Northern snakeheads are in Burke Lake.
The invasive fish drew substantial attention and concern when it first was discovered in local waters in 2004, and there were fears that it could cause an ecological nightmare. So far, snakeheads are fitting in and playing somewhat well with others, however that does not mean we are out of, so to speak, dangerous waters. U-S Department of Agriculture (USDA) studies indicate that Northern snakeheads do prey on and compete with native species. The fish is listed as an injurious species, which means that by law it cannot be imported or transported between states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, or any territory or possession of the U.S. by any means without a permit issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In addition, releasing any creature into a park violates the Fairfax County Park Authority policy that reads: No person shall abandon, release or cause to be released into a park any animal or other organism without the express written permission of the Park Authority.
You’re not going to get that written permission just to dump them into a local lake on a whim. Policy exceptions are sometimes made only for bona fide scientific, medical, educational, or zoological purposes.
Discovery of snakeheads
The first known catch of a Northern snakehead in Burke Lake was in the late spring of 2014. Burke Lake Park Duty Manager Keith O’Connor says that first one was about 18 inches long, adding that someone likely illegally dumped them into the lake. Despite efforts to inform people about the bad things that can happen when a non-native invasive species is introduced anywhere in the world, this invasive fish continues to spread through Fairfax County waters. Park Manager Charlie Reagle says that people caught them on a regular basis in 2014. It’s possible that snakeheads had been in Burke Lake for more than a year prior to their discovery.
The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) says snakeheads have become common in the Potomac River from Great Falls to the Chesapeake Bay, including all of the river’s tidal tributaries. The VDGIF web page on snakeheads says that 2014 surveys indicate the fish’s population may have stabilized and possibly even declined a bit from its peak in waters where they first appeared. VDGIF cites Burke Lake as one of several Virginia lakes in which there have been recent illegal stockings of Northern snakeheads. USDA says snakeheads also have been found in the spillway at Lake Accotink.
Staff at Burke Lake monitors snakehead catches. So far, most of the hauls have come from the deep water weeds at the dam end of the lake. Park personnel keep state officials informed about the catches, and state fisheries biologist John Odenkirk, who monitors Northern Virginia waters, says VDGIF plans annual spring surveys of the lake to determine if the snakeheads have any impact.
Odenkirk says that although there’s nothing in writings about Northern snakeheads that suggests the fish has had any negative impact in places where they’ve been introduced, they “potentially could alter the eco-system.” He doesn’t eliminate that possibility because environmental circumstances differ from place to place. Although invasive species can sometimes introduce parasites and disease or virtually wipe out a native species in a competition for food or living space, evidence suggests that snakeheads might not be as big a problem as once feared. However, VDGIF says problems still could arise, and state officials emphasize that snakeheads should not be released into the wild.
Huntley Meadows Park Manager Kevin Munroe monitors snakeheads in his park’s wetlands. “Although no specific data has been collected showing an adverse effect on local ecosystems from snakeheads, they have been here for a relatively short time, and we don’t know yet what their full effect will be,” Munroe says. “There have been anecdotal reports that local fish populations appear to be unaffected, but very little info is available on how they have affected amphibian populations. There are several species of locally rare frogs and salamanders whose breeding success could be affected by snakeheads if this fish decides it has a taste for tadpoles and juvenile salamanders.”
As more is learned about the fish and the role it is forging for itself in local waters, state officials adopt strategies for dealing with them. Odenkirk says to treat them like any other fish. Catch them and eat them. That’s not bad advice, because snakeheads have gained a reputation as a very tasty fish. Reagle says many fishermen tell him they like snakeheads better than walleye, one of North America’s premier freshwater fish for eating.
VDGIF’s guidelines for snakeheads are:
- Know how to identify the fish.
- Report any unusual fish to VDGIF.
- There is a hotline for reporting snakehead catches: 804-367-2925.
- There is a website for reporting observations of snakeheads.
- You do not have to report or kill snakeheads if you catch one, however….
- VDGIF asks that you do report and kill them if possible.
- If you wish to keep a legally-caught snakehead, it must be killed immediately. You cannot have a live snakehead in your possession. If you keep one to eat, VDGIF says you must kill the fish and then call the hotline and report the angler’s last name, date of catch, location of catch and size of the fish.
- Kill the fish by removing the head and separating the gill arches from the body, or by removing the internal organs. Put it on ice as quickly as possible.
Remember to monitor fish consumption advisories from the Virginia Department of Health for fish caught in Virginia waters.
Odenkirk says Northern snakeheads have a long spawning period that begins in April, peaks in early June, and can last into August. If you catch one, handle it carefully. They have teeth, so don’t lip them in the manner commonly used by bass fishermen. Odenkirk says they can be caught on virtually any bait. They are almost always deep in weeds, and can be found in very shallow water in spring when topwater or weedless lures will take them.
- A Virginia Tech study of Northern snakeheads
- A VGDIF video about Northern snakeheads in Virginia
- How to Identify a Northern snakehead
- VGDIF’s web page about snakeheads
- USDA information about snakeheads
Written by David Ochs, Manager of Stewardship Communications, Resource Management Division, Fairfax County Park Authority.