Cooking up creative ways to stop invasives!

Fish biologist Josh Newhard spends time on the Potomac River searching for northern snakeheads. Photo credit: USFWS

Fish biologist Josh Newhard spends time on the Potomac River searching for northern snakeheads. Photo credit: USFWS

Northern snakehead first reared their nasty fins in the Chesapeake Bay watershed more than ten years ago, now we are fighting this foreign fish one bite at a time. Josh Newhard, a fish biologist at the Maryland Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office, shares his story of discovering creative ways to battle the spread of this aqua beast!

Finding ways to control invasive species can sometimes feel like solving a complex puzzle. And putting the puzzle pieces together can often take the work of many people. Take for instance the northern snakehead, an invasive species of fish native to parts of Asia, but now with exploding populations in the Potomac River for over a decade.

A northern snakehead caught in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The invasive fish taking over habitat for native fish species. Photo credit: USFWS

A northern snakehead caught in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The invasive fish taking over habitat for native fish species. Photo credit: USFWS

Fisheries biologists working in the Chesapeake Bay watershed are concerned that the snakehead’s predatory nature and prolific spawning behavior will lead to declines in native fish species and harm a delicately balanced ecosystem. Since being discovered in 2004, the snakehead has continued to spread to numerous tributaries in the watershed, while growing in numbers in the Potomac River.

Trapping snakeheads is one way biologists are controlling their populations. Photo credit: USFWS

Trapping snakeheads is one way biologists are controlling their populations. Photo credit: USFWS

Biologists with both state and federal natural resource agencies began efforts to control the populations using intense electrofishing surveys, but even these efforts did little to limit the spread and growth of the population. Other methods used to control invasive species include netting and trapping, but these methods also proved inefficient in targeting these feisty fish.

By 2010, biologists decided it was time to try something new in this fierce battle to take back the Potomac. Queue up the recreational angler! After enlisting the public’s help in fighting this foreign invasion, the recreational fishing community responded in a big way!

Recreational anglers are catching snakeheads to use as food, which is helping to combat the issue of overpopulation. Photo credit: USFWS

Recreational anglers are catching snakeheads to use as food, which is helping to combat the issue of overpopulation. Photo credit: USFWS

Fishing tournaments targeting the removal of northern snakeheads began popping up in many communities, and bowfishing enthusiasts took note of the opportunity to help the environment.   As the popularity of catching snakehead grew, restaurants began selling snakehead meat and even non-anglers were taking part in invasive species management.  While this is in no way a fishery that management agencies want in the long-term, in the near future it is an opportunity to eat a tasty fish, all while feeling good about doing something beneficial for the ecosystem.

The sharp teeth of the snakehead make them make them vicious predator in the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. Photo credit: USFWS

The sharp teeth of the snakehead make them vicious predator in the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. Photo credit: USFWS

It appears that these combined efforts of natural resource agencies and the public are beginning to show promise.  In 2015, catch rates of adult northern snakehead were down in many places in the Potomac River, which is in part due to increased harvest by the recreational and commercial fishing communities. Only the future will hold if this trend continues, but for now, it is a downward trend that is welcome in the world of invasive species management.

Watch us on Aqua Kids!

Snakeheads on Maryland Outdoors, Maryland Public Television!

Learn more about the Maryland Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office.

Read more about harvest incentives to control invasive species.

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