Animals
5:54 pm
Wed May 9, 2012

'Frankenfish': It's What's For Dinner

Originally published on Wed May 9, 2012 7:19 pm

More people on the East Coast are acquiring a taste for snakehead, an exotic fish that's moved here from Asia. But the fish are still multiplying and spreading.

Snakehead came to Maryland almost 10 years ago. The so-called "Frankenfish" looks like its namesake and has multiple rows of teeth. Someone released it here — and then there was a documentary and an unbelievably bad movie.

Creating A Market

Now, fast-forward a decade. Carrie Kennedy, a fisheries scientist for Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, is getting married. Like most weddings, hers will have a buffet of chicken and fish.

"But the fish we're going to have is going to be snakehead," she says.

Kennedy notes the fish is an invasive species. "We want it to go away, so we're trying to create a market," she says.

Their strategy may be working. Business in Maryland is almost booming.

"We got a couple hundred pounds yesterday, and all this fish will be gone this weekend," says John Rorapaugh of Profish, a wholesaler in Northeast Washington, D.C.

He's standing over crates of iced, giant snakeheads. The ravenous appetites of the fish are legendary. Rorapaugh and others have found batteries, mice, birds' feet and baby turtles in the bellies of the fish.

"Anything that swims past them that's living, they'll eat," he says.

And the fish are delicious. "When you bite into it, it almost feels like it falls apart because it's so tender," Rorapaugh says.

Beyond The 'Initial Hysteria'

This fish is mostly just available in restaurants right now, and it's kind of pricey. Plus, it's called "snakehead" and looks like Jacques Cousteau's nightmares. As a result, there are a lot of them still swimming around out there.

John Odenkirk is a biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. He's standing on a boat on the Occoquan River, surveying the snakehead population by using an electric current in the water.

The electric generator goes on, and fish fly everywhere. Glints of silver flash as fish of all types start to spasm to the surface. Then three snakeheads — about 3 feet long — emerge from the depths.

"It's awesome when you hit 'em like that," Odenkirk says.

He measures the fish and tags them.

"It's got a unique number on it. It says 'Remove tag, report location and kill fish,' " he says.

Then he throws them back into the river.

Odenkirk says it looks like the snakeheads aren't turning out to be the ecological disaster people feared.

"We still don't know. We don't have enough information to make that call yet and probably won't for several more years," he says, "but it does look like some of the initial hysteria was probably overstated — not probably, it was almost surely overstated."

Still, the fish are considered a threat to the ecosystem. Back onshore, Kennedy is trying a sample for her wedding.

"It's really good. The best thing would be if it wasn't around at all, but, you know what, if you have lemons you might as well make lemonade," she says.

Or at least lemon wedges for a nice garnish.

Copyright 2013 WAMU-FM. To see more, visit http://wamu.org.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Some diners on the East Coast are acquiring a taste for snakehead. It's an exotic fish that moved here from Asia. As Sabri Ben-Achour of member station WAMU reports, it's become a pricey delicacy around Washington, D.C. And area biologists are encouraging residents to eat all they can.

SABRI BEN-ACHOUR, BYLINE: So let's go back 10 years, almost exactly, to when the snakehead came to Maryland. It looks like a python, with multiple rows of teeth. Someone released it here.

(SOUNDBITE OF VARIOUS BROADCASTS)

UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER #1: The fish that can walk on land has multiplied and officials...

UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER #2: ...saying that there could be thousands of these...

UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER #3: ...the so-called Frankenfish could get into the Chesapeake Bay and cause...

BEN-ACHOUR: Then there was a documentary - and an unbelievably bad movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FRANKENFISH")

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: And they are coming for you.

BEN-ACHOUR: Now, fast forward a decade.

CARRIE KENNEDY: My name is Carrie Kennedy.

BEN-ACHOUR: And she's getting married.

KENNEDY: So we're going to have a light lunch buffet. And that lunch buffet - like most weddings - is going to have chicken and fish. But the fish that we're going to have is going to be snakehead.

BEN-ACHOUR: Kennedy is a fisheries scientist for Maryland's Department of Natural Resources.

KENNEDY: Snakehead's an invasive species here in Maryland, and we want it to go away, so we're trying to create a market.

BEN-ACHOUR: And their strategy's kind of working. I mean, business in Maryland is almost booming.

JOHN RORAPAUGH: We have a couple hundred pounds that we got in yesterday, and all this fish will be gone this weekend.

BEN-ACHOUR: John Rorapaugh is with Profish, a wholesaler in northeast D.C. He's standing over crates of iced, giant snakeheads. These fish can't walk on land, but they do breathe air. And they're ravenous. Check out what they found in these guys' bellies.

RORAPAUGH: Double-A batteries, mice, birds' feet, turtles, baby turtles. Anything that swims past and is living, they'll eat.

BEN-ACHOUR: But Rorapaugh says they are delicious.

RORAPAUGH: We're actually next door; Louie's Diner is right next to our warehouse. So earlier, I brought over some snakehead filet for him, and he put a light marinade on them. So we're going to throw them on the grill and let you taste 'em.

BEN-ACHOUR: All right. Let's try. That's great. It's almost not like fish.

RORAPAUGH: When you bite into it, it almost feels like it falls apart because it's so tender.

BEN-ACHOUR: This fish is mostly just available in fancy restaurants right now. And it's kind of pricey. Plus, it's called snakehead - and looks like Jacques Cousteau's nightmares. So there are a lot of them still swimming around out there.

JOHN ODENKIRK: So, what we'll do is, we'll start shocking. And the generator is going to be running the whole time and so, don't fall in.

BEN-ACHOUR: OK.

John Odenkirk is a biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. And he's standing on a boat on the Occoquan River, surveying the snakehead population by basically, tasering fish. The electric generator goes on, and fish fly everywhere. Glints of silver flash as fish of all types start spasming to the surface. And then one, two, three enormous snakeheads, some 3 feet long, emerge from the depths.

ODENKIRK: This is awesome when you hit them like that.

BEN-ACHOUR: Odenkirk measures the fish...

ODENKIRK: Six ninety-nine.

BEN-ACHOUR: ...tags them...

ODENKIRK: It's got a unique number on it. It says: Remove tag, report location and kill fish.

BEN-ACHOUR: ...and throws them back. Odenkirk says it looks like the snakeheads aren't turning out to be the ecological disaster people feared.

ODENKIRK: We still don't know. We don't have enough information to really make that call yet, and we probably won't for several more years. But it does look like some of the initial hysteria was probably overstated - not probably; it was almost surely overstated.

BEN-ACHOUR: It's still considered a threat, though. And back onshore, Carrie Kennedy is trying a sample for her wedding.

KENNEDY: Mm, it's really good. The best thing would be if it wasn't around at all, but you know what? If you have lemons, you might as well make lemonade.

BEN-ACHOUR: Or at least lemon wedges, for a nice garnish. For NPR News, I'm Sabri Ben-Achour. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.