Can You Eat Snakehead Fish?

Caught from a wild pond hidden in a plantation estate. Source: Kevin Poh

Snakehead fish are taking over the freshwaters of North America. You may be wondering: if we need to get rid of a fish, why not just eat it? Not a lot of people are aware of this species. They are still relatively new to North Americans. But the question still stands.

Can you eat snakehead fish? Snakehead fish is completely edible and is supposedly very tasty. Cooking this fish is much simpler than catching it. They are known for being difficult to catch. If you do catch one, you are required by law to kill it. So, you might as well eat it.

Before heading to the river to bring home a snakefish for dinner, you’re going to need to know a little bit more about the beast. While snakehead can be a delicious meal, it can also cause some serious health issues if not prepared correctly. We’ll be going over everything that you could possibly need to know before digging into a snakefish fillet.

About Snakehead Fish

The snakehead fish also sometimes called the “frankenfish” or “fishzilla,” is not native to North America. Instead, it originated in parts of Asia and Africa. It is still unknown how exactly the fish was introduced to North American waters. There are a few different stories floating around—it was dumped in the water by thoughtless aquarium owners/it was brought here as a food source/etc.

None of these theories are in any way confirmed, though. What is confirmed is the first official sighting of the creature. The first mass recognition of the fish seems to have been from a 2002 news story. The fish had been caught in Maryland, leaving those who caught it confused. The fish was then reported to authorities and realized shortly after.

Their nickname of “frankenfish” is due to their ability to walk short distances on land. This is only possible because these fish have the rare ability to breathe oxygen from their gills. The name “fishzilla” comes from the same idea, though this one is also in reference to the fish’s strange appearance.

Eating Snakehead Fish

You can, indeed, eat snakehead fish. All you need is the proper preparation and understanding of the animal as a food source. Snakehead fish usually contain a bit more muscle and fat content than your average salmon or tuna. Their higher fat content may be the reason for its sturdiness in most cooking situations.

While the snakehead fish has been said to be delicious, it is also dangerous. The muscle of the snakehead fish, similarly to tuna, is high in mercury. While mercury can be consumed, it should be consumed infrequently. When foods with high levels of mercury are consumed regularly, mercury poisoning can become a reality.

Where To Find Snakehead Fish

Currently (October 2019), Georgia is dealing with a full-on invasion of snakehead fish. They are freshwater fish, so they are being found primarily in the lakes and rivers of Georgia, as well as Maryland, Virginia, Florida, and Texas.

The fish seems to be on the move, though, so it’s possible that this species could turn up in another state’s waters. Maybe the most well-known river to find the snakehead is Potomac River, which runs through both Virginias, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.

Snakehead fish can also be found in saltwater, though, as long as the salt content is low. This can help the fish move from area to area. Instead of just following freshwater rivers, the snakehead fish has the ability to travel through areas that may feed into open oceans.

Catching a Snakehead Fish

Catching a snakehead fish is about as difficult as catching any other fish, though with a little more elbow grease. While fishing can already be a stimulating exercise, snakehead fishing is even more challenging.

When preparing to go fishing for a snakehead, you will need to have heavy-duty equipment. That means a heavy rod, heavy line, and a tip that can withstand the power of the fish. It is also important to use a lot of force when throwing your line out. Snakehead fish don’t have similar heads to most fish (hence the name), which makes them much tougher to stick.

Despite their unsettling appearance and scary nicknames, snakehead fish are surprisingly quite shy. They are very unlikely to stick around with a lot of splashing and stomping around them, so be very careful with your movements.

Even with their shyness towards people, you will notice their power when baiting them. Their strikes can be very powerful, which makes your job even more difficult. They usually sit near the edge of the water, though they can be difficult to spot. They also are not schooling fish, so if you’ve found one in an area, it’s very unlikely that you will find another there.

Cooking a Snakehead Fish

Snakehead fish has a reputation for being pretty delicious—there’s even a Washington Post article to support it. The writer of that article lays out a few different ways that he ended up cooking the fish. Fried, baked, or pan-seared, snakehead seems to be tasty no matter what.

There are a few ways that you might want to prepare it first to keep your health in check, though. We already mentioned the possibility of mercury poisoning, but that’s not the only thing to watch out for.

Snakehead fish actually contains a specific chemical called Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). PCBs in small doses can lead to skin inflammation, which isn’t exactly what you want after enjoying your meal. Consuming large doses of PCBs can have much more serious side effects, including permanent liver damage. This is not proven, but there are studies that point to it.

In snakehead fish, PCBs are mostly found under the skin and in the fat, so there are ways to avoid consuming them for the most part. When preparing your fish, make sure to skin it completely. As lovely as flakey fish skin can taste, it probably isn’t worth the rash to follow.

You’re also going to want to remove a majority of the fat from the fish. The greatest area to focus on here is going to be the belly. You can get away with missing some of the fat in preparation, though, by cooking it the right way. Cooking on a grill or drip rack can help remove any leftover fat from the fish.

Legal/Environmental Issues

To wrap things up, it’s important to talk about why you might be searching for this in the first place. Snakehead fish are, to mince words, a detriment to the North American ecosystem. They are populating at a very fast pace, which means that they are becoming even more dangerous as a species to North American waters.

Because of this, laws are being implemented in most areas where the snakehead fish is found. For the most part, it is illegal to throw a snakehead fish back if you have caught it fishing. Once it is caught, you are legally obligated to kill it. Breaking these laws usually results in a small fine. But, now that you know how delicious these fish can be, it could make keeping the law a lot easier. If you’re unsure of the laws in your area, make sure to check before fishing.

Final Thoughts

Snakehead fish are powerful and interesting creatures. But they don’t belong in North American waters. If you live in an area that has been infested with snakehead fish, it is most definitely encouraged to cook and eat them. They are safe to eat with proper preparation, and they are known for being pretty delicious.

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