DNR: Cash for Snakeheads

By Cheryl Costello

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) needs a few good anglers—to help them track about 500 Northern snakeheads they’ve tagged for research. And they’re making it worth your while to fish for them.

DNR’s scientists want to find out more about the snakeheads’ movement patterns and where they are fished. To give anglers some extra incentive, they’re offering $10-$200 to those who catch a tagged snakehead.

The snakeheads are getting tags in the upper Bay. If you catch one and report it, the reward is yours. Matt Edwards reported the first tag, on a fish he caught while bow hunting in Gunpowder Falls on May 19.

“I read it and it said there’s a $10 reward if you call the number and report the fish,” Edwards says.

Dr. Joe Love, who leads the effort for DNR’s Freshwater Fisheries Program, says simply, “We’re paying them for good information.” Anglers can earn either $10 for a low-reward tag or $200 for a high-reward tag.

“We’re dedicating the work in the upper Chesapeake Bay where we have a new kind of fishery developing and new people to reach out to. We were lucky enough to receive some funding to start this tagging program up there with the intent of encouraging people to harvest the animal and, hopefully, eat the animal because it’s a very tasty fish,” Love says.

Snakeheads tend to be homebodies, but some do make long-distance moves, Love says. “We just had a tag report come in and that snakehead had moved 4.7 kilometers per day. That’s the fastest we’ve got on record so far.”

Snakeheads were first discovered in the Bay on the tidal Potomac River about 20 years ago. DNR says they are now firmly established in other fresh and low-salinity tidal waters in Maryland and Virginia. They’re invasive, so it’s illegal to move them and anglers are encouraged to kill them rather than release them.

Love says the tagging program has gotten a bit of backlash from people who think the scientists should be removing snakeheads from the water altogether, rather than tagging and throwing them back.

But, as he explains, “We do have to learn certain things about this species in order to support a larger preventative strategy.”

Things like where the fish are going, how fast they’re growing, where they’re migrating, and how fast they migrate. “I guess they could come up with some pretty interesting results,” angler Edwards speculates.

To tag hundreds of fish, DNR researchers create an electric field near their boat, stun the fish, and then measure their length and note where they were caught, before tagging and releasing them.

The results of the tag-catch-reward program could inform how DNR manages the fishery. “If we learn that people are not harvesting many snakeheads in the upper Bay, then we might have to switch tactics on how we reach people,” says Love.

The reward program continues through 2024.