RICHMOND – Lurking in the depths of the Potomac River is a wriggly monster that can grow to four feet long. With its sharp teeth, the snakehead devours other fish, and biologists fear it could spread across the country. It may not be the second coming of “Jaws,” but Virginia officials view the invasive species as a possible threat.
To keep the snakehead in check, Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon, has introduced a bill to increase the penalty for people who introduce the non-native fish into state waters.
Currently, the law only prohibits bringing snakeheads into Virginia; the penalty can be a fine of up to $500. SB 906 would make it illegal to take a snakehead that is already in Virginia and introduce it into another body of water. Under the legislation, violators would be charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by up to 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine.
Surovell’s bill easily passed the Senate last month and won a unanimous endorsement Wednesday from a subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources. Now it will go to the full committee and then the House of Delegates.
Surovell said the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries came to him last fall and told him that people were trying to move snakeheads around the commonwealth. VDGIF officials believed the threat of jail time would be a stronger deterrent than a fine.
John Odenkirk, a marine biologist who has studied the effects of the snakehead fish on the Potomac, agrees.
“We convicted someone three years ago, but that was a Class 3 misdemeanor, which was only a $50 fine,” said Odenkirk, who works for the VDGIF.
The snakehead, which is native to Eastern Asia, was first discovered in the U.S. in 1977. In 2004, the species was found in the Potomac River, where it spread to Maryland and Virginia.
Surovell said that so far, the species has not had a negative impact on the Potomac’s ecosystem. They have been feeding mostly on bluegill fish. Raptors, like hawks and eagles, have started hunting snakehead fish for food, coexisting with the invasive species.
“I think snakeheads are a much-maligned fish,” Surovell said. “They’ve got kind of a bad reputation when they first showed up, but they taste pretty good.”
Odenkirk said it’s too soon to determine if the species is benign or a threat to the ecosystem.
“There’s still a big unknown. We are down this road a little ways, but we still have a ways to go,” Odenkirk said. “They are coming into equilibrium, which often happens with a new species. We are hoping they run their course, but we are still not sure. There could be damage to the ecosystem if their numbers increase.”
The main problem, officials said, is people trying to introduce the snakehead into other areas of the state. Many people enjoy fishing for snakeheads because they require different lures and are trickier to catch.
While the species may be able to coexist in a large and busy body of water like the Potomac River, experts worry that it could do a great deal of damage in a smaller river or lake.
“The concern is that snakeheads have been completely untested in much smaller environments,” Surovell said. “So if you put one of these things in Smith Mountain Lake, it has an entirely different (effect) than it does in the Potomac.”
According to a fact sheet by USGS, snakeheads can threaten an ecosystem by eating up the fish population or becoming a direct competitor for food. Additionally, snakeheads can carry parasites and diseases that could kill local species.
Another invasive species that could threaten Virginia waters is the zebra mussel, which is banned under existing law.
According to VDGIF, the zebra mussel is native to Eastern Europe and first appeared in the United States in 1988. It wasn’t until 2002 that the mussels invaded Virginia waters. Odenkirk was the first person to verify that zebra mussels had infested the Millbrook Quarry in Prince William County, where people go scuba diving.
The problem was caught soon enough that zebra mussels were eradicated from the area. It was suspected that the mussels were placed there purposely to make the water clearer for better diving conditions. Odenkirk believes this because there would have been no natural way for the mussels to have gotten into the quarry. The evidence was only circumstantial, and no one was ever convicted.
The zebra mussel is harmful to ecosystems because it filters out microorganisms that smaller fish eat and can cover hard surfaces, including endangered freshwater mussels. Zebra mussels also cling to pipes in electric power plants and municipal water systems and destroy boat rudders.
By Amelia Heymann/Capital News Service
Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students participating in the program provide state government coverage for Virginia’s community newspapers and other media outlets, under the supervision of Associate Professor Jeff South.