Snakehead scare slither onto scene

July 18, 2004|by Bill Anderson

One of the biggest stories in outdoors recreation in this region is the increased number of Northern snakeheads that have been found in the Tidal Potomac River area.

The snakehead story first came to light in 2002 when the fish were discovered in three ponds near Crofton, Md. The Maryland DNR poisoned the ponds and recovered hundreds of baby snakeheads in the process. Department of Natural Resources officials said they hoped the fish had not spread beyond the ponds.

This apparently was not the case.

Several mature and immature snakeheads were caught this spring. Seven snakeheads have been caught by recreational anglers from the Tidal Potomac River and tributaries.

Fisheries professionals from Maryland and Virginia are using techniques such as electro-fishing and nets to try to find and kill as many of the invaders as possible. The latest information indicates the fish are restricted to a seven-mile section of the tidal Potomac.


Earlier this month, the Maryland DNR held a public hearing on proposed regulations that will ban the possession of live snakehead fish in the state. There are apparently more than 20 species of snakeheads, but the Northern variety creates the biggest problem because it can adapt to our temperatures.

And since experts claim the young of one species is difficult to identify from another, banning all snakeheads probably makes sense.

This story is interesting in a number of ways.

Maryland and Virginia fisheries are concerned snakeheads will become established, making it difficult to eliminate the fish. They are ferocious predators and - if you take a look at a picture on the web - you will see a creature designed to eat other fish and lots of them. The snakehead features a big mouth, complete with an impressive set of teeth. This is clearly an apex predator.

One factor which interests me is how the news media is fueling a panic situation, implying this evil-looking fish will eat and pillage the waterways until the only thing left will be other snakeheads.

I doubt it.

Snakeheads are a problem, but it's way too early for panic. Other undesirable fish species have ended up in our rivers and lakes, such as bowfins and gar, from a variety sources. Most of the time they are there and gone, without causing permanent damage.

Other times the new fish species will become permanent and successful residents. The smallmouth bass in the Potomac, the rainbow trout in nearly every trout stream in the country and carp that are found everywhere are examples of non-natives that have thrived.

It's much too early to tell how this snakehead infestation (as it is called in the media) will evolve. We can only hope that the fish will be aggressively caught and killed by anglers and fisheries personnel and that they will soon disappear from the scene.

The tidal Potomac is a great fishery for largemouth bass, stripers and catfish. They really do not need this ugly transplant from Asia crashing the party and hogging up all the baitfish.

Bill Anderson writes a weekly outdoors column for The Herald-Mail. He can be reached by e-mail at

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