During the summer of 2002, at the height of the snakehead frenzy, child visitors to Super Pets in Annandale, Va., eagerly sought out Seymore the Snakehead. They would find him in a 6-foot-by-2-foot tank on an upper shelf: a large fish with a stripe of red along his flank and a red spot on his tail moving slowly about the driftwood, rocks, and petrified wood that decorated his home.
Many of the kids had seen the newspaper and television coverage and had absorbed the basics: Snakeheads are an Asian fish, several of which had somehow gotten loose in a pond in Crofton, Md. They are freaks, able to walk and to breath air. They have aggressive natures, insatiable appetites, and frightening teeth. If left unchecked, they would eat every other creature in their ecosystem.
What child wouldn’t enjoy seeing such a real-life monster? But Seymore the Snakehead didn’t quite match his rap sheet. For a monster, he moved with surprising grace, his unusually long dorsal and anal fins rippling with each thrust of his tail, his pectoral fins rolling to hold him in place when he wanted to look at something or someone. Though not as brilliantly adorned as some other fish in the store, he had an understated charm. His thick, tubelike body gave him a solidity and gravitas lacking in some of the more froufrou species.
And though Seymore measured 14 inches in length, he wasn’t even a bully.
“He lived in a community tank with smaller fish, and he was well-behaved,” says Tracy Blaeuer, manager and co-owner of Super Pets. “His tank had no top, and you could hand-feed him. He mostly ate [fish food] pellets and frozen krill. Not much live food. He certainly wouldn’t eat your fingers.”
Blaeuer shows a picture of Seymore. In it, Seymore hangs suspended in a corner of his tank, directly under the spot where someone wrote his name on the glass. “He liked to pose there,” she says. Because Seymore was a store pet, there was also a short message explaining that Seymore was not for sale.
Seymore’s name has since been erased from the tank, and Seymore himself is nowhere to be seen. Whatever ichthyologic lessons he might have taught go unlearned because of a January 2003 state regulation that made it illegal to own snakeheads in Virginia. Unlike most bans where the animals involved are pets, this one did not include a grandfather clause that would have allowed people who already possessed snakeheads to keep them. All snakehead owners were required to turn in their pets for disposal. Seymore was not even wanted dead or alive—the Old Dominion wanted Seymore dead.
Blaeuer thinks the law is ridiculous. A trim woman with reddish brown hair and light gray eyes, she works seven days a week in her store, often manning the register while a small army of teenagers and 20-somethings clean the bird cages, stock the shelves with dog and cat supplies, and maintain the dozens of fish tanks. She rarely raises her voice, but passion shows itself when she poses the question “Why ban a fish you’ve never found in the wild?”
Some snakeheads have been found in the wild locally, of course: first in that pond in Crofton in 2002, then at a lake in Wheaton, Md., in April of this year, then 11 times in the Potomac River south of D.C.
But there are snakeheads and there are snakeheads. Of the 28 different species, only one, the northern snakehead (aka Channa argus), could possibly pose a threat to fish life in the Potomac and surrounding areas. That’s because only the northern snakehead can survive winters as cold as D.C.’s. The snakeheads found in the Potomac have all been northern snakeheads.
Seymore was a red snakehead (Channa micropeltes), one of the tropical species. Had he somehow walked his way out of Super Pets to freedom, he might have survived in the wild until November or December, but not until spring. The same goes for his mate, had he found one, and any offspring they might have produced.
And for the record, Seymore couldn’t walk. Different species of snakeheads have different prowess when it comes to overland locomotion. But the most cursory glance at a red snakehead reveals that its pectoral fins are not load-bearing structures.
Of all the misinformation about snakeheads that has been in circulation in the past two years, one bit has proven particularly harmful to pet store people like Blaeuer: Time and again, the media have described the northern snakehead as a pet. It is not. It is, in fact, a food fish popular in Asia and with some Asian immigrants. However, Virginia has banned people from owning all species of snakehead, and Maryland is considering a similar ban.
And what about D.C.? Northern snakeheads tend to expand their range if too many of their kind are nearby. So far, they have been pulled from a stretch of the Potomac that begins south of the city near Mount Vernon and extends about 12 miles downstream to the Mattawoman Creek area. The program manager for the D.C. Department of Health’s Fisheries and Wildlife Division thinks snakeheads will probably show up in District waters before the end of the summer. If so, the city will have to decide whether to fall in line with its neighbors and institute a ban.
Blaeuer says Virginia’s regulation hasn’t kept people from owning live snakeheads; it has only driven owners underground. If their snakeheads prefer live food, you’ll see them quietly purchasing plastic bags full of goldfish. “For some people, anything illegal is a status symbol,” says Blaeuer.
The small shop called Vietnam Imports sits just off Route 7 in Falls Church, Va., only a few feet of sidewalk separating it from the constant flow of traffic. Inside, visitors enjoy the typical fusion of exotica and kitsch that characterizes immigrant-Asian businesses. From a high shelf, an upright cat statue with a shiny gold finish surveys the room with manga eyes. Red paper lanterns hang over aisles stocked with dried cuttlefish, white-lime paste, tapioca crackers in Day-Glo colors, and other delicacies not found in Safeway.
Owner Dominic Tran knows snakehead fish. He didn’t eat them growing up in North Vietnam, but in the ’50s he moved south to escape communism and found himself in a region thick with snakehead gourmets. Though the fish was never his favorite food, he tried it in soups and other dishes.
Now gray in the temple and full of friendly good humor, he recalls a popular soldiers’ recipe from his days in the South Vietnamese army: split the fish, cover it with mud, wrap it in banana leaves, and stick it into the hot embers of a fire. After it’s cooked, remove banana leaves and mud, wrap the meat in rice paper, dip in ginger/lemon/chili sauce, and enjoy.
“They say it’s delicious, but I’ve never tried it that way,” Tran says, smiling. “I’m pure North Vietnamese!” Tran speculates that this recipe may have given the snakehead one of its Vietnamese names: cá loc, or “mud fish.”
Without saying so directly, Tran conveys surprise and amusement at local anxiety over the fish. “In Vietnam we have them in ponds, creeks, and rivers—nobody worries about them.”
Of course, snakeheads are native to Asia. If they were going to run amok in that ecosystem, they’d have done so ages ago. Here, the northern snakehead was introduced into the waters only in the last few years.
I relate to Tran the story as told by Steve Early, assistant director for Inland Fisheries for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR): An Asian-American man living in the D.C. area had a sister who became ill. Because snakeheads are believed to have curative powers, the man traveled to New York to purchase several, which he intended to make into a soup. But before he could do so the sister got better. The man kept the snakeheads for a while, then released them into the Crofton pond.
Hearing this account, Tran nods. “Must have been a Buddhist,” he says. “They believe in letting animals go if the person gets better. The animal might be a person, you see.”
If it was a well-meaning Buddhist who released the first snakeheads in Crofton, he must have found the events that followed troubling. Soon after the first fish was caught, on May 14, 2002, the Maryland DNR began looking for ways to kill any others. They told the press that the fish was a threat to local wildlife, and the press ran with the story. The Baltimore Sun printed the first article, dated June 22, 2002, and set the tone for most of the snakehead coverage that followed. It started: “It sounds like a critter from a cheap science fiction movie….”
The science fiction could be found in the pages of the Sun and, later, just about every newspaper that reported on the snakehead. In his book Snakehead: A Fish Out of Water, Eric Jay Dolin tracks the epidemiology of snakehead misinformation. The first malformed factoid began innocently enough—biologists working for the state of Maryland knew that some species of snakeheads could wiggle short distances overland and thought that northern snakeheads were one such species (not true). The wiggling became walking in the first Sun article. Also, the Sun said that the snakehead could survive three days out of water, failing to mention that this is true only if the fish is kept moist.
In a June 27, 2002, article, the Washington Post stated that the snakehead was “capable of clearing out a pond of all living creatures and then wriggling on to new hunting grounds on its belly and fins.” Commenting on that article, Dolin writes: “Now the snakehead was not only capable of eating every fish in sight, but every single living creature in sight. The snakehead was moving up in the world. The article also said that the snakehead could survive not just three, but up to four days out of water.”
NPR’s All Things Considered featured a Maryland DNR biologist who said that the fish possessed “lobed, muscular pectoral fins” (not true). Supposedly, these superfins allowed it to “kind of hop and hold itself up and move at least short distances on land.” (This misinformation, writes Dolin, came from the Internet.) The same biologist later told NBC Channel 4 that the northern snakehead “has rudimentary legs.”
On July 22, the U.S. Department of the Interior issued a press release that quoted Interior Secretary Gale Norton herself, and gave official sanction to a lot of misinformation as well as the film cliché:
“These fish are like something from a bad horror movie,” said Secretary Norton. “A number of these species can survive in the wild in freshwater almost anywhere in the United States. They can eat virtually any small animal in their path. They can travel across land and live out of water for at least three days. They reproduce quickly. They have the potential to cause enormous damage to our valuable recreational and commercial fisheries. We simply must do everything we can to prevent them from entering our waters, either accidentally or intentionally.”
The information pollution spread in those early days still forms the bulk of what the public knows about snakehead fish. However, journalists eventually changed the tone of their reporting. John Fairhall, the Sun’s assistant managing editor for medical and science reporting, says that snakehead reporting at the Sun is now more “sober and scientific.” Recalling the heady days of 2002, he says that snakeheads were “one hell of a story. We went to town with it.”
Ashley Halsey, Maryland editor at the Washington Post, says that his paper’s coverage has also evolved. “[Back in 2002], you had a fish that lived in a pond, looked ugly, and didn’t belong there. That’s a fun story,” he says. “Now it’s in the Potomac….[The story] takes on a more serious tone by necessity.”
Regional biologists also got better information about the northern snakehead. “It’s true they can breathe air directly,” says Early. “But they do not appear well-adapted to overland movement. If their habitat was drying up, they could wiggle a bit [to get back into water]. But for the most part, they’d be drying and dying. You’ll never see one walking across the road.”
It’s true that snakeheads reproduce quickly. The Crofton episode ended in September 2002 with the Maryland DNR pumping the pond with 15 gallons of rotenone, a fish poison. This produced six dead adult snakeheads and 1,200 dead pre-adult snakeheads (as well as 1,100 pounds of other dead fish). The next month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added snakeheads to the species listed under the Lacey Act, making it illegal to import them or move them across state lines.
Despite the hype that year, not everyone succumbed to the Great Snakehead Panic of ’02. Jerry Trice decided to put snakeheads on the menu at Yin Yankee, the Annapolis restaurant where he serves as chef, co-owner, and general manager. “This is a natural, indigenous food for many people,” he says. “Everyone was treating it as an alien invader. We wanted to put a different spin on it.”
Yin Yankee seats about 60 customers in Annapolis’ touristy downtown, just a stone’s throw from the city docks. Trice describes the food as “Asian fusion” with an emphasis on seafood. Stylized fish sconces adorn the ochre walls, and a small aquarium has been affixed near the corner of the ceiling, in the same place you’d see a TV in a sports bar.
With his receding hairline and sleepy eyes, Trice resembles a young Bill Murray, right down to the dry sense of humor. When he served snakehead, he played it up by presenting the still-live fish to his customers for approval. “People would say, ‘Oh, no! That’s not real!’” he recalls. Trice even put out a sign that read, “We’ve got snakeheads. Chicks dig them.” Trice’s snakehead recipes included an Indonesian-style curry, a traditional Chinese soup, and a seviche.
Trice doesn’t think snakeheads are the threat they’ve been made out to be. “Why are people so naive about these fish? This is supposed to be a melting pot,” he says. He thinks that the snakehead was “caught in a perfect moment of hysteria. Anything that’s not born on U.S. soil is foreign, fearsome. It’s propaganda. There’s a lot of other stuff we could ban besides this freaky little fish.”
While serving them to customers, Trice got a taste of how freaky snakeheads could be. “It’s a bony fish, so I had to fillet them,” he says. Once, after he had carved a fillet off what he believed to be a dead fish, it jumped. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he says.
He got another lesson in snakehead tenacity in the alley behind his restaurant. He points to a spot where he once placed a Styrofoam cooler of snakeheads. He weighed down the cooler lid with a brick and left the fish alone for a while. When he came back, the lid was askew and one snakehead was missing. He found it 15 feet away. “He was heading for [the city’s] 100-year-old sewage system,” says Trice. He recalls the fish moving overland not by walking but “sidewinder style.”
Diners at Yin Yankee gave snakeheads mixed reviews. But that’s not why Trice stopped serving them: Obtaining the fish proved too much trouble. The nearest source Trice could find for live snakeheads was in New York City; whoever got them for the restaurant would return via Amtrak with the fish flopping around in a Styrofoam bin. “We could get frozen snakeheads, but they had a different flavor and texture,” explains Trice. “Live fish taste great.”
Today, a photo on the wall of the restaurant’s restroom shows Trice standing on the sidewalk out front, smiling and holding a basket of snakeheads. As for the proposed ban, Trice thinks it’s “more nonsense designed to protect you from yourself. The last thing we need is more law. Instead, we should make this the state fish.”
Ruth Hanessian has her own beef with Maryland’s proposed ban. “The snakehead is a penny-ante issue in the larger picture regarding invasive species,” she says. Hanessian not only owns her own pet store, Animal Exchange, in Rockville, but she’s also president of the Maryland Association of Pet Industries (MAPI).
On the day I visit Hanessian, I bring along two small fish that I’ve purchased live in a nearby Asian market. Because the grocer could not give me the English name, I ask Hanessian if they might be baby snakeheads. “Of course not!” she says, laughing at my naiveté. “But let’s find out what they are!”
Plastic bag of fish in hand, she strides out of her store and up the sidewalk to a nearby Chinese restaurant. The Chinese restaurateurs confirm that the fish are not snakeheads, though they also cannot supply an English name. On the way back to her store, Hanessian reminds every neighbor she sees—the guys coming out of the gun store, the Armenian grocer, random kids—that she’s looking for someone who owns a snakehead. A teen in black T-shirt and pentagram necklace thinks he knows a guy with one. “Tell him to give me a call!” she urges.
Hanessian has been looking for a snakehead owner since May, when Maryland officials started talking about a ban. As head of MAPI, she plans to attend a July 7 public meeting on the ban and make a case for a grandfather clause. But without a snakehead owner present, the DNR can say that snakeheads aren’t really a popular pet animal and no one will be affected by the ban.
Despite MAPI’s statewide network of pet stores, finding an owner who wants to speak out has proved tough. After all, owners face a Catch-22: If they speak and the ban goes forward in its current form, the state will know they own snakeheads—and where to find them.
And Hanessian doesn’t hope to find just any snakehead owner—she wants one who will be presentable at a public meeting. Being predators, snakeheads attract those who enjoy watching fish eat other fish—and posting pictures of the spectacle on their Web sites.
Snakehead owners are easy enough to find in cyberspace, on message boards such as the ones at predatoryfish.net and aquatiqterrors.net. Posts range from pet-care advice to grousing about local laws that restrict the sale of snakeheads. Some posters revel in blood sport, such as the fellow who posted a video clip of his snakehead eating two mice. One message board, Dangerous and Aggressive Fish, is even decorated with rows of rotating skulls.
Hanessian characterizes the typical snakehead owner as an aggressive young man. “Let’s face it—no one who owns [a snakehead] will turn it in,” she says.
Nick does not fit Ruth Hanassian’s profile of a snakehead owner. He’s a 22-year-old guy, true, but if he has an aggressive bone in his body he doesn’t show it. He lives in Maryland, goes to college, and studies animal science. He speaks softly and intelligently on snakeheads and the laws that regulate them.
He refuses to give me his last name or to meet me at his home. “If snakeheads become illegal, you might be forced to tell them where I live,” he explains over the phone. We agree to meet at the pet store that put me in touch with him.
The next day, on a bench outside the pet shop, we discuss his dilemma. If he speaks at the upcoming public meeting, he will tip his hand to the agency that would enforce the ban. It’s currently scheduled to go into effect Sept. 13.
Nick tells me about the 400-gallon indoor pond that he’s created for Jake, his 28-inch cobra snakehead. He discusses a 90-day snakehead ban passed by Montgomery County, where he lives. The temporary ban, which went into effect May 18, includes an amnesty period in which snakehead owners can turn their pets over to the Montgomery County Humane Society. Nick has so far ignored it.
If the state ban goes into effect, Nick says, he’ll look for other ways to avoid euthanasia for Jake. “I’d try to get him into a university display area,” he says. He thinks that most people who keep snakeheads will just keep quiet.
“People are more likely to try to go around the law,” he says sadly. “I think most people have lost trust in the government.”
Inside, Nick opens a plastic container. There, in a few inches of water, floats Jake. Nick explains that cobra snakeheads are native to India and Sri Lanka, and can grow to a meter in length.
Nick puts his hand under Jake and lifts him a little way out of the water. “He may be a killer fish, but he doesn’t bite me,” he says.
In a flash, Jake changes color from brown to yellow. “They do that when they’re stressed,” says Nick. Yellow means stress; brown means relaxed. Jake changes back, and for just a moment his body displays both colors in broad stripes along his body.
A friend helps carry Jake’s container to one of the store’s many aquariums. Nick wraps the fish in a small red towel and very gently lifts him from the water. Jake lands yellow but soon eases back to brown. Under the aquarium lights, small white dots sparkle along his flanks. Nick points to a white circle on Jake’s tail, which he says sometimes turns orange.
The store’s employees gather around for a look. “Pretty fins,” someone says. Jake’s face is broad, like an overweight cat’s. When he decides to move in reverse, ripples run up his long dorsal and anal fins.
A store customer wanders over wide-eyed. “Is that one of those fish-heads?”
At DNR headquarters in Annapolis, Early stands by his support of a simple ban without a grandfather clause. “Identification of the fish is problematic,” he says. Twenty-eight species, each of which goes through several stages of life, add up to a lot of subtle differences.
And although the tropical breeds couldn’t survive this far north, “other areas of the country could serve as year-round homes for the tropicals,” says Early. “We’re trying to block a pathway through Maryland.”
On the wall of Early’s office hangs what appears to be a taxidermied fish mounted on a plaque. It is, in fact, a cast of an 18-inch snakehead that the DNR pulled from the pond in Crofton, just a few miles away from Early’s office in Annapolis. “I know this same fish is hanging in at least one other person’s office,” he chuckles.
Early explains that the public meeting on the ban is not actually required by law—DNR officials have scheduled it because they want input from the public. But he also wants to educate the public about the danger he and his colleagues see.
“[Snakeheads have] the potential for rapid population growth and displacement of desirable native species,” he says. “There’s only so much room in the ecosystem. If something gets in, it pushes something else out.” He points out that local waters provide spawning areas for striped bass and nurseries for American shad.
“Some introduced species are innocuous. Some are even beneficial, like the honeybee. But some are very harmful, like the Asian clam,” says Early. “We don’t know whether the threat posed by snakeheads will play out on a high level or not. That’s the problem—you just don’t know. If people have snakeheads, there’s still the possibility of escape or release.”
When it comes to a regulation banning snakeheads, banning some species but not others leaves a possibility for misidentification between snakehead species. In terms of formulating the regulation, Early says, “the simpler the better.”
Across the Potomac, John Odenkirk makes a similar case for Virginia’s ban. A fisheries biologist with the state’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF), Odenkirk has spent a lot of time looking for snakeheads this year, helping in the effort to determine if those in the Potomac River system have begun breeding. If they haven’t, there may still be a chance to prevent them from becoming established there.
One method of looking for snakeheads is gill netting—laying out lengths of net to see if any of the fish get trapped inside. On a warm June day, fisheries technician Scott Hermann hauls the gill nets out of Pohick Bay (where a snakehead was caught on May 27) and into a green, flat-bottomed boat. Odenkirk measures each one, noting its species.
Odenkirk points out that some of the fish they’re catching, such as the blue catfish, were not originally native to the Potomac. “In the 1800s, wildlife management was to throw something in and see how it did,” he explains.
Still, Odenkirk thinks the Virginia regulation is the right way to go. “The door is just too wide open now for bringing in new species.” He motions toward the water around him. “It’s a cesspool out there.”
It’s obvious that he doesn’t mean a cesspool of pollutants, as the Potomac was in the ’70s (“a national disgrace” as Hermann describes it). Today, signs of a healthy water system are everywhere. Odenkirk is excited to see the phytoplankton at good, healthy levels. “The biomass is incredible!” he says. “The whole system is a bass factory.” But after centuries of throw-it-in-and-see-how-it-does management, the river is a cesspool in a genetic sense, with species that evolved on different continents now living side by side in the same water.
Stable ecologies exist in balance, with different species eating and being eaten at rates that maintain their populations and keep their numbers in check. A side benefit of Odenkirk’s snakehead hunts is the data he’s collected about other species: They are giving him an up-to-date peek at the intricate dance of life beneath the water’s surface. Though he likes what he sees, it could be better. “There’s too many gizzard shad,” he says. “I’d like to see more sunfish.”
A breeding population of snakeheads might send the whole system spinning out of control. Then again, it might not. The only way to find out know for sure would be to let the snakeheads run wild—and no one, not pet-store owners, not government officials, certainly not the wary public, wants that to happen. The conflict is over which regulations will best discourage the release of snakeheads, and how to enforce them.
In the case of Seymore the Snakehead, Blaeuer thinks that the enforcement of Virginia’s ban was unnecessarily sloppy, deceitful, and downright cruel.
On Jan. 1, 2003, the DGIF, using its regulatory powers, instituted a ban on snakeheads. In February, the state legislature passed a bill that also included a snakehead ban. The legislators declared that, because an emergency situation existed, their ban could go into effect even before the governor signed the bill into law. (In fact, snakeheads were not found in the wild in Virginia until more than a year later.)
Blaeuer says her store did not receive a notice from the state when the ban went into effect. Because of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s ban on importation and interstate transportation, her store had stopped selling snakeheads in 2002. But because Seymore was a store pet, she saw no reason not to leave him on display for the benefit of visiting children and others interested in the Maryland monster fish.
In March 2003, Blaeuer read about the ban in a Washington Times article that reported an arrest for possession of and attempt to sell snakeheads at a Richmond pet store. The article stated that current owners could get a permit from the DGIF, which struck her as a reasonable solution.
Someone from her store called the department and explained about Seymore, only to be told that the state was not, in fact, issuing permits. Snakeheads were being seized and destroyed.
Blaeuer quickly wrote a press release and faxed it to her representatives in the state legislature as well as Gov. Mark Warner. “I was pretty obnoxious about it,” she recalls. “I sent it everywhere.”
In her press release, Blaeuer wrote:
This law seems to be setting a scary precedent. Because of 1 species of fish that caused mass histeria [sic] in this area, an entire genus of fish has been banned because nobody even bothered to differentiate between the species….We would like to at least be given the opportunity to place him in an exhibit in one of the local aquariums to preserve his life. Killing “Seymore” would be traumatic to many of the children who know him, especially to all the ones who have come here on field trips and know Seymore by name. What kind of example does that set for them? That the government can suddenly decide that your pet must die?
But the press release couldn’t undo the damage already done. Because Super Pets had tried to follow what it thought was the law and called to obtain a permit, the state now knew where to find Seymore.
A ban on pet animals may have an effect markedly different from the one intended. People love their pets—if they’re suddenly illegal and marked for death, the owners may decide to release them into the wild to give them a fighting chance at survival.
It’s not surprising to hear that argument from pet store people such as Hanessian and Blaeuer. It’s different when you hear it from Ira Palmer.
Palmer is program manager for the D.C. Fisheries and Wildlife Division. Like his counterparts in Maryland and Virginia, he’s been following the snakehead situation closely. He hasn’t yet instituted special searches for snakeheads, but his division’s regular fish-monitoring activities—routinely analyzing species found at eight checkpoints in the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers and connected waterways—provides a pretty good picture of fish life under his jurisdiction. As far as he knows, D.C. remains snakehead-free.
But he expects the situation to change. When I ask him to rate, on a scale of 1 to 10, the likelihood of a snakehead appearing in D.C. before the end of the summer, Palmer puts it at 6 or higher.
“Snakeheads are not a schooling fish, but they’ll stay within an area until forced to move,” says Palmer. “They tend to spread out if the population grows. If enough fish are there, they’re within range of D.C.” The more fish, the greater the likelihood they’ll spread upstream.
Palmer finds this spring’s sequence of events interesting. In April, a single snakehead was found in Pine Lake in Wheaton. Then Maryland began discussing a ban. Then snakeheads showed up in the Potomac.
“Based on [snakehead] behavior and the locations they’ve been captured in the Potomac, I’d guess they were released from somewhere in Maryland,” says Palmer. “It could be that some individuals got scared of a possession charge and didn’t want to go through the hassle of disposing of them.”
Early doesn’t buy that theory. He points out that northerns are valued as a food fish in the Asian community. Plus, the Maryland ban is not yet in effect. “Whoever had them could have legally sold them or eaten them,” he says. “That theory raises more questions that it answers.”
So where are the Potomac snakeheads coming from? No one knows at this point. Samples of their bodies have been sent to the Smithsonian for genetic testing, which may show them to be relatives of either the Pine Lake snakehead or one of the Crofton snakeheads. (Maryland put some on ice just in case.) Such a relationship may suggest who dumped the fish and why.
However, the “why” may not matter to snakehead owners in D.C. if Palmer’s prediction comes true and snakeheads show up in District waters. “I see D.C. following the pack,” says Sean, a Northwest resident who has kept snakeheads for nine years.
Sean (who like Nick declines to give his last name) currently owns a 26-inch eyespot snakehead (another yellow-and-black, color-changing species) and six dwarf snakeheads, the largest of which is about 4 inches in length. “Even if you have to ban the full-sized snakeheads, don’t ban the dwarves,” says Sean. However, he has a contingency plan: “If I was forced to get rid of my fish, I’d eat it. It’s supposed to be a delicacy.”
Live snakeheads may be contraband, but there’s no prohibition on dead ones. In fact, Tran sells whole frozen snakeheads in his store in Falls Church.
I select one about 18 inches long, several inches thick in the middle. Frozen, it is as solid as a Louisville Slugger. It comes in a kind of plastic sleeve; the label says it’s imported and distributed by Eastland Food Corp. in Columbia, Md.
In a bit of marketing savvy, Eastland carefully avoids the negative publicity associated with the word “snakehead.” The plastic wrapper is printed with large red letters that read “FROZEN MUD FISH.” Beneath that in yellow is the Vietnamese name: CA LOC. In between, also in yellow, is “POISSON A TETE DE SERPENT.”
I ask Tran for cooking tips, and he suggests galanga, a kind of Asian ginger, which he says will draw out some of the fishy smell. He adds that snakehead are not a big seller in his store. “My customers are mostly Filipino now,” he says. But snakeheads sold well before local demographics shifted and the Vietnamese community drew closer to Eden Center, the huge complex of Vietnamese shops and restaurants at Seven Corners in Falls Church, Va. (Later, I visit Eden Center and discover that every Vietnamese market there stocks frozen snakeheads.)
The next day, in my back yard, I lay my snakehead, now thawed, on a table and fire up the barbecue grill. I slice open the plastic sleeve, but before I can remove the fish, slime pours out onto the table. Lots and lots of slime.
I rub the snakehead vigorously under a garden hose until I can grip it well enough to gut it. Inside, it looks unlike any fish I’ve ever cleaned. But then it should—I’ve never cleaned an air-breathing fish before. I slice off the head and tail, then slice the body into two sections. I now have two open-ended pouches made from the snakehead’s body, with the scales still attached to the outside.
I stuff one pouch with a concoction of chopped red onion, chopped galanga, and sliced lemongrass. I rub the other pouch with red Thai curry. In a tip of the hat to Tran’s army buddies, I wrap the pouches in banana leaves and place them directly onto the coals of the grill. (However, I forgo the mud.)
When I finally grab the two banana-leaf packets out of the coals, the fish scales that formed the outer layer of the fish have been charred black. So has the outermost layer of meat. But the uncharred meat is bridal-white and firm. It does not flake at all, and it has almost no aroma.
Remembering Trice’s observation that the snakehead is a bony fish, I pinch just a bit of the flesh and pop it into my mouth. It’s chewy and a bit oily, but not in a bad way. It has the same teeth-sticking quality as a good, fat salmon, though its taste seems more like that of catfish.
The oiliness gives it a stick-to-your-ribs quality. If you had to go long periods between meals, this would be your fish.
T he motive of the person or persons who dumped northern snakeheads into the Potomac remains a mystery. Was it, as it has been suggested of the Crofton release, a case of good intentions going awry? An act of ignorance? A prank? Someone’s attempt at 18th-century-style ecological engineering? Answering these questions will be difficult unless the culprit or culprits come forward.
However, unintended consequences continue to spin off in every direction. The dumping of northern snakeheads into the Potomac has created a danger for Jake the Snakehead, just as the Crofton incident created danger for Seymore the Snakehead last year.
Blaeuer says that on Thursday, March 6, 2003, an officer from the enforcement arm of the DGIF called her at Super Pets. She recalls that he wanted to stop by to discuss her request for a permit for Seymore, and that she agreed.
The next day, two DGIF officers arrived and told Blaeuer that they had come to seize and kill Seymore. Blaeuer asked them to leave and come back with a warrant. However, because Super Pets is a retail business, the officers did not need a permit.
The officers, Mark B. Diluigi and Ray Solomon, were armed. Had she tried to stop them, she could have been charged with impeding a game warden’s official duty. (She says she was also told that if she touched Officer Diluigi while he was taking her fish, she would be charged with assaulting an officer.)
Blaeuer says she tried to contact Diluigi’s superior, but he was at lunch. The two officers loaded Seymore into a cooler. Blaeuer persuaded the officers to take a battery-powered air pump—she wanted Seymore to stay alive while she made her case to someone higher up in the chain of command.
But in the end, her efforts proved futile. No one at Super Pets ever saw Seymore again. Dabney Watts Jr., a regional manager for law enforcement at the DGIF, says of Seymore: “As humanely as possible, it was disposed of by cutting his head off.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Charles Steck.