Maryland pays fishermen to catch snakehead fish in Chesapeake Bay

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“Fish for cash” is the slogan of a program Maryland wildlife experts are launching to encourage anglers to catch, save and eat northern snakeheads, an invasive fish species whose numbers have swelled in the rivers and Chesapeake Bay in the DC area in recent years.

The $18,800 program, which is run by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), is designed to help experts get a more accurate count of the number of snakeheads captured. and eaten and whether policies to reduce their population are working, experts say.

“This is the first time we’ve donated money to register snakehead tags,” said Joseph W. Love, program manager for Maryland DNR’s Freshwater Fisheries Division. “We do this because we want to know how many snakeheads are harvested. This type of project and people’s motivation will help us obtain this information. »

Prior to the new scheme, Love said staff members would go to the docks and ask anglers how many snakeheads they had harvested, but that didn’t prove to be as effective since many snakehead anglers come out. at night to catch the fish, and the state agency did not have enough staff to regularly survey at night.

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

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

“We usually rely on their own desire to flag the label, but money is the best incentive,” Love said.

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

Northern snakeheads – one of about 30 species of fish – are native to Asia. They were introduced to the United States through aquariums and then people started selling them in the seafood market.

They were illegally introduced over 20 years ago into the DC area’s Potomac River.

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

Snake heads are unique. It is a long, slender fish that can breathe air through an air bladder like a lung and can live up to four days out of water if kept moist, experts said. They can grow up to three feet long and weigh 18 pounds or more.

They’re often called ugly, but anglers say they’re tasty and nutritious. However, they can be troublesome to other animals, according to wildlife experts and the US Geological Survey.

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

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

“Snakeheads eat similar prey resources to largemouth bass and other large ecosystem predators, but this could become a problem if there is little prey available.”

Like it or not, invasive ‘Frankenfish’ are still among us

The scientists said they want to determine how many snakeheads are in the upper Chesapeake Bay and how many are being harvested to see if their numbers increase and eventually overtake prey populations.

The Maryland DNR scored about 250 snakeheads this spring and plans to score another 250 this fall in the upper Chesapeake Bay. DNR officials said crews apply electricity to the water which briefly stuns the fish, which are then taken out of the water, tagged and released. The tags, which are blue or yellow, feature a reward amount.

An angler catching a tagged fish should note the tag number and then collect it and take a photo. Then they should call the USFWS at 800-448-8322 and give the information to wildlife officials. Once the scientists have reviewed the information, they will send a check to the fisherman.

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

Authorities have tried to encourage fishermen to harvest snakeheads, but they need to know, “Are people harvesting enough snakeheads to make a difference?” Love asked. “It’s possible that the population is so large and the fishery is so small that it doesn’t do any damage.”

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

Caz Kenny, a longtime boatman who runs a seafood business in Parkton, Maryland, said he hopes the tagging program will help reduce the population of northern snakeheads in the area.

“Tagging them and asking anglers to report where they caught a tagged one will help understand their movement,” Kenny said. “If we don’t control them, that’s all we’ll have. There will be no other fish to catch.

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