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Invasive snakehead from waters around the D.C. area.
Sabri Ben-Achour
Invasive snakehead from waters around the D.C. area.

Snakeheads came to Maryland nearly 10 years ago. It’s an exotic fish from Asia that someone released here. The fish began populating, and now scientists are trying to do something about it.

“Snakehead is an invasive species here in Maryland,” says Carrie Kennedy, a fisheries scientist for Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources. “Our challenge is that we want it to go away. So we’re trying to create a market.”

And so far, their strategy has been fairly successful.

“Our biggest load has been 560 pounds a day,” says John Rorapaugh, with PROFish, a wholesaler in Northeast D.C., as he stands over crates of iced, giant, snakehead. “We got a couple hundred pounds yesterday, and all this fish will be gone this weekend.”

But looking the fish, one might be baffled by its popularity as a meal.

“They have a boa constrictor python look to them from the neck down,” explains Rorapaugh. “The head is slender… the mouth has a full row of teeth on the lips, and then bigger teeth set back on the mouth.”

Snakeheads can survive long periods of time without water and are ravenous creatures. Rorapaugh says they’ve discovered everything from mice, birds’ feet, turtles, and even batteries inside snakehead bellies. He says they’ll eat anything that swims past them.

Something else that may be surprising: snakeheads are delicious.

Rorapaugh brought some snakehead fillets over to the nearby Louie’s Diner. He says the meat was tossed in a light marinade and thrown on the grill.

“It’s dense,” says Rorapaugh. “It’s almost not like fish.”

This fish is mainly available in high-end restaurants right now, and it’s a bit pricey. Those two elements, plus the fact that it’s called snakehead and looks like Jacques Cousteau’s nightmare, may make it a turnoff for some.

However, regardless of its taste, appearance and pricing point, the fish is very much a part of our ecosystem. Snakeheads can be found in the entire Potomac River system, from Great Falls all the way down to the Chesapeake Bay.

Future of snakeheads

John Odenkirk, a biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, surveys the fish population by tasering them. The idea is to figure out how fast they grow, and where they travel. In a half hour, Odenkirk catches 35 snakeheads up to three feet long. He is also catching largemouth bass.

“This is what everybody’s concerned about, the snakeheads hurting these guys [bass], among other things,” says Odenkiek. “So we’re trying to track both populations. The contention is the bass population is hurting because of the snakeheads’ presence. But that’s not what we’re seeing at all. This year’s been a phenomenal year for bass.”

In fact, Odenkirk says it looks like the snakeheads aren’t turning out to be the monster people feared.

“We still don’t know,” he says. “We don’t have enough information to make that call yet, and probably won’t for several more years. But it does look like some of the initial hysteria was probably overstated.”

The real question is how much further the population will expand, geographically and in terms of numbers.

“We’ll know better at the end of this season, but if it tops out like it is now, I think it’ll assimilate and not cause a lot of damage,” he says.

What could be a big deal though, is if the fish get into isolated streams, or into an area where there is an endangered fish species.

It has Virginia officials worried enough that the Commonwealth isn’t ready to allow the sale of snakeheads for fear it would encourage people to spread the fish themselves. But back in Maryland, Carrie Kennedy is trying a sample for her wedding.

“It’s really good,” she says. “Really tender. The best thing would be if it wasn’t around at all, but you know what, if you have lemons, you might as well make lemonade.”


We learned about the subject of this story through WAMU's Public Insight Network. Learn more about the Public Insight Network.


[Music: "Wedding Bridal March (Jazz)" by F. Mendelsohn from YT Downloads]

Photos: Snakeheads in D.C.

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