Snakes on a Plate: Snakehead Abounds, Except on Menus
Since the northern snakehead turned up in a lake in Crofton, Md., in 2002, the fish has loomed in the public imagination as a dark, monstrous invader. The presence of snakehead worried scientists, who knew that any invasive species poses an ecological threat; it concerned recreational anglers, who fretted that the snakehead, which has no natural predators outside its native environment, would eat up the region’s bass; and it inspired producers, who saw in the toothy, slimy fish—capable of surviving on land for several days—the stuff of D-horror movies.
With the area fretting about the snakehead’s dark properties, Steve Vilnit took on a tricky task: getting people to eat the things. Three years ago, Vilnit, the director of fisheries marketing for Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources and the region’s unofficial seafood czar, decided to market the snakehead to upscale eateries as an exciting and ethical dish to have on menus.
“Humans are great at getting rid of species,” Vilnit says. Getting chefs to serve snakehead would not only take some of the fish out of local waters, he reasoned, but if anglers ate it in a restaurant, they might be more inclined to fish for them recreationally. At the time, many fishermen wouldn’t touch them.
Three years later, the local snakehead scene finds itself facing an unexpected conundrum. Not only did chefs fall for the slimy snakehead; they literally can’t get enough of them—demand has outstripped supply. That’s not because the snakehead population has fallen. In fact, the snakehead has increased its presence by all possible measures, thanks to its prolific breeding and ability to escape capture. Somehow, the region has too many snakeheads, and not enough.
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In 2010, Vilnit approached John Rorapaugh of seafood distributor Profish about adding snakehead to its repertoire. Rorapaugh was easily persuaded after Vilnit took him out on an electrofishing trip for a little snakehead hunting. (The fish are stunned with an electrical charge before being caught.) “I was expecting to see a 12- or 14-inch fish,” Rorapaugh says. “The first fish we shocked and caught…it was 35 inches. It was huge. Probably 15 pounds. I was like, ‘woooow.’ It blew my mind.
“I said to Steve, ‘Hey, we need to have a commercial fishery for this.’ He said, ‘You got it.’”
Chefs were similarly impressed with the fish, which presented a sort of culinary hat trick. Serving snakehead benefitted the local ecosystem; the fish, with its scary properties and wicked-sounding name, brought an element of novelty; and it happened to be delicious. (The snakehead enjoys status as a prized delicacy in its native Asia and Africa—it ended up in that Crofton pond after a local man purchased a pair of snakehead from an Asian fish market to make soup for his ailing sister. She recovered before he could make it, and he eventually dumped the fish in a nearby pond.) Profish counts around 40 restaurants as snakehead clients (mostly in the D.C. region, but also, notably, at Gramercy Tavern in New York City), and plenty of A-list chefs like Del Campo’s Victor Albisu and Range’s Bryan Voltaggio have made snakehead dishes.
“It’s a great fish,” says Dennis Marron, chef at Poste Moderne Brasserie. Two years ago, Marron created a sort of snakehead ceviche, featuring citrus-marinated fish that had been lightly poached. The dish, offered as a special, won positive reviews from his diners.
“I think a good number of people ordered it out of curiosity,” Marron says. Once they got past the “weird hangups” that exist around snakehead—particularly the name—customers saw “what a lovely fish it was.”
At The Source, chef Scott Drewno experimented with curing, smoking, frying, and sautéing. “It’s pretty versatile,” he says. “It’s great. I wouldn’t serve it if it weren’t, sustainable or not.”
But snakehead isn’t currently available at Poste, and it hasn’t been on The Source’s menu in weeks.
“Supply is hard to keep up with,” says Marron, “especially for a restaurant of my size.” He hasn’t served snakehead since February. “I think we all assumed it wouldn’t sell well, and then it did, and they couldn’t keep up with it that well.”
Turns out snakehead is pretty hard to catch in large numbers. Rorapaugh says Profish moves between 6,000 and 7,000 pounds of snakehead a year. “It’s not a big number when you compare to salmon,” he says. (Profish sells 40,000 pounds of salmon a week.) Compare snakehead sales to blue catfish, another invasive species that commands less money per pound and makes for a less versatile fish in the kitchen: Profish has moved more than 300,000 pounds of whole blue catfish in the past three years.
Scott Lee, who runs a crew of about a dozen watermen out of Indian Head, Md., and sells to Profish, says it can be hard to know where to drop a net for snakehead, and even once the fish are caught, they can escape. “There’s only certain times of the year where they may know where [snakehead] are,” he says. “During the winter time, they’re more likely to group up in the deeper water, where it might be warmer, so you’re able to get them with the nets.”
And just because a snakehead lands in a net doesn’t mean it’s going to stay there. “They’re real good at escaping,” Lee says. “Even if you can get them in a net, they’ll find a way to get out. If there’s a little hole, they’ll find it.” A snakehead can even slip out of a tank after being pulled from the net.
“Carp can jump out,” Lee says, “but if a carp gets out, it’ll die. But a snakehead, they can basically crawl out of a tank. They’ll try everything they can to get out.”
When snakehead are spawning (which is often), they stick to shallow water where fishermen can’t drop nets. Currently, recreational anglers have the best chance of bagging them, usually with a bow and arrow. “They can fish in the shallow water,” Lee says, “and they can can see them on the surface.”
The price is high for snakehead—Profish pays a whopping $5 a pound for it, as opposed to around 60 cents a pound for catfish or $2.60 for tilapia—but the fishermen can only catch so many of them. In general, says Lee, a waterman can bring in more than 1,000 pounds of catfish in one day; a snakehead catch could be as small as 50 pounds, and a big catch would be 300 or 400.
“You just can’t get to them,” he says. “They’re not easy to catch. They’re very smart fish.” He adds, “I guess the problem is that we created more demand than supply.”
The high prices mean snakehead isn’t exactly a moneymaker for Profish or the mostly upscale restaurants who can afford it. Rorapaugh says he charges restaurants 50 cents more a pound than he pays for it. “It’s a very low profit margin,” he says. Selling snakehead is more of a “labor of love” for the distributor.
Drewno agrees that putting snakehead on the menu at The Source is more about principle than dollars and cents. “It costs me a lot to bring it into the restaurant,” he says. “For me, the snakehead, it’s not really about making money. It’s more like, let’s bring awareness. Let’s get people to try it.”
Even an expensive restaurant has to keep price in mind. Drewno served snakehead as an appetizer, to keep both portion size and price down. The dish retailed for $13, and even though it’s only been on the menu sporadically, got a lot of attention.
“There’s all sorts of media requests, guest requests,” Drewno says. “People are really starting to know what it is.”
Of course, when the BBC came calling to do a show on snakehead at The Source, Drewno didn’t have any of the fish on hand: “We had to kind of scramble and call a couple of people to get it.”
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The number of snakehead in the Potomac is difficult to pinpoint. Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources started picking up snakehead in its surveys of the Potomac in 2006, four years after it showed up in Crofton. “Since then, they’ve been recording the number and size of the snakehead we’ve been collecting,” says Joseph Love, a tidal bass specialist. The department measures population by relative abundance, size, and area. “All those measures have increased,” says Love. “Since they’ve been here, they’ve continued to reproduce and grow.”
So far, the efforts of Vilnit to get snakehead on local menus might seem unsuccessful in stemming the growing population of the invasive species. But Love says it’s not fair to look at the growing snakehead population as a sign that the department’s work hasn’t been effective.
“It’s just way too early to know if there’s been any impact,” he says. “In many other fisheries across this nation, we’ve seen harvest play a remarkable role in eliminating invasive species…The truth is we are using a technique that has been tried and true for many other fish species.”
Love is convinced that Vilnit’s push for snakehead in restaurants will eventually pay off. Maryland’s DNR has also invested in education and incentives for recreational anglers, including contests, videos on how to fish and kill snakehead, and training sessions, which Love believes has been a “huge success that has been downplayed.”
“The fishery itself is so young, and people are still learning how to fish them and where to fish for them,” Love says. “It’s hard to assess what that harvest is going to do to that population. Give it 15 years.”
Meanwhile, it’s unclear what snakehead is doing to the environment. “Unfortunately there’s not really a concrete answer for anyone yet,” says Love. “What we do know is that northern snakehead are invasive. By that very terminology, it implies an adverse reaction from the environment.” The snakehead do create competition for food with other species, and the U.S. Geological Survey recently announced that snakehead in the Potomac have contracted a virus known to be devastating to bass populations but with no apparent effect on the snakehead carrying it.
Vilnit acknowledges that eliminating snakehead in local waterways is a bit of an upstream swim. “I don’t think the harvest of them is having a huge impact,” he says. “That being said, any snakehead we can take out of the water is a good thing.” He plans to keep pushing snakehead “until the last fish is caught” but says it’s time to shift focus.
“I really need to focus on other fisheries that need the help,” he says. “Snakeheads have gotten enough love from me.”
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