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Taking a Bite out of Invasive Species

Aug 12, 2013 11:46AM ● Published by Cate Reynolds

by BETH RUBIN photos by TIM POLY

I tell myself it’s cod, then bite into a fish taco at Rockfish in Eastport. The Asian sauce awakens my taste buds. The fish is tender, with a delicate flavor.

As the menu tells me, this ain’t no cod. I’m eating northern snakehead, an invasive species that’s populating lakes and rivers in our area (and beyond) at the expense of native species. When the first northern snakeheads in our area were caught in Crofton in 2002, the media had a field day. The pond was treated with chemicals and closed—but not before six adults and close to 1,000 juveniles (totaling 800 pounds) were destroyed.

A top-level predator with no natural enemies, the snakehead is a force to be reckoned with. That mature females release up to 15,000 eggs at a time, and mating can take place several times a year, merits grave concern. I can do that math. Turtles, fish, frogs, and birds have been found in the stomachs of these sharp-toothed fish who can survive on land up to four days and travel up to one-quarter of a mile—as long as they’re wet.

Snakehead. Could the name be any less appealing? I’ve seen the photos and cartoons. Not even a mother could love that mug. Keeping an open mind, I take another bite. Mind over matter. I like it. Admitting it gives me pause. (Is it like saying that Jeffrey Dahmer had a nice smile?)

To engage the public in its effort to rid local waters of the predatory nuisance, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) sponsored an annual contest to help monitor the species. But after a few years DNR dropped the contest in lieu of encouraging snakehead anglers to enter their catch data at the department’s online Inland Freshwater Survey.

Local restaurateurs, like Rockfish executive chef and general manger Chad Wells, have been luring the fish to restaurant menus and hooking sometimes hesitant diners into trying something new. Fishing the snakeheads will help restore healthier levels of native fish, Wells says. At the forefront of local sustainability efforts, Wells was the first person in Maryland to introduce northern snakehead to a menu. At the time, he was head chef at Alewife in Baltimore.

So what do you do with snakehead? If you put lipstick on it, it’s still a snakehead. “The tacos are one of our biggest menu items,” Wells says. But he’s also prepared snakeheads in numerous ways. “I like to play,” he says. “I’ve done regular Spanish-style tacos, prepped them like sushi, done po’ boys, fried nuggets, grilled, smoked. You can do anything with it. My favorite is sautéed.” Snakehead is “lean and healthful,” Wells says, and “it has a lot of valuable qualities.” And the price is right. Snakehead fetches $5 a pound compared to $7 for more mainstream fish.

“At this point, we seek to contain them in this area and save people elsewhere from having the problem,” says Wells, who at first wasn’t sure “if we could legally sell them. But it’s created an extra source of revenue for watermen in the area,” he says. “The demand is greater, so watermen are earning more.”

And it’s not a passing fancy. What was once viewed as a gimmick or fad is not, Wells says. “The market is growing. Soon it will explode.” “There is definitely an interest in catching snakeheads from the commercial fishermen. The commercial value is still quite high and represents a great return for the effort required to catch them,” according to Stephen Vilnit, the Maryland DNR’s Fisheries marketing director.

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BLUE CATFISH

One down, one to go. I’ve signed on to taste another invasive species. On top of a colorful plate of crisscrossed asparagus spears and grits sits a large serving of blackened blue catfish, another invasive that’s finding its way onto more menus in our area. I take a forkful. What’s in a name? The flavor is slightly stronger than farm-raised catfish and the texture is solid. It reminds me somewhat of tilapia.

While snakehead gets more press, Wells says, “blue catfish is a bigger [invasive] problem, but they’re not as sexy. They don’t have the lore behind them that a snakehead does.” Blue catfish are much cheaper than regular farmed catfish, Wells says, and they support the ecosystem and watermen.

Adding to their allure, “They’re huge and abundant, and in every tributary and the bay itself,” Wells says. “And they’re a killer sport fish to catch.”

Contrary to what many diners assume, “restaurants serving farm-raised [catfish] are not getting them locally,” Wells says. “There are no local farm-raised catfish, so there is a huge carbon footprint because the fish travel longer and have a shorter shelf life before reaching your plate.” Blue catfish go for under $5 a pound while farm-raised fetch about $7. And there is no shortage. “Thousands of pounds come in a week,” he says.

Wells knows his fish. He has worked in restaurants for 16 years, spearheaded celebrity chef cook-offs in Maryland and D.C. that promote oyster farming, and appeared on the Food and Cooking channels, as well as the Travel channel’s “Bizarre Foods.”

His passion for fishing drew him to his life’s work. “I’m a fisherman first,” he says. “We fishermen have a responsibility to be ethical and respect the areas we fish. They provide us with joy. On a bigger level, when you work in a restaurant, you have more responsibility. Chefs have lots more power than they realize to create a culture.” When the snakeheads surfaced several years ago, Wells did research at the DNR and found out that the invasives were edible. “I started fishing, taking them home, and experimenting with different preparations.”

Wells buys his snakeheads from ProFish in D.C. They’re not difficult to procure, he says. “I think part of the issue is people like me are buying them in great numbers. “They won’t be as easy to get when the fish move into shallower areas to spawn in July and August.”

Ultimately, the DNR’s Vilnit says, “we don’t know if a marketing campaign will actually have an impact on the biomass of the species, but it certainly cannot hurt. We have seen an increase in the past year of fishermen targeting both blue catfish and snakeheads. This is an unregulated (because we want to remove them from our waters) fishery that allows the watermen to bring in some extra income. It also has the added bonus of reducing fishing pressure on our native species.” We’re “hoping to raise the public awareness of the problem,” and inform “recreational anglers…that this is a delicious fish. Perhaps with both commercial and recreational fishermen targeting this species, we can actually make a dent.”

Simply put, there will come a time when, if we don’t control the population through consumption, they’ll be everywhere, Wells says. So next time you see one of these invasive species on the menu, don’t be shy. You’ll be treating your taste buds and helping the Chesapeake ecosystem together in one bite.

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