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Maryland offers anglers cash for snakehead fish from Chesapeake Bay

Scientists are trying to get a better handle on the number of northern snakeheads in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries

Caz Kenny, of Maryland, shows off a northern snakehead from a recent catch in Woolford, Md. The invasive species has become widespread in waters in the D.C. region. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
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“Fish for cash” is the slogan of a program Maryland wildlife experts are launching as a way to encourage anglers to catch, record and eat northern snakeheads, an invasive fish species whose numbers have swelled in the rivers and Chesapeake Bay in the D.C. region over the last few years.

The $18,800 program, which is being run by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), is designed to help experts get a more accurate count on the number of snakeheads being caught and eaten and to figure out if policies to lower their population are working, according to experts.

“This is the first time we’ve given out cash for recording tags of snakeheads,” said Joseph W. Love, program manager for the freshwater fisheries division at Maryland’s DNR. “We’re doing this because we want to know how many snakeheads are getting harvested. This type of project and incentivizing people will help us get that information.”

Before the new program, Love said staffers would go out to docks and ask anglers how many snakeheads they’d harvested, but that didn’t prove to be as effective since many snakehead anglers go out at night to catch the fish, and the state agency didn’t have enough staff to consistently do the surveying at night.

These fish can live on land and breathe air. Authorities suggest you kill them on sight.

The state is also trying to identify and count snakeheads in the Potomac River, but there’s no incentive. “We rely on people’s good graces to report,” Love said, adding that he hopes the reward program for the Chesapeake Bay will increase reporting rates.

“We rely on their own desire to report the tag usually, but money is the best way to incentivize,” Love said.

The program, which is underway and will run until 2024, is being offered to anglers who catch northern snakeheads along the upper Chesapeake Bay, which runs roughly from the Gunpowder River in the Baltimore County area to the Susquehanna River in the Havre de Grace area, and to the Sassafras River in Cecil and Kent counties.

Northern snakeheads are native to Asia. They were introduced in the United States through the aquarium business, and then people started selling them in the seafood market.

They were illegally introduced more than 20 years ago into the Potomac River of the D.C. area.

It is illegal to transport a live northern snakehead in Maryland and surrounding states. Anglers who catch one are encouraged to harvest it.

Snakeheads are unique. They’re a long, thin fish that can breathe air through an air bladder like a lung and can live up to four days out of water if they’re kept moist, experts said. They can grow up to three feet long and can weigh 18 pounds or more.

They’re often called ugly, but anglers said they’re tasty and nutritious. However, they can be trouble for other animals, according to wildlife experts and the U.S. Geological Survey.

“Snakeheads consume a lot of different prey,” Love said. “It’s like a human going to a Chinese buffet. There’s a lot of options on the menu, and we’re fully capable of consuming all of them. It’s similar for snakeheads,” which eat minnows, sunfish, perch and crayfish.

“If you eat all the egg rolls on the buffet but then there are no more egg rolls in the back, that’s a problem for the whole buffet,” Love said. “It’s similar in an ecosystem.

“Snakeheads eat similar prey resources as largemouth bass and other top predators in the ecosystem, but that could become a problem if there’s limited prey.”

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Scientists said they want to figure out how many snakeheads are in the upper Chesapeake Bay area and how many are being harvested to see if their numbers are expanding and if they’re possibly outnumbering prey populations.

The Maryland DNR tagged about 250 snakeheads this spring and plans to do another 250 this fall in the upper Chesapeake Bay. DNR officials said crews apply electricity to the water that briefly stuns the fish, which are then taken out of the water, tagged and released. The tags, which are blue or yellow, include on them a reward amount: Each tagged snakehead caught and harvested from now until 2024 could be rewarded with a gift card of $10 or $200, depending on the tag.

An angler who catches a tagged fish should write down the tag number, then harvest it and take a picture. Then, they should call the USFWS at 800-448-8322 and give wildlife officials the information. Once scientists review the information, they’ll mail out a check to the angler.

Officials said “only harvested northern snakeheads with reported tags will qualify for gift cards,” according to a news release.

Officials have been trying to encourage anglers to harvest snakeheads, but they need to know, “are people actually harvesting enough snakeheads that it makes a difference?” Love asked. “It’s possible the population is so big, and the fishery is so small that it’s not making a dent.”

‘At first it was shocking’: Angler nabs an 18-pound snakehead fish in the Potomac

Caz Kenny, a lifelong waterman who runs a seafood business in Parkton, Md., said he hopes the tagging program will help reduce the northern snakehead population in the region.

“Tagging them and then getting anglers to help report where they’ve caught a tagged one will help figure out their movement,” Kenny said. “If we don’t get them under control, that’s all we’re going to have. There will be no other fish to catch.”