Broward canal yields dubious record – biggest invasive snakehead fish

03/14/2013 4:49 PM

03/17/2013 4:58 PM

The moment Kelly Gestring scooped up the strange, slithery fish from a Margate 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 as “Frankenfish” and “Fishzilla” over the years. Impossibly large fictional mutations have even starred in a few schlocky sci-fi 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 corraled 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 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.

“We knew right away,’’ said Gestring, biological administrator of the FWC’s non-native fish research lab in Boca Raton. “It was definitely the largest one we have ever collected.’’

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 snakeheads, predators that will eat just about anything and are generally larger than most native freshwater fish, could take a big bite out 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. And like the catfish, a few species purportedly can wiggle across short distances on land on their fins.

Like other exotics, the four species documented in the United States didn’t swim here. Federal and state wildlife managers believe they were likely 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.

Despite that import crackdown, as well as eradication efforts that have included poisoning small ponds and posting wanted signs urging anglers to kill them, the Northern snakehead is considered established in the Potomac River. Federal agencies report that one or more have been caught in Maryland, Virginia, Hawaii, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Gestring said the FWC also considers the bullseye snakehead permanently established in Northwest Broward. Scientists expect they will eventually escape into the Everglades but believe the warm-water species probably wouldn’t survive north of Orlando.

In the Northwest Broward canal system, they don’t appear to have wreaked ecological havoc, Gestring said. After a decade, there is no sign they’re doing any more damage than 22 other foreign fish that also have settled in Florida’s freshwater canals and lakes.

“What we’re seeing is that the native fish population seems to be holding strong,’’ he said. “We’ve not been able to detect any measurable impacts by bullseye snakeheads on any of our individual native species.’’

Shortly before stunning the big snakehead, for instance, biologists also netted a six- to seven-pound largemouth bass, a lunker prized by anglers, and released it unharmed, Gestring said.

Because of their size and strength, snakeheads also have become targets of fishermen as well, but the biologists didn’t put the record fish and others back into the canal. They were catching them last month as part of an FWC effort to promote consumption of exotics as a way to control them.

That’s a challenge with the snakehead, an unappetizing-looking oddity that resembles the native mudfish or bowfin — but with a rack of sharper choppers. During the Python Challenge awards at ZooMiami last month, chunks of snakehead samples were served pan-seared with a honey citrus glaze.

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