A ferocious invasive predator first made its appearance in the Washington, D.C., area nine years ago, and it has taken that long to navigate its way into the northern sections of one of the largest river systems on the Atlantic Coast, the Potomac River.
Lester Thorton Jr., a local angler from Paeonian Springs, was fishing with friends April 25 near White's Ferry when he hooked a Northern Snakehead on his line, the first catch of the species on the Potomac River north of Great Falls, according to fisheries officials in Virginia and Maryland.
The Northern Snakehead fish, an invasive species native to Asia, has made its presence known in Northern Virginia and Maryland since being discovered in a Crofton, Md., pond in 2002.
Thorton's catch was estimated at about 2 feet long.
Maryland Inland Fisheries Assistant Director Donald Cosden confirmed the species of the fish when sent a photo of the catch.
All snakehead species are known for their sharp teeth, ferocious appetites and extensive reproduction.
"This would be the first collection we have seen above Great Falls," Virginia Fisheries Biologist and snakehead expert John Odenkirk said. "We originally expected to find the growth of the species to be limited from the falls, due to its geographical landscape, all the way down to Colonial Beach, because of the salinity of the water there.
"However, we have found juveniles to be able to withstand that salinity and we have now seen the species down into the Chesapeake Bay," Odenkirk said. "We were concerned about the C&O Canal system and if this is, in fact, a snakehead, that would be the odds-on favorite for its transport."
Cosden noted the species often moves during high tides.
"They really seem to move during high water both upstream and downstream," Cosden said. "We have found that these fish find their way over and through obstacles before, so this news, although disappointing, is not surprising.
"This catch opens a whole new territory for the fish," Cosden added.
The Northern Snakehead's presence has also been felt in other states, particularly Florida.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the snakehead is a non-native air-breathing freshwater fish that is threatening to the native fish and wildlife resources and the economic sectors that depend on them.
Their impact on the ecosystems is a reflection of their presence as predators with extreme appetites.
According to the USFWS, juvenile snakeheads prey on zoo-plankton, insect larvae, small crustaceans and the eggs of other fish.
As adults, they become voracious predators, feeding upon other fish, crustaceans, frogs, small reptiles and sometimes birds and mammals.
Odenkirk noted the species are quick to grow and have an undetermined reproduction cycle.
"These fish grow rather rapidly and, based on the estimated length, it was probably about 3 years old," Odenkirk said. "We are currently getting ready to enter their expected spawning season according to our research, and we are still trying to get an idea of how many times they reproduce in a cycle, because it could be more than once."
Odenkirk said a research project is currently ongoing with three federal and state agencies in the D.C. area.
"We are catching them and killing them for research, as well as tagging and releasing some for other data on migration," he said.
Both Odenkirk and Cosden said it is unlawful to possess a live snakehead in Virginia and Maryland, and urge anglers to kill the fish if caught. Virginia anglers that caught a suspected snakehead can call 804-367-2925. Maryland anglers can contact Cosden directly at 410-260-8287.