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

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 2012 WAMU 88.5