Invasive fish species discovered in the Pamunkey River. What does it mean for ecosystems?

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While fishing in King William County, Desiree Nuckols caught the first Northern Snakehead in the Pamunkey River. The species has been seen in Virginia for 15 years.(Desiree Nuckols)

Casting out her line into a tributary on the Pamunkey Reservation, avid angler Desiree Nuckols was hoping she’d reel in a big fish wading in the cool water. Tugging hard on her pole, she had expected to find a small or largemouth bass waiting at the end of it.

But, as she reeled in her catch, she never expected to find a Northern snakehead. But she did, making her the first to be document in the Pamunkey River.

“This is the first reported case in the Pamunkey River but there have been rumors about more, which I’m sure there is,” Nuckols said.

With brown and black stripes lining its body and a slender head, the Northern snakehead is a recognizable catch. Originating in northeast Asia, it made its way to the United States through people looking to stock ponds and keep them as pets, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Fish Biologist John Odenkirk said.

In 2004, the fish made its first documented appearance in the commonwealth. Located in the York River’s many tributaries, the fish’s ability to travel both up and downstream it quickly colonized to streams and ponds.

Recognizing the fish’s potential threat to ecosystems, the federal and state government deemed it an invasive species as it could potentially place a strain on other fish species — specifically, Virginia’s bass population. But, after studying and documenting the fish for 15 years, Odenkirk said determining its effects on wildlife is not as simple as it seems.

“I first began looking at the fish 15 years ago when it showed up in the York and it sort of fell into my lap,” he said. “There is a lot of gloom and doom about the fish and people think snakeheads are comparable to feral hogs but they’re not.”

When Odenkirk began studying the fish, he said there was not a lot of literature on it. Setting out to find the best possible way to solve the problem, he turned to other states and other biologists to determine its effects.

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In the fish’s native region of the world, Odenkirk said there is a reverse effect. In Japan, people have stocked rivers with small and largemouth bass that have had an adverse effect on the snakehead population.

Contacting a biologist in Hawaii, where snakeheads are common, Odenkirk said they had not reported any issues to wildlife.

Before it was deemed an invasive species, comics and other print materials poured in telling of the fish’s ability to move on land, colonize quickly and with insatiable appetites, feed on all the available resources.

It is a resilient fish, with an ability to breathe on land and survive in cold temperatures which allows it to stay alive for long periods of time, Odenkirk said a lot known about snakehead species is steeped in uncertainty and fear.

In turn, groups across the region and surrounding states have formed hunting parties to eradicate the species every season.

Presently, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries protocol is to report any snakehead found by calling the snakehead hotline, 804-367-2925. The department encourages people to kill any snakeheads they catch. It is illegal to have a live fish in possession, according to the department.

Despite this, people run the risk of a misdemeanor charge if they choose to stock ponds and keep them as pets.

While the fish pose a potential threat to wildlife, Odenkirk said the population size is too small to gather data on its harmful effects.

“The bottom line is, after 15 years, we can’t figure out how snakeheads cause harm,” Odenkirk said. “It may cause ecological damage but we haven’t seen it yet.”

Source: https://www.dailypress.com/

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