Giant snakehead means invasive-species in Florida
MIAMI — The moment Kelly Gestring scooped up the strange, slithery fish from a Margate, Fla., canal, he knew he had a record in his net.
Gestring, a state biologist who monitors invasive freshwater fish, wasn’t exactly thrilled about it.
The 14-pound, three-ounce bullseye snakehead was a member of an exotic family of aggressive, fast-growing, razor-toothed air-gulpers that have earned considerable hype over the years. Impossibly large fictional mutations have even starred in a few schlocky science fiction movies.
The snakehead has never proven much of a monster in Northwest Broward, however, where it was first discovered in a lake in 2000 and remains corralled by the canal system’s flood-control gates and water structures. But the whopper of a catch in the C-14 canal, posted last month on the Facebook page of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, does show that the Asian invader population is quite healthy in South Florida.
If caught with a hook and line, the snakehead would have bested the all-tackle world record by 1.5 pounds, but Gestring and colleague Murray Stanford netted this one during an “electro-fishing” outing. The technique, which uses a low-level electrical charge to temporarily stun fish for population assessments, doesn’t count toward official sport-fishing records maintained by the International Game Fish Association.
The snakehead has caused considerable concern outside Florida, where the discovery of a close cousin to the bullseye, the Northern snakehead, spawning in a Maryland pond in 2002, triggered a media feeding frenzy akin to the one surrounding the Burmese python in the Everglades.
Scientists fear that snakeheads, predators that will eat just about anything and are generally larger than most native freshwater fish, could take a big bite out of local populations if they spread unchecked. The fish’s freakier attributes added to the curiosity. Much like the infamous walking catfish touted as a scourge of the Everglades in the 1960s, snakeheads can survive out of water for several days.
Like other exotics, the four species documented in the United States didn’t swim here. Federal and state wildlife managers believe they were probably released by aquarium owners or breeders for Asian seafood markets, where live specimens were illegally sold in the past. After the Maryland discovery, the U.S. government moved quickly to ban live imports of all 29 species — a step that many other states, including Florida, had already taken.