Further Readings


JUNE 2012

Dear Snakehead,

You’ve got a pretty spooky name for a fish. In your native East Asia you are called Channa. Recently you’ve picked up some even spookier names: National Geographic calls you “Fishzilla” and The Sci-Fi Network has taunted you as “Frankenfish”. Your supra-invasive-species status was cemented in the American imagination a decade ago via appearances on hit television shows like The Sopranos, CSI and The Office.

In 2002, you caused a media firestorm when you showed up in a pond in Crofton, Maryland. I read stories about your amazing abilities to spread stream to stream by slithering across land and breathing air. Lacking North American predators and breeding several times year, there was widespread fear that you would displace native fish species and make a mess out of the already-teetering Chesapeake watershed.

The National Fish and Wildlife Service issued Public Service Announcements about the threat you posed to native species. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources declared war on you, instructing fishermen “who catch the Northern Snakehead fish to kill these fish, keep them, and notify DNR immediately.” Even today, educational materials about the threat you pose are hard to miss in any of Maryland’s State or National Parks. Now, Virginia’s joined the crusade too. Sorry, Fishzilla, you are public enemy #1 in the Mid-Atlantic region.

A decade after your introduction into the region’s ecosystem, you have been found in other Maryland and northern Virginia ponds and streams. Just a few weeks ago, a mature female of your species was caught in the Potomac River facing Washington, DC. Frankenfish is menacing the nation’s capital. Reportedly, you’ve been found north of Great Falls, which suggests you might be the first fish species to swim up the powerful falls.

Nonetheless, there appears to be huge disconnect between the real Snakehead and the Fishzilla attributes assigned to you. It turns out that your reported abilities to slither long distances overland were vastly exaggerated. It also turns out that native fish species do not necessarily wither away when you show up. A decade after your introduction into the Chesapeake watershed, Snakehead appearances are still rarities and native fish populations are holding steady. Perhaps one day you will out-compete these native species, but there is no evidence that is happening currently.

And here’s a kicker: It turns out that you’re delicious. Across East Asia, massive aqua-culture farms raise hundreds of thousands of Snakeheads each year for human consumption. Singapore alone imported 1,200 tons of Snakehead last year. In Washington, DC, some high-end restaurants have started serving you and Maryland State Parks now serve you for free at special events. Soon enough, the American angler and diner will be the most effective checks on your expansion.

Humans have an unfortunate history of upsetting the ecological apple cart by introducing non-native species, intentionally or unintentionally, into fragile ecosystems. In some cases this has produced awful results (two current examples: the Kudzu vine choking out trees across the American South, Zebra Mussels fouling water pipes and drainage systems through the Midwest). These are real problems and American tax payers now spend tens of millions of dollars annually combating these invaders.

However, there often is a disconnect between the feared problem caused by the invading species and the real one. As a boy, I remember stories of how the Gypsy Moth caterpillar would soon despoil our forests, and remember having to stay inside one day a year while helicopters rained insecticide from the sky to check their growth. But now, two generations after their introduction, the Gypsy Moth is just another leaf-eating insect. It is a pest among other pests, not more than that.

So, Mr. Snakehead or Fishzilla or Frankenfish, I wish you nothing but bad luck as you slither toward a permanent foothold in American waters. If I get the chance, I will kill you and eat you—but, despite your spooky nicknames, you don’t scare me very much.

Bon appetite, my fair Snakehead.