Wednesday, January 30, 2013

If there's anything we should be able to do, it's overfish the hated snakehead to extinction


The snakehead doesn't look so bad this way -- in Rockfish chef Chad Wells's second course of "snakefish soaked in chimichurri, napped with avocado sauce, Nopal cactus relish and chipotle crema" (served with Flying Dog ale), the lone actual snakehead dish served at a gala dinner devoted to encouraging the fishing-to-extinction of the alien predator that's devouring Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River life. (No, it doesn't look so bad this way, but take a peek below.)

"'I don't like snakes, and I don't like fish,' said Nicky Safari of Tysons Corner, who appeared to be in exactly the wrong restaurant on the wrong night. 'I'm here because I know they're going to . . . make me like fish,' she said."
-- from Darryl Fears's Washington Post report,
"At benefit, eating snakehead to help the Chesapeake Bay"

by Ken

You might think that after crapping out on my post last night (sorry, just conked out, and when I woke up it was history), I would come back tonight with guns blazing on the great topics of the day -- immigration reform, more shootings in Arizona (and who knows where else) while the gun nuts try to hold their own in the Senate hearings where Gabby Giffords testified today, etc. etc. But here I am reporting on the crusade to eat the northern snakehead to extinction.

It would certainly be both environmentally and ethically reprehensible to advocate harm to a species on the basis of its looks, but golly, this snakehead fish creature is hideous, which is why I've refused to show it any more than 225-pixel width. If you want to see more of this godforsaken creature, click through to Darryl Fears's Washington Post report, "At benefit, eating snakehead to help the Chesapeake Bay."

Let it be made clear, though, that it isn't for its hideousness (Darryl Fears describes the thing as "looking like a weird cross of three animals that strike fear in the heart: a Burmese python, a barracudea, and an electric eel") that the snakehead is under fire -- often literally, in that, we're told, "many recreational fishermen kill snakeheads by shooting them through the head with a bow and arrow." The problem with snakeheads, which are native to waters off China and Korea, and are thought to have been "poured into a Chesapeake tributary in the early 2000s by some clueless aquarium owner," having taken up residence in Chesapeake Bay is that they're very large and they're voracious natural predators living in an environment where they have no natural predators, putting a goodly portion of the local marine life more or at less at their mercy.
The snakehead is nothing but problems. It devours nearly every bite-size fish in its path but has no known predator. Females are baby factories, lugging an average of 40,000 eggs, although U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists found one with a record haul of 100,000.

On top of that, snakeheads might qualify as parents of the year in the Chesapeake. Males and females, which can grow to 47 inches long and weigh 15 pounds, shepherd their young in ball-shaped schools. As a result, the bay's fish problem keeps getting bigger.
As Darryl Fears suggests,
Humans could put a stop to it. Humans, after all, nearly ate their way through the bay's native rockfish, blue crab, shad, oysters and sturgeon before realizing the error of their ways and taking aggressive steps in the past few decades to protect marine life.
The problem here is that even though the damned things are apparently quite edible, we're not eating the damned things.
[W]atermen aren't interested in snakeheads, because there's no real market for them. Fewer than half a dozen Washington area restaurants serve them. Only 3,800 pounds were sold commercially last year, the first year in which sales were recorded.

"It's very low . . . because fishermen don't have the right equipment to catch them," said John Rorapaugh, director of sustainability and sales for ProFish, a seafood supplier and one of the event's organizers.
"The event" was the second annual ProFish Invasive Species Benefit Dinner, at Tony and Joe's Seafood Place in Georgetown's Washington Harbour, where some 200 guests paid $125 a plate to help the cause ("it benefited Miriam's Kitchen, which serves the homeless, and the Oyster Recovery Partnership, which works to restore the bay's oyster habitat") and perhaps develop a taste for the unwelcome bay interloper, as a step toward putting the infernal creature in the mortal peril we reserve for so many choice water-borne taste treats.

Ironically, given the theme -- the snakehead as devourer of all life in the bay -- only one of the evening's five courses could contain snakehead, because of a scarcity of catchable specimens. The theory is that in the case of a cold snap like the one just endured, "they go in deep water and bury themselves in the mud."

From a PR standpoint, the name "snakehead" obviously doesn't help, and the look of the thing doesn't either. But we've gotten over our squeamishness with regard to other unsightly sea creatures -- look what chefs have done for the once-shunned monkfish.

Chef Chad Wells, who prepared the evening's one snakehead dish, is apparently a fan. But even its virtues may be offputting.
Snakeheads have a wonderful dense coat of slime, Wells said. When frozen, the mucus protects the fish, so it stays fresh. He compared the flavor to that of tilapia. Wells described the texture as perfect. "It's more like a dense ocean fish, not a freshwater fish," he said.
Thanks for sharing that about the dense coat of slime, chef. I guess if you were lucky enough to have access to snakehead for home preparation, you might want to have you fishmonger do the, um, mongering. Of course, if the thing should take off, residents of the Chesapeake Bay area may yet come to consider themselves lucky for their unique access to the newly prized delicacy.

At which point they can start worrying about how to save the endangered snakehead. Ah, the cycle of life.



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