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Snakehead fish not yet inhabiting local waters
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Caleb Newton, of Spotsylvania County, holds a 17- pound, 6-ounce northern snakehead fish he caught. (AP)

Friday, June 21, 2013

By BEN R. WILLIAMS - Bulletin Staff Writer

A northern snakehead fish caught in northern Virginia may break a world record, but Dr. Joe Keiper hopes that the next record-breaker will not be caught locally.

Keiper, the executive director of the Virginia Museum of Natural History, said the conditions of the Smith River generally don’t offer the snakehead’s preferred habitat, making it less likely for the invasive, predatory fish to thrive in this area.

No snakeheads have “been found down here yet,” Keiper said, “and I have high hopes that the Smith, at least below the dam, won’t be a problem.”

Snakeheads sometimes are found in cold waters, he said, “but they’re more commonly found in stagnant, warm-water rivers.”

While there are areas of the Smith River that have slower-moving pools, Keiper said for the most part, the river wouldn’t be their preferred environment.

The northern snakehead, which is native to China, is a predatory fish, and according to Keiper, most of its diet consists of other fish.

“They’re armed with a good row of teeth,” he said, “so they’re going to clamp down on their prey items and do some damage. Most of what they eat are fish. You end up throwing a real wrench into the workings of an ecosystem when you begin to remove other predators or you remove herbivores ... that are prey species. (Snakeheads) really wreak havoc.”

To make matters worse, snakeheads are not small fish by any stretch. According to The Associated Press, the northern snakehead caught June 1 by Caleb Newton of Spotsylvania County measured 36 inches long and weighed 17 pounds, 6 ounces. The fish may end up setting a world record.

“These are voracious predators,” Keiper said. “If somebody asks you, ‘What does a snakehead eat?’ you could almost say anything it wants. This is one of the bigger fish around.”

Snakeheads are believed to have been illegally introduced into rivers and waterways by exotic pet owners, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Also, according to that department, snakeheads are capable of breathing air, can survive for up to four days out of water in damp conditions and can survive even longer if burrowed in mud. They can travel over land by wriggling across the ground.

Aside from the ecological catastrophe that snakeheads can cause, they also can create economic problems, Keiper said.

“From an economic standpoint, they have gotten into some areas where sport fish are part of the local economy,” he said. “People go there, they buy their license, they buy fishing equipment, they bring that tourism and recreation money into an area. But in some of these areas, the snakehead is gobbling up the sport fish,” such as largemouth and smallmouth bass.

One of the reasons snakeheads are able to spread so easily, Keiper said, is that even though they are freshwater fish, they can tolerate slightly salty water.

“My understanding is that when we get a lot of rain and some of the water in the near-shore areas gets diluted, in terms of the salinity, the snakehead begins to move out into the more open water of the bay, and then can get up into a tributary or into one of the major rivers. ... They’ve recently moved into the Rappahannock River,” Keiper said.

They also have an established population in the Potomac River. The potential record-breaker that Newton caught was hooked in one of the Potomac’s tributaries.

Snakeheads also have caused problems for the bowfin, a species of fish native to the eastern U.S. Because bowfins look similar to snakeheads, they often are misidentified and killed by anglers. However, unlike snakeheads, bowfins have a black “eye spot” on their tails.

“The bowfin’s got that long dorsal fin, so there’s a superficial resemblance,” Keiper said. “It’s not a pretty sight when something is misidentified and killed because it’s thought to be a pest.”

One positive thing about the snakehead, Keiper said, is that he believes its size and appearance might help send the message to people that introducing non-native species into an environment can have devastating consequences.

“When you really see how big they are,” he said, “either in a picture of a person holding it, or maybe you see one in front of you ... I think the average person can really relate to the idea that ... anything that big has got to be a problem.”

If a snakehead is caught locally, Keiper said, the best thing to do is inform the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VGDIF). VGDIF can be reached at (804) 367-2925. The organization will log the catch and advise the angler on the proper way to dispose of the fish.

“That’s very useful information,” Keiper said, “because as soon as you begin to see where (the snakeheads) are spreading, you can manage them that much more easily.”

 

 
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