The Virginia Gazette, Snakehead and nutria keep appearing, despite efforts to stop them
As warm weather encourages Virginia residents to venture into woods and waters, there’s a growing likelihood they will encounter invaders.
Two non-native species that wildlife experts are keeping an eye on — northern snakeheads and nutria — have established footholds in regional waters, and those who come across these animals are asked to do their part to help protect ecosystems from their potentially harmful effects.
The northern snakehead is a large, predatory fish native to Africa and Asia that was first discovered in Virginia in the Potomac River in 2004. Experts believe the fish was intentionally released.
Since then, the species has fully colonized the Potomac River and the Rappahannock River, according to Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources regional fisheries biologist John Odenkirk. The fish has also established populations farther south in the York and James rivers and their tributaries, though in much smaller numbers.
|Desiree Nuckols with a Northern Snakehead
Desiree Nuckols has encountered snakeheads firsthand in the Pamunkey River. Nuckols, a member of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe, fishes frequently, often posting pictures of her best catches to Instagram under her handle kissmy_bass_. She was the first known person to catch a snakehead in the Pamunkey River in 2020.
Nuckols was fishing the shallows this April when she hooked another healthy snakehead, her third so far.
“They fight really hard, a lot like bowfin,” she said. “They’re very feisty and fun to catch, but hard to deal with because of their teeth.”
Nuckols said the snakeheads are tasty and that she has fried the ones she’s gotten, but that she might go with grilling the next one with onions and butter.
|LM Bass are also an invasive species here
Nuckols said she’s aware of the potential problems that snakeheads pose for local ecosystems. She was part of a team of Pamunkey Indian Tribe members who worked with scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to study and tag Atlantic sturgeon to better understand the endangered fish.
The team was cognizant of the effects that abnormal disruptions, such as the presence of snakeheads, were having on native species, according to Nuckols.
Nuckols said she determined that the snakehead she recently caught had just eaten three large minnows.
|But not Crappie
Snakeheads are very opportunistic feeders and will eat almost anything that’s in front of them, according to Odenkirk. Thankfully, snakeheads do not seem to be decimating local populations of native species — a worst-case scenario some scientists feared when snakeheads first arrived — but wildlife officials nonetheless hope to limit the impact that the invasive fish is having.
Nutria, on the other hand, have proven to be much more destructive. Semiaquatic rodents that are native to South America, nutria can completely destroy marshes by devouring the all the vegetation. The denuded ecosystem then becomes inhospitable for other creatures that normally live there. The residual sediment erodes away and becomes open water with no chance of recovery.
|Mikayla Ball with a Nutria
Nutria have long been established in the waters of south Hampton Roads and along the southern shoreline of the James River up to Interstate 95, according to Todd Englemeyer, also a biologist with the Department of Wildlife Resources. But a more recent development is detection of the species north of the river, specifically in the Chickahominy River watershed.
Two years ago, there was a positive identification of a male nutria that had been killed by a vehicle in Providence Forge. Englemeyer said that the DWR has redoubled its efforts in the Chickahominy, deploying traps, using K-9 detection and installing nutria identification signage at boat ramps.
If nutria become established in the Chickahominy, it’s possible that they’ll find their way north to other rivers with habitat they prefer, such as the Pamunkey River, Mattaponi River and Dragon Run.
The last I heard, Nutria were eliminated from Maryland's Eastern Shore, using dogs to hunt them, but if they're still loose in Virginia, it's going to be an ongoing battle. As for Snakeheads? We lost that fight.