DALE McFEATTERS: Let's swap snakeheads for rhinos
May 03, 2013 10:20 AM

About 10 years ago, a fisherman trying his luck in a pond in a distant Maryland suburb of Washington hauled out a truly disgusting-looking fish. We’re not speaking here as a professional ichthyologist, mind you; if you’re a fish scientist or a seafood chef, there’s no such thing as disgusting.

It was the first confirmed sighting of the northern snakehead, an invasive species from Asia, although biologists suspect they had been hiding out in the shallows of the Potomac River for two years before that.

By conventional standards, the northern snakehead was ugly verging on repulsive. They have small, flat heads with a mouth full of serious teeth; they are unbelievably slimy; can slither across dry land to find more salubrious surroundings; and, in the words of Virginia state fisheries biologist John Odenkirk, “They will eat anything that swims past their head.”

They can grow to be 3 feet long, and they breed like crazy. In most jurisdictions, it is illegal after catching one to do what would seem to come naturally — throw it back. Snakeheads have to be reported to the state fisheries department and then you have to take them home with you.

Snakeheads hibernate in the mud during cold months, emerging from the muck when the water temperature gets into the 50s. Then they come out of hiding and resume their life’s work of depleting the stocks of more desirable game fish, which they do by swallowing them whole. For all their fearsome teeth, snakeheads don’t really chew their prey.

They seem remarkably easy to catch. Fisheries biologists on the Potomac were pulling them in at the rate of 10 an hour.

The snakehead’s natural indolence and its diet of its betters in the fish world make for a firm, mild, white meat that is supposedly very tasty. (We’re taking other people’s word for it.)

Snakehead meat is popular around the Chinese New Year, when it’s made into a stew reputed to have therapeutic properties, and, indeed, The New York Times reports that a fishmonger catering to an Asian clientele being arrested at John F. Kennedy International Airport with 353 live snakeheads.

Unfortunately, the snakehead is remarkably peripatetic and recently cropped up in a lake in Manhattan’s Central Park. It’s only a matter of time before they follow flying Asian carp into the inviting ponds of Florida’s golf courses and Midwestern rivers.

Clearly now is the time for action, and it comes just as news breaks that the rhinoceros is now extinct in Mozambique, thanks to poachers who kill the animals for their horns, which are highly valued in Asia and China for their supposedly medicinal and aphrodisiac qualities.

The State Department, the CIA and the Armed Forces Radio in the Far East should start spreading the story that U.S. scientists have discovered an ingredient in the northern snakehead — but only those residing in North America — that makes male and female Viagra look like baby aspirin.

Smuggle a suitcase load of snakeheads back to Shanghai and you and your friends will be engulfed in sexual bliss. But, remember, only North American snakeheads. Accept no substitutes.

With the snakeheads gone, for the sake of ecological balance we could release some rhinos in the outer Maryland suburbs. Rhinos are solitary and shy; being vegetarians, they don’t eat all the desirable game fish; they breed very slowly; and as long as they don’t start dealing drugs in bad neighborhoods, they’ll be lot safer here than in Mozambique.

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