- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
The Charles County commissioners want to change the name of the northern snakehead.
Citizens were asked to come up with an alternate name for the toothy, elongated fish — an invader from Asia that sparked a panic when it first came to local shores — in a voting contest.
The voting produced more than 400 entries and yielded three finalists: Chesapeake Bay channa fish, Asian river fish and spotted channa. Channa is a nod to the Latin name of the fish, Channa argus, which is itself from the family name Channidae.
The commissioners are hoping to present the winning name to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources for consideration for a name change, though the DNR said it does not have a say in the renaming of species. An official with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service said his group also can’t rename the species.
“Who does have control over changing the name if it’s a common name?” asked the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he didn’t have permission to speak on behalf of the office. “Think about all the common names for different animals. Nobody has any rules or control over that. Whoever controls the species and has responsibility for them still has it, whether you call it a snakehead or a yummy fish.”
The county’s contest, which began Jan. 7, will conclude March 20.
“The public’s response and global media attention to the first phase of this contest has been great for Charles County,” Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) said in a news release. “I always consider part of my job to be a cheerleader for the county and to sometimes engage the citizens with something fun. The snakehead contest has achieved both those goals and then some.”
Opinions vary on whether the name should be changed at all, and some just don’t care.
“I think honestly everything’s done for a purpose,” said snakehead bowfisherman Bill Massey, who is part of a fishing team that calls itself the Channa Posse. “If people don’t like the word elephant then they’re going to try and rename that, too? I’m … I don’t know … I’m probably neutral about it. It is what it is. I know what a snakehead fish is. I know what a northern snakehead is, and I know what the scientific name of that is because that’s the name of my team. If they want to rename it Nanjemoy seabass or Southern Maryland freshwater fish it’s totally up to them, but I know what it is.”
Mike Starrett said he understands why the commissioners want to rename the species.
“Yeah, women cringe at the sound of snakehead,” said Starrett, a guide for Indian Head Charters, which fishes for several species including snakehead on Mattawoman Creek. “They don’t like snakes, and a lot of men don’t like snakes either, so they think anything associated with snakes is evil.”
Starrett said his problem lies with the three finalists.
“Sure [I’m OK with renaming it], but the names they chose just suck. They’re absolutely the worst,” said Starrett, who is booked for all but one day June through August and said his clients helped push the Potomac pike name. “Chesapeake Bay channa? That’s just stupid. Asian river fish? Oh, that’s even worse. Spotted channa? Yeah, that’s even worse. I can’t [find] a single person who said that [they voted for] any of those three names they selected.”
Massey said he didn’t think Chesapeake Bay channa was a good fit.
“I wouldn’t call it [that] because predominantly they’re in the freshwater tributaries,” he said. “Very seldom will you find them in saltwater. Right off the Potomac is where you’ll find most of them.”
Starrett said he’s been calling the hard-fighting elongated fish a Potomac pike for the past 10 years and would have liked to have seen that name move on to the finals.
“Potomac pike sounds like a fish that’s really hard to catch, which it is,” Starrett said. “And it also sounds like a fish you really don’t want to eat because too many people don’t want to eat pike.”
Joe Evans, a public affairs person for DNR’s fisheries service, said he sees both sides of the argument.
“From someone like me who is a keen angler and who loves to go out and catch fish I think the meaner-sounding the fish is, the more excited I am about catching it. I have two points of view,” Evans said. “So if someone said, ‘Would you like to go out and catch tigerfish in South America?’ I’d go, ‘Yeah, sign me up.’ But when I put my other hat on, which is a seafood lover, I like the food I eat to sound delicious. And snakehead is a little harder about ordering off the menu. They’re delicious, but you kind of have to get past the name. [The vote] is a cool marketing thing, and there’s no reason that someone couldn’t just call it what they want to put it on a menu.”
The USF&WS official said the county could always unofficially change the name.
“I think the county doesn’t know you don’t really need permission to change the name,” he said. “If the group of people in that community want to call it something else, they just have to say, ‘Hey, let’s start calling it this.’ It’s still the same species. The taxonomy or the nomenclature doesn’t change.”
The official said he would be tempted to change the name because, “If I were in a restaurant I would not be serving snakehead. I would be serving [it under] some other name. Snakehead sounds terrible.”
To vote for one of the three finalists, go to www.charlescountymd.gov/snakehead-naming-contest.