“Fish for cash” is the slogan of a program Maryland wildlife experts are launching as a way to encourage anglers to catch, record and eat northern snakeheads, an invasive fish species whose numbers have swelled in the rivers and Chesapeake Bay in the D.C. region over the last few years.
The $18,800 program, which is being run by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), is designed to help experts get a more accurate count on the number of snakeheads being caught and eaten and to figure out if policies to lower their population are working, according to experts.
“This is the first time we’ve given out cash for recording tags of snakeheads,” said Joseph W. Love, program manager for the freshwater fisheries division at Maryland’s DNR. “We’re doing this because we want to know how many snakeheads are getting harvested. This type of project and incentivizing people will help us get that information.”
Before the new program, Love said staffers would go out to docks and ask anglers how many snakeheads they’d harvested, but that didn’t prove to be as effective since many snakehead anglers go out at night to catch the fish, and the state agency didn’t have enough staff to consistently do the surveying at night.
The state is also trying to identify and count snakeheads in the Potomac River, but there’s no incentive. “We rely on people’s good graces to report,” Love said, adding that he hopes the reward program for the Chesapeake Bay will increase reporting rates.
“We rely on their own desire to report the tag usually, but money is the best way to incentivize,” Love said.
The program, which is underway and will run until 2024, is being offered to anglers who catch northern snakeheads along the upper Chesapeake Bay, which runs roughly from the Gunpowder River in the Baltimore County area to the Susquehanna River in the Havre de Grace area, and to the Sassafras River in Cecil and Kent counties.
The Maryland DNR tagged about 250 snakeheads this spring and plans to do another 250 this fall in the upper Chesapeake Bay. DNR officials said crews apply electricity to the water that briefly stuns the fish, which are then taken out of the water, tagged and released. The tags, which are blue or yellow, include on them a reward amount: Each tagged snakehead caught and harvested from now until 2024 could be rewarded with a gift card of $10 or $200, depending on the tag.
An angler who catches a tagged fish should write down the tag number, then harvest it and take a picture. Then, they should call the USFWS at 800-448-8322 and give wildlife officials the information. Once scientists review the information, they’ll mail out a check to the angler.
Snakeheads do move around, so they could be found literally anywhere that's not too salty. If you catch one, look for the tag.