Will northern snakehead join Chilean sea bass, Alaskan halibut, North Atlantic swordfish and Chesapeake rockfish as catch of the day at your favorite seafood restaurant?
The toothy invader’s potential as cuisine depends less on taste than availability.
Their tasty versatility was proved last week at The Rockfish Raw Bar and Grill, where 100 pre-Halloween diners gobbled the white-fleshed invader in four ways.
First came a cocktail of Snakehead Ceviche with shrimp, mango and jicima prepared by Chef Chad Wells of Alewife in Baltimore.
Next came Tea-Smoked Snakehead with Paddlefish Caviar on a roasted sweet potato cake served by Washington Chef Scott Drewno of the Source.
Third came Sous Vide Snakehead Crudo with preserved lemon and lemon gelee, the work of Chef Dennis Marron of Poste Moderne Brasserie in D.C.
Finally came Pan-roasted Snakehead in a pig trotter broth of butter beans and mustard greens, created by Spike Gjerde, owner and chef at Baltimore’s Woodberry Kitchen.
Every way chefs served snakehead, it proved acceptable to good. Its texture is rather mushroomy and its flavor mild to bland.
Given the elaborate presentations, would we have known what we were eating had we not known? I doubt it. Knowing, fish fancier and sports fisherman David Stover pronounced it fine but professed his preference for the sweeter meat of rockfish.
Rockfish, sea bass, halibut and swordfish are so good we could eat them to extinction, which is not good.
Snakehead is another story. For “such an acute invasion of a charismatic species that has not evolved in place and gets the ecosystem out of balance, pushing out natives,” said chef and Natural Geographic Foundation Fellow Barton Seaver, “the best thing to do is eat them.”
Catching them is the catch.
In the Bay, charter fishermen report a hooked snakefish goes “straight down like a grouper and is so powerful you’ll never get it back.”
In rivers and shallows, they slither through grass beds like the reptile they’re named for. In the summer, they’re best caught at night, with lights, using a bow rather than a rod and reel.
Commercial fishermen netting blue cat in the Potomac will “jump out of their boats to wrestle in a captive snakefish,” reports John Rorapaugh of ProFish, the local seafood supplier that pushed snakehead cuisine to the fore. Both blue cat and snakeheads are invasive species newly introduced as table fare, but the snakeheads are more valuable. Rorapaugh’s company pays $4 a pound for them as opposed to pennies for catfish.
“We set the rate that high as an incentive,” Rorapaugh says. “We’ve created the demand by working with chefs, and they know it’s great protein. Supply is the tough part.”
Because it’s good for both environment and his business, Rorapaugh hopes a pro tem commercial snakehead fishery will evolve along the pattern of the blue cat fishery.
“Generations of cat fishermen evolved from fishing the flathead and other local cats to these blue cats, which are now 60 percent of their catch,” the ProFish vice president for sustainable species reports. “We started buying because they’re a great eating fish. In three to four months, our sales went from zero to 9,000 pounds. And there are plenty out there.”
The catch of snakeheads could increase with the change of seasons as the fish leave the grass beds. Winter harvesting in nets or with bows could supply the demand and mean more income for the fishermen.
“We’re hoping to catch a good amount of snakehead and promote them until there are no more to promote,” Rorapaugh says.
No reason for the commercial guys to get them all. You can catch snakehead, too, and liven up your winter with good fishing and good eating.
“If you catch a snakehead, bring it home and eat it,” says Steve Vilnet, who is stretching the definition of fisheries at Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
“Fish tributaries off the Potomac, as most have snakehead,” Vilnet advises “Use the same gear you would for largemouth bass, and take a net. The fish has teeth.”
Expect some resistance. A snakehead Vilnet caught from a kayak took him “on a little fieldtrip.”
There’s no season and no limit on snakehead, except the prudent dictate not to eat a steady diet of any fish, as toxins concentrate in their flesh. Kill the fish before you leave the area, and never throw a live snakehead back.
Enjoy snakeheads while you can, but don’t develop too fond a taste for them. The point is to fish and eat the invader to extinction — and maybe in the process take a bit of pressure off the native fish that belong in our ecosystem.