A Potomac alien gets its green card

I went down to the C&O Canal along the Potomac River on New Year’s Eve to pay tribute to a group of immigrants that had achieved an important milestone in 2017.

I’m not taking about America’s Muslims, Mexicans, Syrian refugees, or Dreamers, all of them targets over the past year of Donald Trump’s nativist attacks. None have anything to celebrate except their resilience and determination.

It turns out that the immigrants I had come to honor were not people, but fish.

On a day like that I didn’t actually expect to seen any. An icy wind lashed my face as my feet crunched along the frozen path. Even worse, there was hardly any water in the canal. It looked like a ditch. The only signs of life were sparrows chasing wind-blown seeds on the frozen puddles. But I knew my fish were out there buried somewhere in the mud, waiting out the winter.

I marveled at their toughness. They can adapt to just about anything, much like immigrants everywhere.

Come spring, some of them will slip through the crack in the intake gates at Violette’s Lock. From there they will push upstream to the west, through the rolling hills of the Piedmont and toward the distant mountains. They will find new places to live, good things to eat, and unforeseeable ways of getting eaten.

Tough, adaptable, restless: They seemed the very embodiment of the American spirit.

Fake news fish. In case you haven’t guessed already, my fish is the snakehead, or more precisely, the Northern Snakehead, known in scientific circles as Channus argus. I’ve followed the American adventure of this East Asian native since its appearance in 2002 in a pond behind a shopping center in Crofton, Maryland. As with many immigrants, its arrival was met with panic and paranoia.

They became the target of insults and name-calling, which is not surprising for a fish labeled “snakehead.” Even a Mafia hit man would blush at such a name.

Local reporters picked up the story and pretty soon the snakehead was dragged all over the national news, and even onto late night comedy shows. Writers who knew little about nature and nothing about fish took a handful of facts and turned them into a monster. Snakeheads grew big, are vicious, they have teeth. They can walk on land, breathe air, and are super tough and hard to kill.

Posters went up along local waterways: Wanted Dead Only.

It was code red fish alert. Unless something was done, the snakehead invasion would turn into an unstoppable fishkrieg.  The newcomer would decimate native fish species, and then lumber overland to devour neighborhood cats and dogs. They were the equivalent of Donald Trump’s Mexican immigrants–criminals, drug dealers, and rapists. For environmentalists, the new fish was an existential threat to “the ecology.”

‘Rip out its gills.’ First responders sprung into action. In a circus-like scene of reporters, cameras, and tee shirt sellers, state fisheries biologists launched a chemical attack on the Crofton Pond snakeheads. The campaign was a success, they reported. No fish in the 4.4-acre pond was left alive. The total cost was $110,000. The Nation’s Capitol heaved a sigh of relief.

Then snakeheads started popping up in ponds and streams everywhere. Government biologists and bureaucrats established new regulations and laws and ordered fishermen to mete out vigilante justice to any snakeheads they caught: Bash in its skull, freeze it, rip out its gills.

Came to (and then quickly left) a
theater near you.

B-movie producers raced to meet the demand for bad science fiction. Frankenfish and Snakehead Terror were released in 2004. Swarm of the Snakehead appeared in 2006, and Snakehead Swamp in 2014.

Of course, hardly anyone had ever actually seen a snakehead. But dragons and sea serpents, and monsters of all kinds, have been part of the human imagination for thousands of years.  People didn’t need facts to believe that snakeheads are creatures of the devil, right up there with Muslim bombers and Mexican criminals.

But despite all of this, today the fish is established throughout the Chesapeake Bay region. On the Potomac River snakeheads bypassed the Great Falls barrier, apparently by taking a detour on the C&O Canal.

Arm-wrenching strikes. While most people were getting their snakehead news from the media, some instead headed down to their local launching ramp to meet the fish in person. They went where the snakehead lived, paddling through thick mats of weeds and churning the mud bottom shallows with their outboard motors. What they found was startling.

Some were bass fishermen, like me. We had heard that snakeheads would decimate populations of that iconic (though also non-native) all-American sport fish. But we seemed to be catching as many bass as ever.

And on top of that, fishing had suddenly gotten a lot more exciting. My fingers would tighten on my fishing rod as a surge of water appeared behind my bait. The fish would strike with arm-wrenching force and then go airborne in an explosion of water and weeds.

Call it whatever name you wish, but the snakehead has become a prized game fish. “Doing any good?” I’d ask another fisherman as we paddled past each other. “No snakeheads,” he’d reply. “Just some bass.”

Surprise message. At the same time biologists were taking to the water with electroshocking gear, nets, and computers. One was Virginia state fisheries biologist John Okenkirk. I met him for the first time in 2011 at a lecture for group of bass fishermen assembled on the second floor of a local fire station. This was still back when snakeheads were assumed to be ecological enemy number one. His message took the audience by surprise: For whatever reason, bass populations appeared to be increasing—not decreasing—since the snakehead appeared on the local scene.

Odenkirk: The apostle of the
northern snakehead.

Odenkirk couldn’t hide his admiration for the maligned newcomer. He told how the snakeheads can bury themselves in mud to survive droughts. He described how the male and the female work as a team to guard their young.

He flashed a photo of a snakehead on the screen, its muscular flanks patterned brown and coppery. “That is some pretty fish,” he said. The men in the room nodded.

Just another fish. The snakehead was winning admirers, but its acceptance still wasn’t official. Then something happened this past year that didn’t exactly amount to permanent resident status, but it came close.

It was the same John Odenkirk, but this time in an interview he gave for an article in the May 2017 issue of Virginia Wildlife, the official magazine of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. In one sentence he popped the hysteria bubble of the previous 15 years.

“They [snakeheads] seem to have reached an equilibrium with the other fish in the river and they occupy a niche that was largely unfilled,” he said.

Article author David Hart summed it up:  “Snakeheads, it turns out, are just another fish.”

Massive wooden gates at Violette’s Lock
proved no match for snakeheads.

A real American.  My walk along the canal ended at Violette’s Lock. I stood on the wall of great sandstone blocks that anchored the intake gates. These massive wooden doors block passage from the canal to the upstream river system. If you believe in border walls, you would be impressed.

But snakeheads, like Guatemalans reaching the US border, are tough to intimidate. For several years fish have been moving through the crack where the two gates swing together. They swim along some little islands and log piles, maybe pausing in a thick bed of stargrass. There they might rise up to take a little gulp of air (yes, snakeheads do breathe air).

If they looked across the river they would see the Trump National Golf Course. They might even see Trump himself bouncing along in a little golf cart like a remote controlled toy.

Of course Trump doesn’t know about snakeheads and the intake gate at Violette’s Lock. He doesn’t know about the river, or even much about America and what truly makes this country great.

The image of a snakehead out there in the river, swimming westward would mean nothing to him. It would be left for others to say, “There goes a real American.”

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