Which of these is reality, not the title of a 1950’s schlock film? “The Blob.” “It Came From Outer Space.” “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.” “Invasion of the Snakehead.” “The Monster From the Ocean Floor.” “Attack of the Crab Monsters.” “Invasion of the Saucermen.” “I Married A Monster From Outer Space.”
You picked “I Married A Monster From Outer Space” right? (Go on, admit it). Obviously, we have all been stressed by the “stay home” orders. But, sadly, that really is the title of a schlock film from the 1950s. Let’s not ponder what drove the author and director to make that flick…
Here’s a clue about our reality check. How about this for a plot…Alien invades U.S. shores! Crosses land and sea! Epic battles between man and beast! Watch out! It could be in YOUR yard next!
Guess what? This is real. “Invasion of the Snakehead” is for real. So is the entire plot. Millions of fish, frogs, crabs and other living creatures have died and more will do so. This fish, Northern Snakehead, or Snakehead for short, slithers quite efficiently across wet land to find a new pond, stream or drainage ditch to swim about in. It literally is against the law to transport a live Snakehead fish; you must kill it upon catching it (or let it go where you found it), which isn’t necessarily easy. They’re feisty and strong, able to breathe air, so just keeping them away from water won’t do anything but make them mad. They have sharp teeth throughout their mouth. What a monster!
Despite the similarity to schlock plots, we truly are being invaded by an alien fish, capable of breathing air, which can be caught traveling down a road for short distances, and actually tastes very, very good. One Cambridge resident just stopped his car to grab his meal, no rod and reel required. “Great dinner,” he reported.
But outside of being tasty, this fish is unlike those our watermen have known and loved for generations.
First spotted in Maryland in the Potomac in 2004, they breed so fast rabbits are taking notes. They eat so many different creatures that goats stand in awe. They don’t mind shallow, weedy, just plain not-fun-for-fish sites. In fact, they really like those spots. And they, alone amongst the fish in Maryland, can get up and leave if by chance they don’t like it where they are.
Snakeheads can live up to four days in the air if their skin is moist, as they have an air bladder, which acts as a primitive lung. They live without water even better if they bury themselves in the mud like a frog.
They’ll eat just about anything that moves, including fish, frogs, blue crab, even birds. Some people think that’s why they’re so very delicious – they eat all the stuff we like to eat, too.
Their flavor makes them enormously popular in Asia, where they hail from. Their deliciousness is part of the reason why they’re here.
Consider – anyone who’s traveled in Asia knows about these fish. They also know how yummy they are. And, they sell like hotcakes. Americans, being the enterprising people they’ve always been, decided: Why import them? Why not just buy some live and set up a Snakehead farm? And so it was done.
Other Snakeheads arrived via the exotic pets industry. In 2002, one entrepreneur dumped a bunch of juveniles into a local pond in Crofton, no doubt hoping for a Snakehead bonanza of pure profit.
Unfortunately, nature messes with the best laid entrepreneurial dreams sometimes. Lo and behold, a hurricane happened, and all sorts of land was flooded out. Snakeheads staged a breakout to swim off to distant horizons, and, these fish being able to survive in air anyway…Snakeheads were on the move.
You have to think of the ramifications. These fish are decimating our native aquatic and amphibian wildlife. The fiendish fish were first spotted at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in 2012. Research conducted six years later show how this alien invader has changed even an area dedicated to keeping a wild area pristine for the benefit of wildlife. Sites tested pre-Snakehead and post-Snakehead show major reductions in the bio-mass (collective weight of the species together) of virtually all creatures other than the Snakeheads. As they grow, the size of the prey they need grows; the sheer size of our native fish is no bar to the voracious invader, which can top three feet in length. As the Blackwater test sites show, these fish even eat Brown Bullheads, which can be 21 inches long. As you might expect, in addition to the reduction of numbers of prey fish, the size of the average “food fish” declined after the Snakehead invasion, too. The competition for food with this hyper-competent eater/breeder is just too much for our local fish. The “hunger games” taking place in our waters has also changed the mixture of species (who lives where) in all but one site.
Science calls this fish Channa argis, but it’s okay to call it Snakehead. The Northern Snakehead that has invaded our shores is one of a family of Snakehead fish common elsewhere. Dreadful as it is to contemplate, there are other types of fish that can navigate on land.
While Snakehead is a freshwater fish – you guessed it – it can swim through the Bay, too. Unstoppable!
Snakehead is both spooky and pretty to look at. Looked at straight on, you can easily understand how this creature eats everything in its path; from other views, particularly in sunlight, it’s quite pretty.
In an effort to prevent further “farming” of Snakeheads, for several years it was illegal to sell Snakeheads, and it’s still illegal to transport a live fish. Since 2012, commercial licenses for Snakeheads have been issued in Maryland, and sales have been steady, particularly in the high-end restaurant trade. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources has always encouraged catching and killing the beasts, and hopes you’ll keep right on with it. There aren’t any “Snakehead seasons” – you can do it any time you like, assuming COVID restrictions are not in force (although if you have need, you’re still allowed to fish for it).
There just might be one in your drainage ditch or slithering down the road. Take a look. If you find one, grab it with a net if you don’t have a fishing rod. It’s recommended to use a hammer and club it hard on the head, which usually just stuns the fish. It’s usually necessary to cut off its head with an axe to actually kill it. Then march into the house puffed with pride – you’ve not only caught dinner, but you’ve helped our struggling wildlife and improved the environment.
Eat an invasive! For more information, visit dnr.maryland.gov.
Maureen Rice is a Master Naturalist living and writing in Talbot County.