Voracious, toothy fish invades Broward, Palm Beach waters

Go on, big guy, enjoy your adopted home, the murky canals of Broward and Palm Beach counties. Here you can grow up to 3 feet long, lay eggs by the thousands, and dine on savory bass babies.

Of course they fear you. You can breathe air and crawl on land, they say. You cannibalize your young. And then there's those teeth. No wonder they hunt you down by the hundreds and club you to death.

You're Channa marulius, an Asian invader with mysterious origins better known as the Bullseye Snakehead or, some shiver to say, Frankenfish.

"They are taking over our water, and they're eating anything from bass to turtles," said Jason Calvert, a longtime Tamarac fisherman. "They're moving and they're spreading. It's a virus , that's all it is. They're already in Palm Beach County ."

Anglers, concerned the red-eyed ambush predator with the flat head and dark, torpedo body is overwhelming freshwater canals, have organized at least eight Snakehead roundups over the past two years.

In the most recent roundup in Margate on April 21, 10 anglers accounted for 115 Snakeheads, the largest nearly a yard long and weighing in at 10 pounds.

Snakeheads were first documented in Tamarac in October 2000, baffling scientists. Now they occupy a 200-square-mile area of Northwest Broward and Southern Palm Beach County . They are a popular food fish in their native Southeast Asia, common to Pakistan , Malaysia and southern China.

How they arrived in South Florida is a mystery. "We don't really know how they got here," said Kelly Gestring, director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's non-native fish lab in Boca Raton . "Obviously someone illegally released them."

Because of its size and unappealing demeanor, Snakeheads aren't popular aquarium fish, leading experts to speculate whoever released them did so to have access to a tasty fish.

Indeed, its flaky and firm white flesh, suitable for breading or grilling, may be the Snakehead's most winning trait.

"They are absolutely phenomenal to eat, through the roof," said Calvert, 40.

His 7-year-old daughter Hailie concurs. "I love the white meat," she said.

Lloyd Fox , 65, owner of Lloyd's Bait and Tackle in Margate, has been fishing South Florida canals since 1970 and remembers when the first Snakehead appeared nearly 12 years ago. He's not alarmed by the Snakehead invasion.

"We're not overrun with them," he said. "People say they've had an impact, but I haven't noticed it. It's just another fish in the canal to catch."

Sure, Snakeheads eat baby bass, Fox said, but bass also eat baby Snakeheads. "People are saying all these bad things about them," he said.

Fox noted one positive aspect of the Snakehead blitz. "They do eat Muscovy ducks," he said. "I've seen one come up and take a baby duck on the shoreline."

Snakeheads are also said to walk on land, but Fox disputes that. "They can move, but you throw any fish on a wet patio and it's gonna flop around, it's not really walking," he said. "They don't walk, they kinda waddle."

Gestring also dismisses the walking Snakehead as myth. "There's been a lot of media hype about Snakeheads," he said. "Snakeheads can't walk on land and they can't survive out of water for days."

Because they can breathe air, they can live in low oxygen water where native fish couldn't, Gestring said. But they aren't displacing the natives. And while Snakeheads may lay some 5,000 eggs twice a year, most don't mature, and in fact provide tasty meals for local fish.

"We have not been able to document a measurable negative impact on bass or any native fish," the scientist said. "We wish they weren't here, but they don't seem to be having a catastrophic impact on native freshwater fish."

Still, possessing a live Snakehead is against the law, punishable by a fine of up to $500, depending on previous offenses.

"If you catch one, you have to kill it in some way," Gestring said. "Usually the angler just gives them a real good whack on the head."

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