead in real life until he joined last year’s tournament.

“They’re pretty creepy looking, and we figured out real quick they are very tricky,” Mr. Stiefel said. “They’ll play possum, like they’re dead, and when you go to grab it, they strike at you. When people say they’re mean, they really are.”

Despite a bad first impression, Mr. Stiefel and his friends won the tournament, hauling in more than 63 pounds of the combative breed. Mr. Stiefel shot one of the biggest fish of the day — weighing in at nearly 10 pounds — with a bow and arrow.

“They’re really fun to go after and really fun to shoot,” he said, adding that he’ll be returning this weekend to defend his title.

Officials charge a $50 entry fee, a portion of which the Department of Natural Resources uses to eradicate invasive species such as the snakehead.

“We’re actually taking the fish out of the water, out of the ecosystem, and using the fish to create another opportunity to raise funds,” Mr. Murphy said. “We’re harvesting them and creating a demand for eating them. If you don’t think that’s having an environmental impact, you’re not out there on the water.”

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