God of primitive fishes
Join Date: Dec 2003
Location: Calgary, Alberta, Canada
From the Philadelphia Inquirer:
It's in the river: The dreaded snakehead
By Sandy Bauers
Inquirer Staff Writer
When the dreaded snakehead fish first showed its pointy head and spiky
grin at FDR Park in South Philadelphia in the summer of 2004, fisheries
officials braced for the worst.
Tidal sloshings connect the park's ponds and lagoons to the Schuylkill,
and ultimately to the Delaware. Sooner rather than later, they figured, a
snakehead would make a break for it and begin to colonize the rivers.
Now they know they were right.
State fisheries officials this week confirmed - as much as they could,
given that they weren't present - that an angler had reeled in a
snakehead off a Delaware River pier north of the Navy Yard in September.
That means "it's likely we have a small population of snakeheads in the
tidal Delaware and tidal Schuylkill Rivers, and it's likely that that
population will expand," said Mike Kaufmann, a biologist with the Fish
and Boat Commission.
It also means a recent report recommending against trying to eradicate
the fish from FDR Park - a long shot from the start - is pretty much
"There's certainly no way to eradicate the fish from the rivers,"
Kaufmann said. "Once they're in a free-flowing waterway... you're pretty
much in a documentation mode" - watching to see what happens next.
Snakeheads have attained celebrity status - or at least notoriety - since
showing up in a Maryland pond in 2002, half a world away from their
native Asia. They've been dubbed "Frankenfish" for their voracious,
indiscriminate appetite and ability to slither across short stretches of
land, though the nickname makes scientists cringe.
"They're not monsters," insists Richard Horwitz, senior biologist at the
Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. "They're just in the wrong
Absent the predators that keep the snakehead population in check in Asia,
fisheries officials fear their numbers will blossom. The newcomers -
which may be up to two feet long - could wolf down entire populations of
indigenous fish, permanently changing streamlife.
For a hint of what's to come here, fisheries officials have only to look
about 150 miles south to the Potomac River.
Snakeheads showed up there in 2004, when about 20 were caught by
biologists, recreational anglers, and a passerby who saw a tiny specimen
flop out of the weeds at a boat ramp.
This year, Washington-area anglers caught more than 300 - a clear sign
that the snakeheads are thriving.
"That's quick growth," said Steve Minkkinen, a snakehead expert with the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "If we're able to collect hundreds of
fish, how many might be out there is anyone's guess."
Pennsylvania officials first learned of the Delaware River snakehead when
it was mailed to a State College lab. In an accompanying letter, a New
Jersey man said he had made the catch on Labor Day. He took the fish
home, stuck it in the freezer and, in October, finally packed it in ice
and FedExed it.
Officials confirmed that the eight-inch specimen was a snakehead, but
were reluctant to announce the expansion of the fish to the Delaware
until they actually talked to the guy.
He was, after all, a fisherman, a breed known for exaggeration, if not
outright fabrication. Officials' suspicions deepened when the angler,
whom they have not identified, failed to return their phone calls.
Finally, Kaufmann reached the man's wife, and the instant she revealed
where her husband had caught the snakehead, Kaufmann believed her.
That's because the ponds of FDR Park empty through a pipe and a tide gate
into a reserve basin at the Navy Yard, which flows into the Schuylkill
virtually at its juncture with the Delaware.
If she had said he had caught the fish in, say, Trenton, that would be
one thing. But "man, when she said just above the Naval Yard... that
would fit with the scenario we expected," Kaufmann said.
Fisheries officials now have one of the biggest ichthyological
experiments going, with a "lab" that comprises not only the ponds of the
park, but the two rivers beyond.
They're encouraged by reports from FDR anglers who say they've seen blue
gills harass snakeheads guarding "nests" of young. When the parents take
off after a few blue gills, other blue gills swoop in and gulp down baby
Officials also plan to inhibit the population by encouraging anglers to
catch snakeheads. They even have a tip: Bass lures work great.
Who knows? Someone might adopt a tactic used on the Potomac, where Bass
Pro Shops and state officials instituted a Snakehead Derby with monetary
rewards for snakeheads above a certain size.
Snakeheads are said to be quite tasty, and recipes abound on the
Internet. There's nothing to keep anglers from eating their catches,
assuming they were taken from unpolluted waters, not the ponds of FDR
Park. In other words, if you can't beat 'em, eat 'em.
But this puts fisheries officials in a quandary. If the snakehead becomes
too attractive, officials worry, humans will hasten the spread of the
In fact, officials wonder whether the appearance of snakeheads in urban
areas - including a Chicago harbor last year and a pond near Shea Stadium
in Queens, N.Y., this year - had anything to do with aficionados taking
matters into their own hands after 2002 federal legislation banned the
import of live snakeheads, a popular dish in Asian restaurants.
But perhaps this is a moot point, too. With so many snakeheads on the
loose, officials have decided simply to educate the public about what
havoc the fish can wreak.
One weekend last year, a Chicago museum displayed the carcass of that
city's harbor specimen in a lab pan, and thousands of people went to
Here, the Academy of Natural Sciences on Logan Circle has expanded on the
Two bathtub-size tanks have been installed in an upstairs hallway. In one
is a living adult snakehead caught last spring in FDR Park. Next door is
a tankful of younger specimens.
Titled "Aliens in Pennsylvania," the exhibit is a testament to the
snakeheads' destructive potential. About once a week, Laura McRae
approaches. She grabs a piece of smelt with tongs and wiggles it
enticingly in the tank with the big snakehead.
Whap! The snakehead demonstrates its appetite.
The little snakeheads usually get live goldfish. McRae dumps in about 50,
and a mini-melee ensues.
The academy staff was hesitant at first, envisioning busloads of
schoolchildren horrified by cute, wiggly goldfish being devoured before
their eyes. Instead, as a group of young visitors recently demonstrated,
the kids are riveted.
"Look at it! In its mouth!"
"Look! He's not dead yet!"
G. A. Christian Bilou, Herpetologist
Founder/Director, Reptile Rescue Alberta
Past-President, Calgary Aquarium Society