Species profile: Northern Snakehead

Until our recent interview with Chef Chad Wells at the Alewife in Baltimore, MD, I was blissfully unaware of the voracious top predator invading the waterways of Maryland and Virginia known as the northern snakehead.  Now that I know, I’m eager to make the journey to the Mid-Atlantic and try some!

Native to China, Russia, North Korea, and South Korea, the northern snakehead (Channa argus), is now found in many parts of the eastern United States and California preying on native fish populations.  Their introduction to the United States can be attributed to both release from the aquarium trade and live food fish trade.  One specific introduction in the year 2000 to a pond in Crofton, Maryland utilized both these pathways when a local resident purchased a pair of live snakehead to prepare a traditional soup remedy and instead kept them as pets.  Unable to keep up with their appetites, the pair of snakeheads was released and propagated like mad!

The scary face of the northern snakehead Channa argus.

In the waters of the Mid-Atlantic and the south (warmer relative to its native northern Asia), the northern snakehead can reproduce all year and grow to lengths greater than 1 meter (3 feet).  As adults, they prey mostly on fish but are capable of eating amphibians, birds, and small mammals.  However, as juveniles, they can be subject to predation by the invasive blue catfish (Ictalurus furcatus Lesueur, 1840).  Northern snakeheads are obligate air breathers which facilitates their hardiness and ability to survive a lengthy trip from Asia out of water. These traits make this invasive species so dangerous that the Maryland Department of Natural Resources has issued a mandate for fishers to kill upon capture.

Their overconsumption of native aquatic species will not only decimate native populations but will likely cause millions of dollars in damages as well.  A market already exists that is facilitated by consumption; can snakehead be another gateway to invasivory?  Chef Chad Wells is already preparing it for culinary masses!

Sheina

A self-proclaimed modern day nomad, I was born in the Philippines, grew up in southern California—lived all over really—and now I do research as a graduate student in Indiana and the Pacific Northwest. Professionally speaking, my current area of focus is speciation and ecological genetics and genomics, and a common theme in my various projects over the years is evolution in agricultural systems. As a recipient of a GLOBES—an interdisciplinary program funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) through the Integrative Graduate Education, Research, and Traineeship grant (IGERT) —fellowship, I have received training which has better enabled me to view and ponder topics without my science hat on. I take great joy in eating, cooking, and experiencing nature through various activities. I love to travel and anticipate many local and international invasivore field trips! Though my research interests do not directly involve the study of invasive species, I have had my fair share of negative encounters with environmentally noxious organisms in the midst of doing field research. I carry around a machete with which to combat my gnarly “Himalayan” foes, and my machete and I have raised more than a few eyebrows. Apart from my personal vendetta against these deliciously juicy pests, I feel that there are great advantages to linking our awareness of the natural world to our culture, and Invasivore is an avenue to do just that. I feel that an increase in general knowledge of invasive species will be of great benefit to the field of invasive species and conservation biology. Knowledge and awareness will lead to action, and action will lead to results!

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