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Snakeheads, the Other White Meat

By Steve Chaconas


Snakeheads, the other white meat.


If thoughts of eating fish from the Potomac River don’t turn your stomach, then concentrations of Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs), should. PCBs are linked to cancer, skin irritations and lesions, developmental fetal impacts, and disruption in hormonal functions. Eating fish is the major PCB exposure source.


First manufactured in 1929, PCBs are man-made compounds used for a variety of industrial applications, including coolants and lubricants in electrical equipment. They’re also included pesticides, fire retardants, paints and coatings, printing inks, caulking, and wood treatment. PCBs were released into the atmosphere, water, and land through sewers, smokestacks, stormwater runoff, spills, and direct application to the environment. These toxins do not occur naturally and continue to be a common environmental contaminant because they don’t break down over time. PCB commercial use is restricted in the US.


PCBs stick to particles in sediments, like organic matter, clay, and micro-particles and can remain buried for a long time. They are slowly released into the water and build up in living organisms via food sources and by being in the aquatic environment. Fish store PCBs in fatty tissue and remain through the life cycle, returning to the bottom disseminating PCBs back into the environment, replenishing the food chain with PCBs.


Recently the Virginia Department of Health released eat or don’t eat fisheries data for the Potomac River. As expected, blue catfish, carp, and flathead catfish exceeded VDH’s upper level of concern. The VA Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), collecting fish from Potomac watersheds, based this data on 2016 studies. They issued two stage warnings: limit consumption of contaminated fish species to two 8-ounce meals per month, or at the highest levels avoiding consumption of contaminated fish species. Conspicuously absent from the warnings are the Northern Snakehead. None of the sample results exceeded VDH’s lower level of concern.


VDGIF biologist John Odenkirk is the leading Northern Snakehead expert in the US and likely in the world. He points to several reasons PCB levels are not as high for this invasive. First of all, adult snakeheads feed almost exclusively on other fishes. These are small fish and don’t contain a lot of PCBs. Low body fat, where PCBs are stored, is also a factor. A relatively fast growth rate leads to harvesting of younger fish before they accumulate toxins.


Characteristics inaccurately attributed to the Frankenfish are walking on land and attacking people or small pets. However, culinary accolades are true as this native to northern China and eastern Russia is a popular food fish, raised in aquaculture settings and sold in fish markets. The northern snakehead arrived as a live food fish in 2004. This illegal invasive has done well as numbers grew rapidly after the original colonization, however Odenkirk says trends suggest these increases have slowed or stabilized. It’s widely accepted that one probable reason for the decline in population has been the realization these fish make great table fare. Odenkirk is fairly certain that a high level of commercial and recreational exploitation, which includes the increase in bow fishing, has helped suppress numbers.


Wholesale fish supplier Profish in Washington DC is the primary supplier of snakehead meat. They describe snakehead as “fantastic white and flaky meat, always fresh when available!!” Availability is tricky as it’s difficult to selectively target by commercial fishermen, often a by-catch when fishing for other reliable species. Supplies are replenished by bow fishermen reportedly selling them for $6/lb. Virginia State law does not allow the commercial sale of this fish. Fillets range from 4 to 8 pounds.


A few local chefs are turning lemons into snakehead dishes. Laporta’s Executive Chef Douglas Laporta says the first time he evaluated snakehead meat, he was surprised with the texture and it reminded him of swordfish. It wasn’t a flaky fish, rather a tender but meaty fish. Serving samples to his customers, it surprised them as well as they expected something dark as these fish have been portrayed as a toothy fish monster. Instead, it is white and great eating. The Chef’s creative juices began to flow as this fish held up to a variety of spices and could be grilled, lightly floured and sautéed, or deep-fried. With tempura style cooking, it remains moist and tender. Served with an orange marmalade horseradish sauce, it is a patron favorite.

The light flavored fish can also be served lightly sautéed with a sweet soy sauce reduction and a side of spicy Asian slaw. Laporta’s test for most fish offerings includes a basic French butter wine lemon sauce reduction. According to Laporta, snakehead is sweet enough and has the right texture for nearly every recipe and based on demand and availability, he will be serving more in his family’s Alexandria restaurant.


Fortunately edible and lean Snakeheads are safe to eat and, in spite of its appearance, won’t bite back.
Potomac River Bassing in April


From now on, fish will remain shallow. Mann’s Baby 1-Minus will be a go-to lure on 12-pound test GAMMA Edge fluorocarbon line. Engage grass and snap free. This lure also comes through wood cover well. Also using lipless crankbaits on 12-pound Edge can snap free from grass.


It’s time to Texas rig Mizmo tubes with a 1/8-ounce bullet weight. Also drop shot and split hot rigs with soft plastics soaked in garlic Jack’s Juice will produce.


When water is clear, try suspending jerkbaits. For this, I prefer 10-pound test Gamma Copoly line on Quantum Smoke spinning reels. A few taps and pauses will get fish to bite.


Mann’s Classic 3/8-ounce willow/Colorado spinnerbaits with white skirts on 10 pound test GAMMA Edge line works in areas close to deep drops.


For creek mouth points and flats with deep water close by, use Mann’s Baby-X crankbaits to cover shallow areas with riprap and wood cover. Use casting gear with 10-pound test Edge.


Author Capt. Steve Chaconas is Potomac bass fishing guide & contributing writer for BoatUS (BoatUS.com) Potomac River reports: nationalbass.com. Book trips/purchase gift certificates: info@NationalBass.com

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