Protecting Our Waterways from an Invasive Species:
A Proposal for Reducing Snakeheads in Virginia Waters
Submitted to: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries
To be presented at the Board of Game and Inland Fisheries Public Meeting on August 22, 2013
Submitted By: Chase Kelly
The Pennsylvania State University
Date: 11 March 2013
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Major East Coast fisheries including the Potomac and James rivers in Virginia as well as other Chesapeake Bay tributaries have been invaded by a non-native fish species called the northern snakehead. The snakehead’s native range is Southeast Asia and Africa. The species is aggressive, adaptable, and dominating. Since its initial introduction in 2002 and 2004, the species has become established in Virginia waters, which could gravely impact these waters’ ecosystems. This proposal outlines a plan for reducing the regional snakehead population to be led by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. The two-part proposal suggests (1) increasing electrofishing by fisheries management personnel and (2) implementing a cash reward catch-and-kill program for anglers and fishermen. This dual approach to addressing the snakehead population problem will limit the growth of this species and reduce the negative effect on our native fish and aquatic resources.
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Snakehead Fish: An Invasion Is Underway
The presence of an invasive, aquatic species—the snakefish—into our Virginia waterways poses potentially devastating environmental and economic effects.
The mid-Atlantic region is known all over the world for its vast and rich fisheries, which include species like the popular blue crab. Fishing provides recreation for residents and tourists and represents a significant portion of the regional economy. Millions of dollars are spent every year by largemouth bass and rock bass anglers. Rock bass, or “strippers” as local lake fishermen call them, are heavily harvested, and commercial fishing relies on this excellent eating fish.
Fishing in Virginia has changed in recent years, though, because of the introduction of snakehead fish, a species native to northern China and eastern Russia. Snakefish is a popular eating fish among Asian cultures, which likely explains the species’ introduction into U.S. waters. The U.S. snakefish population probably resulted from fish from a live market being released into the wild. In 2002, the first snakeheads found in the Mid-Atlantic region were discovered in a local pond in Maryland, and since that time possession of live snakeheads has been deemed illegal (“Snakehead FAQs”).
Many exotic species have been introduced to local waters, but the snakefish’s unique characteristics mean that this fish poses a threat unlike other non-native fish. For many reasons, the snakehead species can adapt to a new area quickly. Part of their adaptability relates to their ability to reproduce at an extremely young age and at least twice per year. Snakeheads also have a versatile diet, eating a wide range of prey including other fish, frogs, crayfish, beetles, and insects (Santora). Additionally, environmental challenges do not take the toll on snakeheads that they might on other fish. For example, snakeheads are able hibernate in mud during the winter season, rely on a thick layer of mucus to stay moist when water levels drop, and are able to breathe air when living in waters with minimal oxygen (Clark). The snakehead has no natural predators and will remain the top feeder once established in an ecosystem. Collectively, these traits allow snakeheads to do more damage to our waters and local fish populations than existing predators. Not only do they feed on and reduce the food sources available to our native fish, but they will also feed on the adult fish of other species.
Snakeheads are a perilous presence in Virginia, as much for what we do not yet know about them as for what we do know to be true. The introduction and establishment of northern snakeheads could nearly eliminate the most sought-after native species that Virginia residents and businesses depend on for their livelihood and recreation. Allowing the snakehead to dominate our waters also threatens to alter the delicate ecosystem in our region, as biologists cannot yet determine the snakehead’s full impact on local waterways (Clark). What an altered ecosystem would mean is unclear, but risking such change would be unwise and unethical. Future generations deserve the right to enjoy the wonders of our state’s aquatic ecosystems and resources. In sum, the
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snakehead poses a potential immediate and long-term threat to our regional waterways, and this threat is one that we must not take lightly.
Snakehead Fish. Courtesy: Simon Fraser University Public Affairs and Media Relations (via Creative Commons License)
A Two-Part Plan for Monitoring and Maintaining Snakehead Populations
The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) should implement a rigorous plan for studying and reducing the snakehead population in state waterways. Reducing the snakehead population while actively learning about the species’ impact on Virginian waters is the most feasible and responsible plan for addressing the local presence of this invasive fish. The total elimination of the species may be impossible, and working toward such a goal would take an extraordinary physical and financial effort (Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation 12). Additionally, the state of Virginia likely does not have the money and resources to undertake an elimination project of this scope. However, a beneficial and relatively low-
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resource program can be developed to help curb the snakehead impact and to limit or maintain a modest population. I propose a two-part plan that would place more agency attention and effort on limiting the growth of the snakehead population.
Part 1: Electrofishing
Electrofishing has long been a preferred method of sampling live fish for conservation efforts and maintenance of native species. The process of electrofishing involves using special tools that send a small charge of electricity into the water. The voltage is just high enough to temporarily stun the fish and they float to the top. When performed correctly, biologists and fisheries personnel can easily recover fish for sampling and testing then release the fish unharmed once the testing is finished (Snyder 1).
I propose an increase in electrofishing efforts primarily on the Potomac River and, secondarily, in other Virginia water systems where snakeheads have been reported. Electrofishing in Virginia’s waterways was performed by researchers in 2007 and 2008 (“Northern Snakehead”) and may still be employed by the VDGIF in its ongoing sampling meant to “learn more about the ecology and biology of this exotic fish in Virginia” (“Northern Snakehead—Frequently”). An increase in electrofishing sampling will enable more rigorous study of snakehead populations and their potential impact on these waterways. The specific increase in electrofishing efforts will depend on the current program of electrofishing that is in place as well as VDGIF budget allowances—factors that I hope will be discussed at the public meeting at which this proposal will be presented. Nevertheless, the increase in electrofishing will have a relatively small impact on department personnel since they already have the proper training, experience, and resources to conduct this sampling method.
Part 2: Catch-and-Kill Reward Program
In addition to an increase in electrofishing to study snakeheads, a reward system for the catch and kill of snakeheads would also help reduce overall population growth. In 2012, Maryland introduced a $200 lottery-style reward open to anglers who caught and killed a snakehead, an initiative led by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (“Help Control”). Virginia should adopt a similar reward system.
Developing a catch-and-kill program would primarily involve three steps:
1. Create a page of the VDGIF website that will serve as a social media space in which anglers can post pictures and submit details of their snakehead catch.
2. Assemble a prize package that will help elicit contest entries. This prize package will depend on donations from sponsors and might include gifts from state parks and stores that sell fishing/recreational equipment and supplies.
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3. Develop a public relations campaign in order to spread information on the contest. Publicity for the contest should include press releases for regional and local newspaper, television, and radio stations. Additionally, specific outdoor-enthusiast publications, such as the VDGIF’s own Virginia Wildlife magazine, would be a perfect place to advertise this initiative.
I propose that a full-time intern or full-time AmeriCorps1 volunteer position be created to develop and oversee the initial contest. The intern or AmeriCorps volunteer would work in the VDGIF offices and could use the Maryland program as a model upon which to shape a Virginia- specific catch-and-kill program.
Overall, the cost of this two-part program should be moderate. The potential benefits of the program will likely far outweigh expenditures.
Why Take A Two-Part Approach?
As noted above, snakeheads’ unusual traits make the fish a very hard species to eliminate. But elimination is not the only way of addressing the problem of this invasive species in Virginia. Instead, this plan encourages education and behavior modification of anglers that might help keep populations of snakeheads in Virginia waterways at a manageable level. The reasons for this approach include the potential success of a regional focus, the shared responsibility of the state and anglers in addressing the problem, and the possibility of discouraging catch-and-release behaviors. Finally, the proposed solution represents a cost- and capacity-effective way of aggressively addressing the snakehead problem.
Focusing Regionally to Increase Likely Success
While we may not be able to eliminate snakeheads all together, nature may be able to help us limit the overall area in which they can live. According to studies conducted on the Potomac River by Virginia Tech University Wildlife Management students, snakehead population rates have been high over the several years since the species’ introduction. But the Great Falls, an area of rapids near Washington D.C., acts as a northern barrier for the snakeheads. Salt concentration levels could form a southern barrier less than halfway to the Chesapeake Bay (Northern Snakehead Working Group ii, 5). Since snakeheads are a freshwater species, these natural barriers could greatly limit the species’ impact on the Chesapeake Bay as well. This area of concentration, combined with researchers’ discovery of spawning locations, will make it easier
1 The AmeriCorps national volunteer program enables non-profit organizations and agencies the opportunity to hire full-time, short term “volunteers” to do work that benefits the local community and/or builds the capacity of the agency in service of such work. Volunteers receive a modest living stipend from AmeriCorps and the agency for their work.
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for VDGIF personnel to monitor snakehead population growth and environmental impact through increased electrofishing.
Sharing the Responsibility for Education and Action
This proposal challenges the state of Virginia to increase its efforts to learn about the snakehead species and the impact of that species within the state. Similarly, the proposal allows anglers to take part in efforts to address the presence of snakeheads in local waters. This dual approach maximizes the likelihood that a snakehead management program will be successful and sustainable. With better communication between the VDGIF and those who fish (facilitated by the catch-and-kill program advertisements and by anglers’ accessing the VDGIF website to enter the contest), education and information about snakeheads will flow more freely among those (researchers and sportspeople) who have an interest and investment in fishing. Also, an increase in electrofishing and species research on the part of the VDGIF will demonstrate the state of Virginia’s commitment to tackling this problem in an aggressive and systematic manner, spurring anglers to take seriously the threat of snakefish. Simply put, with more people aware of the snakehead problem and actively working to address it, the better the chance that the species’ population growth will slow or even decline.
Changing Angler Behaviors
By encouraging anglers to recognize the snakefish, better understand the species, and kill any snakefish they catch, this program has a great potential to alter catch-and-release behaviors that would only encourage further population growth. Many local anglers are reluctant to handle snakefish. Because these “Fishzilla” are slimy, have teeth, and have the ability to breathe air, many sport fishers avoid them or even fear them (Santora). With more education and better communication between researchers and anglers, some of the misconceptions about the snakehead can be put to rest, perhaps encouraging more people to look past the species’ strange appearance in order to handle them appropriately. In fact, with more education and exposure, anglers might even be more willing to consume the fish. Snakeheads are, after all, a preferred food fish in Asia. By incentivizing catch-and-kill over catch-and-release and by increasing anglers’ understanding of the snakefish, the VDGIF can modify angler behaviors in ways that will help reduce the overall snakehead population.
The plan outlined here is the cost-effective, environmentally responsible, and sustainable. Although the VDGIF could use aquatic pesticides to kill snakeheads as was done in New York state (Santora), doing so would require additional labor and supplies and would introduce chemicals to targeted bodies of water. Instead, this proposal relies on the natural water boundaries of this region that work to our favor in order to limit the expansion of a specific population of snakeheads. The proposal also maximizes the resources already available at the VDGIF. Additionally, creating one intern or full-time AmeriCorps volunteer position to implement the award program is a measured and cost-effective way to jumpstart a catch-and-kill
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initiative. The position would provide someone with a valuable professional experience in replicating the Maryland award program and adapting it for Virginians. This project would be a feasible goal for such an intern or volunteer, and if successfully implemented, could be later replicated by paid staff.
The snakehead invasion in our waters has begun. As the state agency tasked to “maintain optimum populations of all species to serve the needs of the Commonwealth” (“About VDGIF”), the responsibility for addressing the snakehead problem ultimately rests with you. This proposal suggests a two-part plan for limiting the snakehead population—a plan that encourages those fishing in Virginian waters to assume an active part in addressing this issue. Increased electrofishing efforts will allow our state to better assess the presence and impact of the species within Virginia. Angler rewards for the catch and kill of snakeheads will provide another needed boost to efforts to limit the effects of this predatory species, potentially helping to modify angler behavior in the process. By sharing the responsibility of dealing with snakeheads, we can make great strides in managing this population and preserving Virginia waters for generations to come.
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“About VDGIF.” Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Online. Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, 2013. Web. 1 Mar. 2013.
Clark, Patterson. “The Stubborn Life of a Snakehead.” The Washington Post. The Washington Post, 30 April 2013. Web. 2 March 2013.
“Help Control the Spread of Snakehead Fish.” Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Department of Natural Resources, 28 March 2012. Web. 27 Feb. 2013.
Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. Rapid Response Plan for the Northern Snakehead (Channa argus) In Massachusetts. June 2005. Web. 3 March 2013.
“Northern Snakehead.” Northern Snakehead. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, n.d. Web. 1 Mar. 2013.
“Northern Snakehead - Frequently Asked Questions.” Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Online. Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, 2010. Web. 1 Mar. 2013.
Northern Snakehead Working Group. National Control and Management Plan for the Northern Snakehead (Channa argus). N.d. Web. 28 Feb. 2013.
Santora, Marc. “In Central Park, Hunt for an Intruder, the Snakehead Fish, Is On.” New York Times. New York Times, 30 April 2013. Web. 1 March 2013.
Simon Fraser University Public Affairs and Media Relations. Snakehead Fish. June 2012. Flickr. Web. 27 Feb. 2013.
“Snakehead FAQs.” Northern Snakehead. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, n.d. Web. 1 Mar. 2013.
Snyder, Darrel E. Electrofishing and Its Harmful Effects on Fish. Denver: U.S. GPO, 2003. Web. 3 March 2013.