Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Can Invasive Species Become Welcome Guests?


I was sitting in front of the computer looking over some stories and maps of a future fishing trip. It was a species I have targeted before, but from a different means. I traveled to the Potomac River just south of Washington, D.C. to hunt the northern snakehead with bow and arrow by means of bowfishing equipment. I have since been enamored with the ‘Frankenfish,’ as it is sometimes called.

This coming trip, I wanted to bring it in with hook and line from the top of a kayak.

Each year, the Maryland fisheries division holds a snakehead tournament over a weekend in May. Prizes are given to teams which bring in the greatest total weight of the exotic fish. Chefs are on hand at the weigh-ins t show both the anglers, bowfishers, and spectators how to prepare what is likely to be one of the best fish plates one could ever taste.

The tournament started as a way to try and control the population as the snakehead has grown exponentially since its first discovery just a decade ago in a small feeder creek to the Potomac. The quick population explosion is what worried both biologists and sportsmen, as the fear of overtaking existing species such as shad, largemouth and smallmouth bass, and striped bass was more than they could stand.

While reading one report on the snakehead, there was mention about another invader of the Potomac; the largemouth bass. The story went on to tell of how the largemouth was first introduced in the 1800’s. That is where I became a little confused.

Snakehead from the Potomac River a few years ago.
You see, the largemouth bass was actually introduced. They were not brought to the area by mistake, hence, they cannot be a so-called invasive species. The northern snakehead on the other hand, was dumped into the waters of the area not as a way to add sport, control existing resources, or farm. It was dumped there as a way to get rid of the fish when it became too large for an aquarium. (Or so the story goes.)

Many times, we use carp as an example of invasive species. Indeed, in the upper Mississippi River they are. They have taken over the river and grown uncontrollably. They threaten to breach dams below the Great Lakes and the fear there is one of ecological horror. However carp in most lakes and ponds in the Carolinas are not due to their invasion of a territory. In fact, they were introduced as a manner to control certain underwater plants. There was a plan in place in their introduction. Most of these same areas went as far as to have carp that were sterile and unable to breed.

Sometimes, these same species can prove to be something else other than invasive as well. No one knew how detrimental the snakehead would be to the Potomac River. They could only go on a short range of data. But a decade later, with the snakehead as common as a bass, catfish, or carp, there has not been any proof as of yet that the other species’ populations have decreased. The snakehead may have found its balancing point, or at least be near it.

The snakehead has also offered a potentially beneficial means of funds for the conservation and preservation of other species and the overall environment of the Potomac River. There are guides that make their livelihood off of showing anglers where and how to fish for the alien creature. The wildlife and fishery divisions of both Maryland and Virginia surely gain sales of licenses from those such as myself that wish to chase such a unique and strange fish that are not found in their part of the world, but are illegal to possess alive.

In the somewhat words of a line in the movie Jurassic Park, nature finds a way. And many times, nature knows how to eventually reach the equilibrium of her species.

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