Category: Snakehead

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.”

A fish for a code yellow age

I don’t want to be alarming, but we have a code yellow fish living in the Potomac River. To be clear, this fish is not actually yellow, like a yellow perch. Rather its yellowness corresponds to the level of threat that it poses to the public.

It’s like the yellow in the color code system invented by legendary handgun expert and advocate Jeff Cooper. His aim was to help home defense enthusiasts define levels of mental preparedness needed to fend off a potential attack. In a state of code yellow you are aware that you are living in a dangerous world, particularly if you’re in an unfamiliar place among people you don’t know. Keep your finger close to the trigger.

Clearly, there’s nothing wrong with being prepared for the worst. We owe our existence today to distant code yellow ancestors who kept their spear no more than an arm’s length away, ready for the saber toothed tiger that could be lurking behind the next tree.

But mental preparedness can also mean questioning the threat levels themselves. Is the threat real? And if it is, what can I do to defend myself?

The code yellow fish we will meet can help answer these questions. As we’ll see, this fish is not just the target of warnings issued by governmental and scientific authorities, but it is actually issuing warnings of its own by gleefully changing colors like a chameleon. Much like a trickster, our code yellow fish is inviting us to examine what we believe to be true and why we believe it.

Burt the Turtle. First lets take a short journey through the history of code yellow, at least in my lifetime. It started with Burt the Turtle and “duck and cover.” While it sounds on the face of it like wetland ecology,the subject was deadly serious:  surviving a nuclear attack.

It was back in the 1950s in Roaring Brook Elementary School. The teacher turns on a flickering movie called Duck and Cover. There’s Bert, an amiable cartoon-strip turtle. Burt says that when you see a nuclear fireball, you must duck and take cover. He demonstrates by pulling his head and legs into his shell. When the emergency drill alarm sounds I dive under my school desk and huddle there until the all clear. As people say now, the 1950s was an idyllic time in the life of our country.

Code yellow meant that . . .
actually we didn’t really know.

Thankfully the little wooden desks were never put to the ultimate test. But 50 years later, 9/11 put the government back in the business of preparing Americans for the worst. This meant creating a system of five colored bars stacked one on another, each of which represented a level of terrorism threat, from green (low) to red (severe). The warning level never dropped below yellow, which stood for a significant risk of attack.

The color code system didn’t go well. People wanted to know why the threat increased from yellow to red, and then back again. Did the government have some actual information? And how are we supposed to react to the threat? Find a school desk and crouch under it? Worst of all, the color codes became the butt of late night comedy shows, such as when Saturday Night Live hosted Homeland Security Chief “Tom Ridge.”

Arming up. Then came the Obama administration, and millions of Americans again scrambled to face a new code yellow alert. The government will take away our guns, the NRA warned them. Firearm sales skyrocketed, assault rifles doubled in price, and ammunition grew scarce and sometimes unobtainable. Men—and women!—flocked to self-defense schools. All across the country otherwise sensible people put loaded handguns in to their night table drawers to fend off criminals, terrorists, aliens, or whatever.

We now have a president whose hair shifts between yellow and orange, like a squid signaling the presence of a predator. We face grave threats, Trump tells us. Waves of Islamic terrorists are crossing our borders. Mexican rapists are hiding in our alleys, behind every dumpster. NAFTA is taking away our jobs and replacing them with Mexicans and robots. We’re afraid, some of us because of the presumed threats, others because of the man delivering the warnings.

Enter the snakehead. A native of China, the Northern Snakehead turned up in Maryland pond behind a shopping center in 2002. Unlike the threat of nuclear war, terrorism, or saber toothed tigers, it was never really a threat at all, at most a code green. Like other immigrants, snakeheads found their place in local ecosystems. Fishermen learned to love them, Great Blue Herons liked to eat them, and snakeheads proved tough enough (like Mexicans) to live where most other fish would turn belly up.

Ye gads, it can walk on land!

But no matter, government and the media teamed up to paint the snakehead as a code yellow fish, right up there with Jaws and the toothy terrors of Animal Planet’s River Monster series.

A Baltimore Sun reporter was first out of the gate. “Torpedo-shaped and aggressive,” she described the snakehead. They “lurk in the deep [they actually prefer very shallow water],” she continued, “and gobble up every other fish in sight [yup, this is what most fish do].” It gets worse. The snakehead, she wrote, “will make quick work of native freshwater fish: white suckers and largemouth bass, sunfish, bluegills and crappies [all of which are non-native except for the first].” The clincher was that they breathe air and can live out of the water for a long time (true) and that they walk on land (they can’t).

Other reporters piled on. Under the headline “Freakish Fish Causes Fear in Md,” Washington Post reporter Anita Huslin dubbed the newcomer “Frankenfish.” She quoted a Maryland government biologist:  “It has no known predators in this environment, can grow to 15 pounds, and it can get up and walk. What more do you need?”

“Ferocious,” said the Milwaukee Journel Sentinel, “Voracious,” said CBS Evening News, “Most-Wanted,” said Newsday, “Fish from Hell,” was the front page headline on the NY Daily News front page. “Terror from the Deep,” said the Bangkok Post, which should have known better since Thailand is part of the snakehead’s original range.

‘They are coming for you.’ It probably didn’t help that the snakehead looks the part, as in, “Do you want something like that leaping out of your toilet bowl?” Its snaggly teeth and elongated body evoke our worst suppositions. Remember the animated film Finding Nemo? The snakehead is no Nemo.

Movie producers caught the scent. In “Frankenfish,” a human-eating monster is eventually killed in a plot reminiscent of Beowulf, except here the spinning blades of airboat perform the coup de grace rather than a magic sword. In “Snakehead Terror” fish pumped up with human growth hormones eat people and anything else in their way. The trailer: “They hide in the depths. . .they feed on your fear. . . and they are coming for you.”

In Swarm of the Snakehead, genetically engineered monster fish got tired of eating dogs and cats and went upscale to human flesh. (Reader beware: This film was billed as a comedy.) Any resemblance of its title to the previously published German science fiction thriller “Der Swarm,” (also about really angry fish) is undoubtedly a coincidence.

Wanted dead, not alive. Local fisheries biologists joined in. A Maryland Natural Resources website tells fishermen to kill any snakeheads they catch by “decapitation, evisceration, cutting out its gut or pulling out its gill arches,” raising the question who we should fear the most, snakeheads or fisheries biologists. Federal law imposed penalties for transporting or importing live snakeheads, including fines up to $200,000 and prison sentences up to five years. Authorities nailed wanted posters at waterway access points.

Nevertheless, snakeheads continue to extend their range. One Maryland biologist described a section of the canal that runs along the Potomac a “snakehead nursery.” From here, the fish could breach the inlet lock and invade the entire river system.

Tactical baseball bat. This same section of the canal became code yellow ground zero at a Snakehead Derby held last year by the state and its federal partners. The idea was to catch snakeheads and kill them.

The 100 or so fishermen I saw at the derby didn’t look much in a code yellow mode, although one did carry an aluminum baseball bat in addition to his fishing gear. They were just curious and eager for a chance to catch this now-famous fish. Only one succeeded, goading the fish to strike by fluttering a live worm in front of its nose in an imitation of an artificial plastic worm.

I walked upstream to the canal’s inlet lock. Down below my feet was a pair of massive wooden doors, the canal on one side, the river on the other. Across the river I saw a giant American flag ruffling grandly in the breeze. This is the Trump National Golf Club, the same Trump who vows to build a wall to keep out immigrants.

The wooden doors certainly looked formidable, solidly attached to fortress walls of stone and resolutely closed. But staring at the murky water below I could picture two small snakeheads—probably young dreamers (those Mexicans again)—moving slowly but determinedly against the gentle current. They approach the gate and hesitate for a moment at the spot where the two mighty gates come together—though not completely together. One fish winks to the other, and through the crack they go, up into a new waterland of opportunities.

Kill this fish by cutting, bleeding, or freezing

I recently came across a pair of posters on a tree by the Potomac’s C&O Canal at Riley’s Lock. The upper poster shows the familiar largemouth bass and warns any fisherman catching one to release it immediately.

The lower poster, solidly fastened with anti-rust screws, depicts a creature with a small head, boldly patterned body, and fins that run along its top and bottom. It looks like a fish that could have swam with the plesiosaurs, certainly unlike anything ever seen in this part of the Potomac. It’s called the snakehead.

Two non-native fish. Kill the first by cutting/bleeding or freezing, and report catches to the authorities. And the second? Release it immediately.

“Have you seen this fish?” the poster wants to know. It goes on to demand that if you do catch one, you must act immediately. “PLEASE DO NOT RELEASE,” the poster says. “Please KILL this fish by cutting/bleeding or freezing.”

Why does the Maryland Department of Natural resources want us to protect one fish and execute the second, no questions asked? The poster tell us. The snakehead comes from China. As a non-native, it will out-compete the Potomac’s natives and upset the river’s ecosystem. And the bass? This fish is the icon of the Potomac with a lineage that surely stretches back into the river’s misty past.

Except for one thing. Bass are not native to the Potomac either. Largemouth bass come from the southern US, and smallmouths from the Ohio Valley. What’s more, nearly all of the Potomac’s other fish that people know and love also came from somewhere else.

I took another look at the two posters. They’re not really about two fish, I concluded, one good, the other bad. The posters actually are about us.

Environmental heresy. Downstream from Riley’s Lock, not far from where the tidal Potomac runs past Washington, D.C., the American Association for the Advancement of Science was holding its annual meeting. Speaking at one session was Mark Davis, a biologist and expert on invasive species. Maybe he would clear up the paradox of the two posters.

Davis told the audience that in his view, much of the scientific-sounding debate over non-native, so-called invasive species, has little to do with science. Instead, it has a lot to do with personal belief and a kind of biological jingoism.

“Groups in society have different values,” he said, “and may come to different conclusions with respect to different species and the harm, change, or even benefits they cause.”

Yes, but what about snakeheads? Shouldn’t we be worried that such a fish could destroy our healthy Potomac River ecosystem?

This is how Davis put it:  “There’s no such thing as healthy ecosystem. When we refer to a healthy ecosystem, we’re talking about how we want the ecosystem to be.” Following this line of reasoning, invasives such as the snakehead admittedly do affect ecosystems. But the key point, according to Davis, is that some of the changes we like and others we don’t. It’s all about us.

You would think that evidence-based science would solve the matter of what’s good and what’s bad. But according to Davis, many scientists themselves are responsible for distorting the issue. “Scientists influence the decision-making environment by influencing the ‘valuescape,’” he said.  Take the statement, “genes from invasive species contaminate native gene pools.” This is what Davis could call hybrid language―seemingly scientific, but containing a hidden element of value judgment, in this case the loaded word “contaminate.”

“When we declare something as invasive and harmful,” he continued, “we oblige society to take action. ‘Get out chemicals, trample other plants, spray, spray, spray!’”

Borers and beetles. That said, Davis perfectly accepts the need to combat pest species—non-native or otherwise—when they threaten our health and safety or negatively impact ecosystem services on which we depend. “It comes down to change versus harm,” he said.

For example, the emerald ash borer is killing ash trees throughout North America. It originally comes from Asia. The mountain pine beetle is devastating pine trees across Western North America. But this second bug is a native. Which is worse?

In some cases the “valuescape” contains “facts” that seemingly come out of nowhere. For example, even respected authorities perpetuate the notion that invasive species are the world’s second greatest extinction threat (after habitat destruction). “This is cited thousands of times,” said Davis, adding that it is “sometimes not even cited, just repeated as fact.” He noted that this “fact” originated in a scientific article by a respected ecologist at Princeton. The article itself didn’t rank extinction threats, but instead merely reported on what people thought were threats. In fact, the article stated that its conclusions were based on little or no empirical data.

Attitude management. The reason the snakehead ended up on the wanted poster may be because our attitudes about invasive species were formed in previous generations, said Davis. The proponents of these attitudes today are typically people in their later years.

“Kids are now growing up in a completely globalizing world, surrounded by people and cultures from all over, he continued.” Davis advised that rather than trying to manage new species, we should be learning to manage our attitudes towards them.

In addition there are the high costs of insisting on our beliefs. “We simply don’t have the money to eradicate every species we don’t like,” Davis said, “even if we could.”

“And we certainly don’t have the luxury to use public money to fund personal preference,” he added. “We should reserve our resources to try to eliminate species that threaten human health or cause economic harm,” he said.

Given all of this, it seems ironic that public money is even now being spent on helping  non-native species get a finhold in the Potomac. Among them are the muskellunge, walleye, and rainbow trout. In the Potomac, many of our most beloved fish got here because people (and government agencies) believed that they provide better sport or better eating than the natives.

Maybe so. Certainly an introduced bass is more fun to catch than a native white sucker. But how about rolled in breadcrumbs and baked? From the culinary reports I’ve read, this honor must surely go to the snakehead.