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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Voracious Snakehead

Air Date: Week of

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The Chinese snakehead fish caught in a Maryland pond can gobble native fish, live out of water, and wobble on land. Seems the only thing it can’t do is talk. So Anna Solomon-Greenbaum visited the infamous pond and listened to the human characters who’ve been embroiled in the snakehead adventure.


TOOMEY: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Diane Toomey, sitting in for Steve Curwood. We marvel at them, eat them, hunt, study and protect them. We cuddle them, talk to them, fear them, and learn from them. This week, on Living on Earth, we’re all about animals.

And we begin with one especially unattractive creature. Chances are, you’ve already heard about it. It’s the fish that’s been discovered in a Maryland pond, the one that’s created a media frenzy. The Northern Snakehead is an invasive species from China. It can grow more than three feet long, and has a very big appetite.

The snakehead has been called a monster, and does have state officials worried that it’s going to eat its way through the native fish in the pond. And since the snakehead can walk on land -- well sort of -- officials are also concerned it’s going to reach other bodies of water and wreak havoc on them.
In Crofton, Maryland, Living on Earth’s Anna Solomon-Greenbaum talked with some of the characters in the snakehead escapade.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: It’s not a particularly pretty pond-- this no-name, nine acre hole, choked with weeds and stray bottles behind the Dunkin’ Donuts and the bank. But this is where Joe Gillespie achieved a certain fame in recent weeks. He came to hunt for snakeheads with his son Mark and Mark’s friend Jake. The fish had a price on its head, $100 gift certificate at a local sports store, and an urgent call for its catch by the state.

GILLESPIE: They posted the pond with "wanted" posters: "If you catch this fish, cut it, bleed it, do not let it go again, and kill it."

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Joe got two surfboards, one for the boys and one for himself, and they paddled out onto the pond. At first, there was no sign of the snakehead. But then, Joe noticed a mass of minnows. He went toward it.

GILLESPIE: A head came up through the weed mass there, kind of coming up, and the weeds are just kind of dripping off it like this. I thought it was a big turtle. But this one was more just like a big snake.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Joe dropped his bait and hook into the water. But the snakehead went right for his two-inch floating bobber. Joe jerked it free, then he herded the fish toward the boys so they could trap it. The snakehead was so big, Joe says, it make a wake.

GILLESPIE: I tell my son Mark, I say, "All right, he’s coming your way. He’s coming your way." And he’s like, "Daddy, don’t tell me. I don’t want to see this fish. I don’t want to see him." And they both had their feet up now.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Mark’s friend Jake cast his bait. The snakehead bit, but then it broke free. Joe cast his bait. The fish bit again. But again, the line went slack.

GILLESPIE: I started to pick up the line, and all of a sudden [WHOOM SOUND], the rod goes right down into the water again.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Finally, Joe got the snakehead in his net. Soon, he had it on his lap. He sat as still as he could, balancing on the surfboard with the fish, his rod, and all the fishing gear as the boys towed him in.

GILLESPIE: The fish is chomping at the mesh on the net and has already broken through two of the little squares, and his head is starting to come out more and more. So, I went ahead and dispatched the fish coming across.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Meaning, a knife to the skull for an instant death. It didn’t take long for news of Joe’s catch to travel. Friends, strangers, reporters, strange reporters all came to Joe’s house to see the fish. Peter Jennings’ people called. National Geographic took pictures.

Since then, police have found the culprit, a man who bought the fish as pets, then released them when they grew too big. Now, they’ve discovered hundreds, perhaps thousands, of snakehead babies. Scientists are concerned some of these could escape the pond, and wobble to a nearby stream, wiping out native fish and, possibly, delivering parasites or disease to the native ecosystem. They’re talking about stunning the fish with electroshock, draining the pond, or possibly poisoning it.

[Sound of boat being put in water]

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Today, biologist Don Cosden is at the pond, pulling traps set for the snakeheads. He’s sure there’s at least one more adult fish.


COSDEN: I see a few species in there, but no snakeheads. It looks like all bluegills.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: These bluegills are a good sign biologists say. At least they know the snakeheads haven’t gobbled up all the native fish yet. But on land, the reporters still haven’t gotten over the snakehead Joe Gillespie caught.

It’s clear camera crews, and reporters, and state press folks have had their hands full with the snakehead story. But up at Anglers, a bait and tackle shop in Annapolis, manager Charlie Ebersberger says its business as usual.


SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: He chews on a drumstick and says the media has blown the whole thing out of proportion.

EBERSBERGER: It’s got to be front page six times-- unbelievable. Let DNR do their job and leave it alone.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Customer Andy Hanlon thinks the snakehead has potential.

HANLON: You all should sell snakehead t-shirts, make some money--snakehead flies…

RON: snakehead flies, snakehead lures, special rigs for snakehead….

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: And, for the gastronomic promise of the snakehead, they are sold in Asian fish markets. Raymond Chang, who manages Hunan Express in Crofton, says he’d cook the snakehead like this:

CHANG: This kind of fish, you know, just steam it, and put some scallion, ginger or shallot on the top, and put some soy sauce, and then put some hot oil on the top, and it would be very delicious.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: As for his own tastes--

CHANG: No, no, I don’t think so. But, I don’t think I would try that, not that snakehead fish.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: There is one way the snakehead will get some use. If you’re ever in Crofton, Maryland, check out the skateboard shop, Drop-In. That’s where Joe Gillespie’s mounted snakehead will be hung, once it’s back from the taxidermist. From Crofton, Maryland, I’m Anna Solomon-Greenbaum for Living on Earth.




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