“Invasive” describes a species that, when introduced into an ecosystem, aggressively establishes itself and has the potential to negatively affect native plants, animals and/or habitat.
You’re probably aware of several fish swimming in U.S. waters that fit that description. The northern snakehead, a toothy apex predator introduced from Asia, quickly comes to mind, along with several species of high-jumping Asian carp and the beautiful yet venomous lionfish of southern saltwater.
All these species are like bad guys in Old West movies. When we learn they’ve turned up in our neck of the woods, we become filled with dread. We’re fearful of the havoc they could wreak, so we plaster their images on “Wanted” posters in hopes that some observant individual will spot these bad guys and bring them in, dead or alive – preferably dead.
The desire to see these new-age villains stopped has led to a relatively new phenomenon: a growing number of fishing derbies and similar competitions aimed at reducing the numbers of these invasive pests.
Some are sponsored by government agencies charged with fisheries management and conservation. Others have been organized by individuals or organizations just wanting to do their part in the war on these noxious alien invaders.
Whether aimed at Asian carp in Illinois, snakeheads in the Potomac or lionfish in Florida, these contests provide prizes that encourage amateurs and professionals alike to get involved in ridding our waters of damaging non-native species. When more fishermen participate, removing invasive species from our lakes and rivers, the impact can be very significant.
When properly organized and run, invasive-species fishing derbies also can serve important educational purposes. For example, promotional materials – printed and online – can help raise awareness about invasive species, the harm they can do and the importance of getting rid of unwanted baitfish, aquarium pets and other potential invasives in a safe manner that won’t cause problems down the road.
Well-run invasive-species fishing events also tend to generate lots of press. Reporters love a story that involve good guys catching bad guys, and if knowledgeable anglers or employees from the state fisheries department are on hand to give interviews, this can be a great opportunity to get the word out about invasive species problems and solutions.
Teaching novice anglers methods for catching invasive fish also can have great educational benefits, especially if those fish are good to eat like snakeheads and lionfish.
You can have an expert angler – a local guide, perhaps, or a pro fisherman – sharing tips on bait, lures, locales and techniques that encourage greater interest from the angling public.
And if those fish can be cooked following the weigh-in so people have an opportunity to taste them when they’ve been properly prepared for the dinner table, more folks are likely to go away with a desire to catch those good-eating fish and remove them permanently from the lake or river they’ve invaded.
One of the longest-running invasive-species fishing competitions is the Original Redneck Fishin’ Tournament, which started in 2005. Each year, people from all over the country descend on the small town of Bath, Illinois to enjoy two days of fun on the water and, more importantly, to help eradicate bighead and silver carp that have taken over the Illinois River there.
This is one of the only tournaments where fishing poles are not allowed and it is illegal to release the fish you catch. Participants try to catch as many Asian carp as they can with nets, their hands or simply by being on the water and having the fish jump in their boat. Vibrations from boat motors cause the fish to leap out of the water, and it’s usually no problem to fill your craft with carp. Protective gear is advised!
Four places are awarded for the most fish caught during each two-hour heat and one best costume in that heat. There are also cash prizes for the most fish caught in all heats combined that day.
“I’ve seen people get knocked down, get busted noses, busted jaws,” Randy Stockham of Havana, an 11-year participant and three-time champion of the Redneck Fishing Tournament, told a reporter with Springfield’s State Journal-Register last summer. “Sometimes you are in more of a survival mode than a catching mode because there are so many fish jumping in the air at a time. The fish have gotten so big now that when one of them hits you, it actually hurts.
“Our record so far is 481 fish in two hours,” Stockham continued. “Participants take out anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 fish over the weekend, and it doesn’t even phase them. Fishermen can go out the next day and catch 4,000 to 5,000 more. So you know we aren’t hurting their population that badly.”
“We used to do regular carp-fishing tournaments with pole and line, and these things got so bad that we decided we were going to get rid of them so we could still take our grandkids out for a safe boat ride,” said tournament founder and coordinator Betty DeFord. “We did it the first year and had five boats, and they caught 100 fish in less than an hour. It was fun, and we thought we were doing our part to get rid of them.”
Word soon got out, and the next year, more than 1,000 people showed up. The event keeps getting larger, but so does the Asian carp population.
“Our tournament has made a small dent in the population,” DeFord said. “If we can find a way to get rid of these carp and the population goes down so they’re not a hindrance to our boaters and water sports, then we’ve accomplished something.”
Kevin Irons, the aquatic nuisance species program manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, said that while the privately run Redneck Fishing Tournament is doing something to help control Asian carp, the overall problem is huge.
“Bighead carp and silver carp make up as much as 70 percent of the total biomass in some sections of the river,” he said. “It ranges from 3,000 to 6,000 fish per river mile. That’s about six to 13 metric tons of fish per river mile. The Illinois River has some of the most populous Asian carp locations, maybe in the world.”
Irons said the DNR contracts with commercial fishermen to remove large numbers of carp from the state’s rivers. But he said it would require a long-term strategy of removing 10 million to 50 million pounds of fish annually to get the Asian carp numbers down to a manageable level of approximately 20 percent of the rivers’ biomass. So the estimated 50,000 pounds of fish caught during the Redneck Fishing Tournament annually is roughly 1/1000th of the total necessary to make a significant difference in the carp population.
“One event alone will likely not change the course of the carp population, but all of these things work together,” Irons said. “Every little bit helps. This Redneck Fishing Tournament is doing something to help the river, and we can appreciate that.”
Maryland’s Stop the Snakehead Fishing Derby hasn’t been around nearly as long as the Redneck Fishing Tournament, but it, too, aims to help in the battle against invasive species.
The 2017 derby, held June 3 at the Chesapeake and Ohio National Historic Park’s Pennyfield Lock, was the second such event hosted by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources in collaboration with the National Park Service, as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bass Pro Shops and the office of Maryland State Senator Susan C. Lee of Montgomery County.
“The 2016 Snakehead Derby was fabulous,” Sen. Lee told a reporter before last year’s competition. “I was amazed how many people of all ages were excited to learn about invasive species and have the opportunity to fish and handle snakeheads. It is a memorable and educational family experience along the beautiful C&O Canal.”
Snakeheads were first discovered in Maryland in 2002. Those fish, in a pond near Crofton, were exterminated, but more snakeheads were discovered in the Potomac River near the nation’s capital in 2004.
Since then, the northern snakehead has established itself firmly in the Potomac River system, with a population estimated at somewhere above 21,000 individuals, ranging through more than 120 river miles. Growing up to 18 pounds and three feet long, these so-called “Frankenfish” keep spreading. They recently were found above Great Falls in the C&O Canal and in upper Chesapeake Bay.
“Snakeheads are top predators that have rapidly expanded their range in the watershed over the past 10 years,” said Maryland Department of Natural Resources planner and fisheries scientist Joseph Love. “They have become very abundant in some Maryland streams and rivers. While we are still studying their adverse impact, we are encouraging anglers to fish and harvest them to minimize their impact on our environment.”
The Stop the Snakehead Derby in Potomac is helping in that regard. Last summer’s derby attracted 340 competitors who competed for a variety of nice prizes. Loaner fishing tackle was available for those who needed it, and the date of the derby was chosen to coincide with one of the state’s Free Fishing Days (no fishing license required) to maximize the number of competitors.
Participants were taught to identify, dispatch and fillet snakeheads, and when all was said and done, more than 100 fillets were taken home by successful anglers to be cooked and taste-tested.
“If we’re interested in controlling the biomass, snakeheads have to be taken out of the water and eaten,” said Love.
Fortunately, these vicious-looking predators are quite tasty, and some researchers believe that increasing harvest pressure may be reducing snakehead numbers in the region, or at least keeping them in check.
REEF Lionfish Derbies
Lionfish are bizarre yet beautiful fish with red-and-white stripes and long, showy fins. You’ve probably heard about them because in recent years these invasive pests, released into the wild by aquarists, have spread like locusts throughout the Caribbean and parts of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. Where they have thrived, native fish populations have been reduced by as much as 70 percent.
Lionfish also are armed with a formidable set of 18 long, sharp, venomous spines that can sting unsuspecting anglers and divers and induce incapacitating pain. Wary of this problem, many people would like to see lionfish eliminated altogether.
The nonprofit Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) is helping to lead the charge against this invader by hosting REEF-sanctioned lionfish derbies, which have been found to be effective tools in reducing lionfish populations. More than 12,600 lionfish have been removed by derby participants since the first was held in the Bahamas in 2009.
REEF lionfish derbies are single-day competitions to collect and remove as many lionfish as possible. Teams collect lionfish by netting or spearing while SCUBA diving, free diving or snorkeling. Each fish is measured, and prizes are awarded for teams catching the most, biggest and smallest lionfish.
The public is invited to watch scoring, taste free lionfish samples, watch filleting and dissection demonstrations, and ask questions about lionfish.
REEF helps others organize and conduct safe and effective derbies by providing tools, templates and promotion for derby organizers. For example, six derbies will be held in Florida this summer that feature an exclusive partnership between REEF and Whole Foods Market.
Whole Foods Market introduced lionfish to all Florida stores in April 2016, offering the white flaky fish similar to grouper or snapper, which is perfect for those who want a delicious, nutritious and eco-conscious choice. Working in partnership with the local community, Whole Foods hopes to make a difference in the lionfish population, protecting our coastal fisheries and reefs.
“The support of Whole Foods Market in addressing the lionfish problem is a great example of different groups working together to help the planet.” says Lad Akins, REEF’s Director of Special Projects. “We look forward to engaging even more divers and snorkelers in the events this year and removing more lionfish from our coastal waters.”
The Florida derby series this year starts in June and includes events in Key Largo, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach, Jacksonville, and Sarasota. Clicking here will take you to additional information.
Do these invasive-species derbies and competitions really make a difference? In a word, yes. Not only do these events help educate the public about these non-native invaders and the problems they can cause, they can, in fact, put a big dent in invasive species populations.
New research led by scientists from REEF, for example, found that derbies reduced lionfish numbers by 52 percent over a 74-square-mile area on average during the single-day REEF events each year. That’s not enough to solve the lionfish problem entirely, but it shows that even a one-day event can have a big impact from year to year.
Do your part to help. Organize an invasive-species fishing derby in your area, or join as a participant. Working together we can make a difference.