Thursday, April 17, 2014 8:14 PM
Published on: Thursday, February 07, 2013
By Brian Compere
ROCKVILLE - John Riggins spent 14 seasons dieseling his way through his share of scary opponents in the NFL, but now he is working to encourage others to fight against a very different opponent – with their forks.
Riggins is one of many who helped promote a solution to the growing population of the invasive northern snakehead fish – known as the “frankenfish” to some – by appearing at the second annual ProFish Invasive Species Benefit Dinner.
The event, hosted by Tony and Joe’s Seafood Place in Georgetown, was held to raise awareness of the issues invasive species like the snakehead can present and present an easy – and tasty – way county residents can help out.
Turns out a scary fish is still a fish, and the snakehead is still fair game for local restaurants and consumers alike.
“I think the looks of the particular fish might affect somebody who’s a little bit squeamish about eating at all in general, but I don’t think you have to be that adventurous to eat it,” said Chad Wells of The Rockfish in Annapolis, which participated in the dinner. “I think once you see what the filet looks like, or when you see what the prepared dish looks like, you’re not going to be afraid of it.”
Wells said eating snakeheads is not a new phenomenon: He began selling snakehead products three years ago and immediately began selling out – after posting that he had a shipment of snakeheads, he said he was flooded with emails asking to reserve the fish. Since then, snakehead sales stabilized to become regular-selling items, although occasionally there are spikes in sales, he said.
Snakefish is not the only ugly fish on the market, Wells added, saying flounder, halibut and other more ordinarily consumed fish may look hideous but taste delicious.
People like Riggins and Wells are motivated to encourage people to help thin the snakehead population by eating the fish because it is an invasive species – it is not meant to exist in the local ecosystem and can disturb the food chain balance because its size leaves it with few natural predators, although it has plenty of natural prey.
Joe Love, bass specialist for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said invasive species are generally something to be concerned about, although some do little to no harm to an ecosystem, like goldfish in the Potomac.
Snakeheads, however, can do plenty of harm to the ecosystem because of its ability to “colonize” and adapt to new environments like the Chesapeake Bay system. Love said the Potomac could be considered a hotspot for the snakehead, although that is mostly because it was originally introduced there – the fish could likely thrive just as well in any river or stream that feeds into the bay.
“Our goal is to try and prevent them from expanding outside the Potomac River as best as we can, and I know that they are naturally colonizing areas outside the river, and that’s a problem,” Love said. “Our goal is to get folks to kill em when they catch em. So we recognize them as a threat out there.”
The snakehead was introduced into the Potomac River by an unknown person in 2002. The state has attempted to get rid of the fish (or at least keep its growth in check) by offering a $200 gift card reward for any snakehead fish anglers catch and kill.
Doug Redmond of Montgomery Parks said he is only aware of one place in the county’s parks snakeheads have been found in the past several years: the Burnt Mills park at Northwest Branch. No snakeheads have been reported since 2009, although the parks have not been collecting sampling data for the snakeheads, he added.
“[The snakehead] threat in Montgomery County is likely to be the same as anywhere else, and they are top predators so they’re not going to eat all the fish in the river, but we do want to try and prevent them from successfully colonizing and establishing themselves,” Love said.
However, Redmond does not think snakeheads are an issue even in Northwest Branch because its bedrock does not present an ideal habitat for snakeheads, which prefer soft sediment, he said.
While it may be difficult to accurately gauge snakeheads’ impact on the county, it could have an impact on the culinary lives of county residents.
Wendy Moore of Herndon, Va., attended the Profish benefit dinner and said the snakehead is surprisingly good and she would absolutely order it on a menu again.
“The look of the fish doesn’t bother me…and it’s a good way of getting rid of the species,” said Moore, who grew up in the DelMarVa area, goes boating on the Potomac every summer and has always loved steamed crabs. “We’re good at proliferating through our rivers. I’d rather them get rid of the snakeheads than the crabs.”
When asked what she would say to anyone skeptical about eating the fish, she echoed Wells in saying there are plenty of other ugly fish out there, “so just don’t look at the fish itself but enjoy it. It’s delicious!”