As the warm weather encourages Virginia residents to venture into the woods and waters, it’s increasingly likely they’ll encounter invaders.
Two non-native species that wildlife experts are watching – northern snakeheads and nutria – have gained a foothold in regional waters, and those who encounter these animals are urged to do their part to help protect the ecosystems of 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 further south in the York and James rivers and their tributaries, although in much smaller numbers.
Desiree Nuckols has encountered snakeheads firsthand in the Pamunkey River. Nuckols, a member of the Pamunkey Indian tribe, fishes frequently, often posting pictures of his best catches on Instagram under his handle kissmy_bass_. She was the first known person to catch a snakehead in the Pamunkey River in 2020.
Nuckols was fishing in the shallows last April when she caught another healthy snakehead, her third so far.
“They fight really hard, kind of like the arc fin,” she said. “They are very feisty and fun to catch, but difficult to handle because of their teeth.”
Nuckols said the snakeheads are tasty and she fried the ones she got, but could go grill the next one with onions and butter.
Nuckols said she was aware of the potential problems snakeheads pose to local ecosystems. She was part of a team of members of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe who worked with scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to study and label Atlantic sturgeon to better understand the endangered fish.
The team was aware of the effects that abnormal disturbances, such as the presence of snakeheads, had on native species, according to Nuckols.
Nuckols said she determined the snakehead she had recently caught had just eaten three large minnows.
Snakeheads are very opportunistic feeders and will eat almost anything in front of them, according to Odenkirk. Fortunately, the snakeheads don’t appear to be decimating local populations of native species – a worst-case scenario some scientists feared when the snakeheads first arrived – but wildlife officials hope to limit the impact nonetheless. invasive fish.
Nutria, on the other hand, turned out to be much more destructive. Semi-aquatic rodents native to South America, nutria can completely destroy marshes by devouring all vegetation. The barren ecosystem then becomes inhospitable to other creatures that normally live there. Residual sediments erode and become free water with no possibility of recovery.
Nutria have long been established in waters south of Hampton Roads and along the south bank of the James River to Interstate 95, according to Todd Englemeyer, also a biologist with the Department of Wildlife Resources. is the detection of the species north of the river, particularly 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 the DWR has increased its efforts in the Chickahominy, deploying traps, using K-9 detection and installing nutria identification signs at boat launches.
If Nutria establish themselves in the Chickahominy, it is possible that they will find their way north to other rivers with preferred habitat, such as the Pamunkey River, Mattaponi River, and Dragon Run.
A few other native creatures — beavers and muskrats — can sometimes be confused with nutria, but the invasive species have some pretty distinctive characteristics, Englemeyer said.
While a beaver can grow to over 35 pounds and a muskrat weighs around 4 pounds, adult nutria fall somewhere between that, between 15 and 30 pounds. When nutria swim, their head and rump stick out of the water, while the muskrat’s body behind the head remains submerged. Moreover, the tail of the nutria is covered with fur while that of the muskrat is hairless. The large white whiskers and orange teeth are an important feature of the nutria.
People who spot snakeheads or nutria should report their findings by calling the DWR Wildlife Conflict Hotline at 855-571-9003.
Anglers who catch a snakehead are encouraged to take the fish home and eat it, Odenkirk said. There is no law against releasing a snakehead, but removing it from the ecosystem is far more helpful. Any snakeheads in the possession of anglers should be dispatched immediately.
For nutria, sightings can also be reported to the Conservation Management Institute at Virginia Tech at cmi.vt.edu/ReportNutria.html. Observers should try to take a photo with their phone if it’s safe, Englemeyer said, and they should try to identify and remember an exact location to share with wildlife officials.
Ben Swenson, [email protected]