WASHINGTON -- A hideous, mucus-coated Asian fish feared for its species-killing potential in rivers along the East Coast finally has found powerful advocates: upscale diners in Manhattan restaurants.
Meet the snakehead. Native to Southeast Asia, the so-called frankenfish is a spiny-toothed predator that feasts on weaker fish, can survive out of water for up to five hours and lives in areas that would strike lesser gills deathly still. It's also fast invading the waterways of the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River, gobbling up native species and threatening the livelihood of local fishers and tourist groups. The solution? Eat it first.
Or that's the plan according to John Rorapaugh, sustainable director for ProFish, a more than 20-year-old fishing operation that serves restaurants from New York City to Virginia Beach.
For the last year and a half, Rorapaugh has made it his mission to condemn snakeheads to dinner plates across the D.C. area. So far, they've been served up by chefs including Scott Drewno of The Source, sustainable seafood advocate Barton Seaver and Chad Wells of Alewife in Baltimore. But his latest client may be his most high-profile to date: Chef Michael Anthony of New York City's legendary Gramercy Tavern.
"It boils down to something really simple," Anthony told HuffPost. "Once we tasted it, we liked it. It has a dense texture, a wonderful clean flavor. There is nothing strange about it. It's a delicious fish."
By all accounts, this marks the first time snakehead has been on the menu at a showcase Manhattan restaurant. Gramercy Tavern, a powerhouse since its founding in 1994, is co-owned by restaurateur wunderkind Danny Meyer and launched the career of former co-owner and chef, Tom Colicchio.
Needless to say, it's always been up on trends. Like most well-regarded restaurants these days, Gramercy Tavern is a staunch supporter of the local and organic movements. But moreover, it's interested in a good story, and the snakehead certainly has one.
The first documented sighting of a snakehead in the U.S. was in 2002, in a pond behind a strip mall in Crofton, Md. Local authorities with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources panicked -- the fish is a menace to local species and can spread if there's an influx of fresh water -- and soon poisoned the entire pond. Six adult snakeheads went belly up, along with more than 1,000 juveniles.
It's unclear how they got there, but it's possible the adults were originally kept as pets or bought as food at a market. Snakeheads are known for their parenting skills; they're monogamous (rare for fish) and guard their young in a bed-like spawning area. Females mate up to five times a year, laying thousands of eggs at a time. Without predators, they thrive. Rorapaugh has seen adults grow to be 41 inches in length and up to 16 pounds.
In a 2005 article in Smithsonian Magazine, Helen Fields made light of the problem. "If the snakehead is different enough from the predators that natives have evolved with," she wrote, "it might drive some natives to extinction. It's hard to predict what will happen, though."
Seven years later, Rorapaugh says the problem is worse than ever. Since they began turning up in the Potomac a few years ago, snakeheads have infiltrated all the river's tributaries in both Maryland and Virginia.
The snakehead is a difficult fish to catch. It lives in low-oxygenated areas, in marshes and among lily pads, and thanks to little sacs above its gills that function like lungs, it can breathe on the surface. It's also slippery to the touch because of a heavy mucus covering. Some fishermen resort to unconventional means to catch them.
"The bow fishermen," Rorapaugh explained, "they go out at night and they have these lights on their boats, and they go into the grass beds and they shoot them with bow and arrow."
On one such night, he was shocked by the number of snakeheads swimming around the boat. "I saw so many juveniles, eight- to 10-inch snakeheads everywhere. Hundreds of them. It was alarming to me how many that I saw. I know that right now it's an issue, but I know five years from now it's going to be a huge issue with the amount of juveniles I saw."
But the snakehead's predilection for devouring its indigenous neighbors may be its downfall.
"It's very clean tasting," Rorapaugh mused. "It's a predatory fish, so it only eats other living things. The diet is very clean, so you are what you eat, right?"
Gramercy Tavern received its first shipment last Thursday after Anthony and Rorapaugh connected through a cross-country network of chefs. The order was a modest one -- only three fish, or 12 to 14 portions -- and they were served as an experiment.
"Snakehead -- I've never heard of it," Anthony said, chuckling. "The sous chefs have never heard of it. The guests have never heard of it. Everyone says, 'Huh?'"
On a busy Friday night, Anthony offered a special he called a "hot winter salad." The snakehead -- whose taste he likened to Japanese sushi fish the yellowtail -- was roasted over a wood-fire grill and served with charred and raw sunchokes and pickled cippolini onions atop a bed of baby mustard greens and baby bok choy. The whole plate was drizzled with a blood orange vinaigrette.
The reaction, Anthony said, was entirely positive. "I've noticed, in my experience of working in New York, people generally, at least in this restaurant, are very open to eating products they've never heard of before. They like that sense of discovery."
People are also receptive to a good cause. Although a fish hailing from the Chesapeake Bay watershed stretches the definition of "local" for a New York City eatery, the snakehead's story is one that Anthony feels Gramercy Tavern and his diners will connect with.
Still, both Anthony and Rorapaugh are reluctant to call for open season on snakeheads.
"Here's the thing," Anthony warned. "Anytime a restaurant like this starts to sell a story and endorse a new product, there's a certain phenomenon that happens. If all of a sudden, people decide that snakehead is the next big craze, well, it'll do a few things. It would definitely drive the price up on that fish, and at a certain point, there is a good chance that we could deplete that population quickly and someone would decide that they want to start raising, cultivating or encouraging the growth of snakehead in order to sell it. As soon as there's a demand, they're going to want more."
It's a problem that Rorapaugh readily acknowledges. But there are penalties in place for trying to transport live snakeheads -- they must be killed immediately after they're caught -- and the problem has reached such proportions that he feels restaurants must forge forward. They certainly aren't being overfished yet; if local companies other than ProFish are selling snakeheads commercially, Rorapaugh doesn't know about it.
"I saw such alarming rates of reproduction," he stressed. "You can't put your head in the sand and hope it goes away. You really have to do something proactive."
This article has been updated to include background about the Gramercy Tavern.