EASTON — For the past decade, local fisherman Chuck Wilkerson mostly caught northern snakeheads — an invasive species of fish originally from Asia but now spreading aggressively on the East coast — in rivers across the Eastern Shore, such as the Choptank, the Tred Avon or the Miles River.
Today, Wilkerson simply has to travel a few minutes from his house in Cordova to a local pond in Easton to catch snakeheads that are 27 inches or longer. His son has snagged the large, dark brown fish multiple times at the town pond off Bay Street.
“I was like, ‘Wow, they’re really here,’” said Wilkerson, a longtime fisherman who follows the snakehead invasion in Maryland closely. “We used to chase them all over Blackwater River, but we live around here. Instead of driving all the way down (to Dorchester), they’re right here.”
Wilkerson said the fish are fun to catch: they thrash around on the hook and are engaging, big pulls in the water. Snakeheads, which are scaly with long fins, and usually seen with spotted, black marks on their skin, are also long and resemble eels. They can reach up to 47 inches and weigh 15 pounds.
But Wilkerson understands the invasive species is endangering local ecosystems across the Eastern Shore, and he wants to help harvest the population. Snakeheads eat small fish like white perch and bluegill, can spread newfound diseases and often outcompete native fish like largemouth bass in the food chain.
So Wilkerson was particularly relieved when his son caught a large snakehead in the Bay Street pond. It was a female, pregnant with eggs.
“I’m like, ‘You saved that pond.’ I caught one on the Miles River, same thing,” Wilkerson added. “I have no doubt they’re wiping out some of the fish ...They’ll dominate the small population of bass and everything.”
Since they were first introduced in Maryland almost 20 years ago, snakeheads have thrived in the state — but especially on the Eastern Shore, where the marshy rivers, low elevation and large network of waterways afford them a perfect home. According to the Department of Natural Resources, the population of snakeheads in the state have soared in the past six years, when the state first started collecting data.
From 2004 to 2016, snakeheads went from inhabiting a couple watersheds to nearly 40 in the state, invading 2.7 watershed areas per year on average.
While the fish can be found nearly anywhere in the state besides western Maryland, populations are still small in many watersheds. Snakeheads could completely colonize and dominate the rest of the Chesapeake Bay watershed within 52 years.
They have already made substantial progress. In the upper Chesapeake Bay, roughly five snakeheads were caught every hour in 2015. In 2020, that number was 40.
On the Wicomico River, snakehead catches per hour climbed to seven catches in 2015 and have stayed around that number. But average annual catches have inched as high as 20 per hour in the watershed.
The data is still relatively sparse, as it’s hard to estimate the population of a species that was first introduced to local ecosystems less than two decades ago. The fish can also lay up to 100,000 eggs and spawn multiple times a year.
But the population increase across Maryland and the Shore has alarmed DNR, which is pushing harder and harder to get more fishermen to harvest the population.
Joe Love, the program manager for freshwater fisheries program for DNR’s fishing and boating services, said “snakeheads have become more of a problem” on The Shore, and the state will no longer be able to eradicate the population. It can now only mitigate potential damages to local ecosystems.
“Snakeheads have become established on the Eastern Shore. Based on all the conversations I had with other scientists, the species is not likely to be eradicated from Maryland. It’s probably too late,” he said.
Love said some areas will be impacted more than others, but he doesn’t expect the snakehead’s primary prey, species like white perch, to be completely eliminated. Still, DNR will not be able to determine what the extent of the damage is to ecosystems for at least another 20 or 30 years — because it takes time for ecosystems to change.
But snakeheads have already reorganized local ecosystems, Love said.
“Once they become established, they already change the ecosystem,” he said. “They’re already changing trophic dynamics of that ecosystem, and already changed the food web because now you have a new predator in the ecosystem.’
Northern Snakeheads are from Asia, found in rivers around China, eastern Russia and Korea. They are natives of the Yangtze River basin in China. But the fish were first found in Silverwood Lake in California in 1977, likely by accidental human introduction.
A small snakehead population was found in Crofton, Maryland, in 2002. Concerned biologists and state workers eliminated the population, but the damage had already been done. The fish were found in the Potomac River in 2004, and have since spread across the country, including Arkansas — but mostly along the East Coast and especially the mid-Atlantic region.
The fish found their way to the Eastern Shore around 2010, once they popped into Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, said Love, who explained it was subsequently “introduced to Delaware and spread from there.”
Snakeheads traveled into “the Nanticoke, then moved to Wicomico and Blackwater, and then it got into the Choptank, Chester and Sassafras rivers,” the DNR official said. “Prior to them being introduced into Delaware, we knew if they ever got onto Eastern Shore it would be a rapid spread. One of the reasons: it is all very low elevation, a lot of canals, connecting waterways. The habitat is exceptional marsh area for snakeheads, and that is the native habitat they like.”
In the early stages, most invasive fish species can be defeated with chemicals such as Rotenone, which killed the snakeheads in Crofton; electrofishing, by shocking heavily populated areas with electricity; or by draining the water, which state officials did at a pond in Wheaton when they pumped out the water.
But those methods can’t be used to eradicate a large population that has now spread far and wide.
The most effective option now, according to the intergovernmental organization Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force, is to encourage harvests in the commercial and recreational fishing industry. That can be an effective means of population control, considering many northeastern aquatic life have been over harvested before, the organization said.
Rob Newberry, the chairman of Delmarva Fisheries Association, which represents watermen across the state, said many fishermen are already targeting snakeheads and other invasive species like blue catfish because they can endanger the ecosystems the watermen rely on.
“A snakehead is like a blue catfish — it will eat anything and everything, including its own. Muskrats, birds, fish, turtles, anything swimming in front of it. They are voracious feeders and breed multiple times a year,” said Newberry.
But while watermen can “sell the daylights” out of snakeheads because most people find them to be extremely tasty, a recurring problem for the commercial fishing industry is a low market price, added Newberry.
The chairman compared it again to blue catfish, which sell for about $4 a pound. Snakeheads are estimated to sell around $5 a pound, although reports vary, while rockfish and other fish can sell well above that price.
“It’s not worth the price. It’s so low,” Newberry said. “They need to change the name. No one wants to eat anything with the name snakehead. Call it Asian trout.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with DNR, are also heavily encouraging recreational fishers to catch and kill snakeheads.
Officials slap reward tags on snakeheads to track their movement. Fishermen who catch snakeheads are encouraged to call the number on the tag and report the location of the catch. Depending on the catch, fishermen can win up to $200 in reward money.
The state encourages all fishers to kill snakeheads, but it’s not illegal to practice catch and release. It’s against the law, however, to transport a live snakehead in a cooler or by other means.
In recent years, officials have pivoted to improving education about snakeheads. DNR is placing 50 educational signs across the state this year, mostly along the Chesapeake Bay and on the Eastern Shore, to inform the public about snakeheads and how to handle them once caught.
DNR, local organizations and concerned fishermen in Maryland are also moving to hold more snakehead-specific fishing tournaments. Some tournaments have historically led to a harvest of more than 200 snakeheads.
Jesse Goodroe attended a snakehead fishing tournament this year, hosted by Middle River Bass Anglrers, and caught dozens of the fish. Goodroe himself came in third place at the tournament.
The fisherman also just launched his own business, Good Lines Lure Company, with his partner, Steve Lines. They formed the company after realizing the market targeting the invasive fish species is small, even in Maryland and The Shore, where snakeheads are abundant.
Good Lines sells lures for $7 apiece, with a variety available on their website and at some bait and tackle shops. The lures have been successful, according to Goodroe, and he has sold about $2,000 worth of product since opening his business in the spring.
“These lures have a lot of action and increased strength. We decreased the hook size because snakeheads’ mouths are smaller than other fish and full of razor sharp teeth,” Goodroe explained. “They’re pretty intense fish. Catching them is the first task (and) when you get them in the boat, they do this thing — the snakehead freak out — and it’s so strong, if you’re not ready for it, they end up back in the water every time.”
Goodroe said that with his lures, “most people who have never caught a snakehead catch these massive” fish within 30 minutes.
Goodroe is a common snakehead fisher, and he has seen the fish grow in abundance at an alarming rate in the past few years, particularly in Talbot County. He has found them in every watershed but most often in the Miles River, Peachblossom Creek and Bolingbroke Creek.
After witnessing the growing population, he knew he should step up to establish his company because there’s a lack of businesses targeting snakeheads.
“I started the company because there are just one or two companies that are targeting these things,” he said, while other fish like “largemouth bass have (multiple) companies that target them.”
Goodroe is is predicting a “booming industry” in the near future, but he also wants to save the local species that the snakeheads prey on.
“I love fishing for (snakeheads) so much, but I also want to save the population,” he added. “Smaller rockfish, white perch, yellow perch, are vital to our ecosystem.”
While DNR has not collected extensive data on the snakeheads’ impact on local ecosystems and aquatic wildlife because the real consequences of a new predator will unfold over the next couple of decades, other studies have shown the invasive species has crippled some fish species.
Snakeheads are thought to have one the highest population rates in the U.S. in the Blackwater River, in Dorchester County. The U.S. Department of the Interior, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and DNR analyzed fish populations in the Blackwater River from 2006 to 2007, which was pre-snakehead, and then again in 2018 and 2019, post-snakehead, to compare population sizes and estimate the impact.
The study found that pre-snakehead, white perch, bluegill, black crappie, brown bullhead and pumpkinseed — all smaller fish species — were the most abundant in the river. Post-snakehead, the most abundant were larger fish, like common carp and gizzard shad, with white perch still abundant but less so than before.
Meanwhile, snakeheads continue to grow at an exponential rate up and down the Shore.
At the Conowingo Dam, in Cecil County, Wilkerson, the Cordova fisherman, read reports about the spread of the invasive species there since being first introduced in 2017. Fishermen caught 81 of the large fish in 2019.
Wilkerson has also followed a local Facebook angler page, where fishers often post about the abundance of snakeheads on the Eastern Shore. Users were posting videos of snakeheads near the dam, uploading tons of videos of the fish they had caught.
“I went there about a week later and that entire bank was guys fishing,” he said. “I never tried to to fish for them in my lifetime — until I moved over here.”
DENTON — Caroline County Circuit Judge Jonathan G. Newell’s paid leave of absence has been extended to Sept. 23, according to the Maryland Judiciary.
Judges from other jurisdictions will continue to cover Newell’s cases as they’ve been doing, said Bradley Tanner, a public information officer with the Maryland Judiciary.
Newell has been out of the courtroom on a paid leave of absence since July 26 following rumors of an alleged police investigation. Neighbors reported seeing at least eight police cars outside of Newell’s residence in Henderson around 5 a.m. on Saturday, July 24. It’s not clear what exactly was taken from the residence.
By Sept. 23, Newell will have spent just over eight weeks on paid leave.
Law enforcement agencies are not publicly sharing details and refuse to confirm, deny or comment on the situation, although a spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan said that his office is aware of an investigation. Newell has not been charged and there have not been any official details released on a potential investigation.
The Baltimore Sun reported Sept. 3 speaking to an anonymous law enforcement source, who said the investigation includes “allegations of illicit images of youth.”
The Sun also spoke with a reported victim’s parents, who told the paper that their son allegedly found a camera in the bathroom of a hunting lodge while he was there on a trip with Newell. The parents were also not named in the story.
Newell was appointed by Hogan as Caroline County’s only Circuit Court judge in August 2016. Before then, he served as state’s attorney in Caroline County for 13 years. Newell also served as a deputy state’s attorney in Kent County and an assistant public defender in Caroline County.
The judge has not commented on his leave or the potential investigation. A message to his lawyer remained unanswered by press time.
EASTON — A new Frederick Douglass mural was officially unveiled on Sept. 4, with community organizers bringing the public art to life with a large ceremony filled with live music and guest speakers.
The 27 foot-by-9-foot mural, on the Rails-to-Trails near the historic neighborhood of The Hill, is a big draw for Easton, a town with some public art but none so large and historic. And the mural joins other local public commemorations of Douglass — a native of Talbot County — including the county courthouse statue of the famed abolitionist and the new Frederick Douglass Park on the Tuckahoe.
About 100 people attended the unveiling ceremony, including members of the Easton Town Council, Sen. Adelaide Eckardt, R-Mid-Shore, Talbot County Council President Chuck Callahan, Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, and Dave Harden, a candidate for Maryland Congressional District 1 in the 2022 midterm elections.
The ribbon cutting at 505 South Street was celebrated beforehand at Idlewild Park with live music from local artists, including Kentavius Jones, the popular go-go band Push Play out of Washington D.C., and performers from New York-based Gotham City Entertainment.
High-profile guest speakers from Southern Methodist and Morgan State universities, the U.S. Army, and the family of Frederick Douglass, also remarked on the importance of the mural, which details Douglass’s life in chronological order, and celebrates the influence of America’s greatest abolitionist.
Opening the ceremony was Dale Green, a professor at Morgan State whose family ancestors married into the Douglass family through his first wife, Anna Murray Douglass.
Green said it was fitting to place the mural in The Hill, America’s first free black community, because Douglass — who was born in Talbot County more than 200 years ago — was “intertwined” with the historic neighborhood and “the lives and legacies of those early free black individuals.”
“For this mural to have been commissioned and erected now, on this very hollow ground, it is indeed a historic occasion and indeed a historic day,” said Green. “It’s very historic and very appropriate that it happens here.”
Michael Rosato, the mural’s artist, broke down the project and the complex, chronological timeline of the artwork, which is separated into two segments, he explained. The bottom half depicts Douglass’ life, from slavery to his career as an abolitionist and newspaper editor at The North Star. Rosato said he wanted to keep images of slavery in the art so people will “never forget” what happened, and how it influenced America.
The middle of the mural puts Douglass front and center with his first wife Anna Murray at the U.S. Capitol, where he fought to end slavery. Douglass is standing triumphantly and holding up a copy of The North Star.
In the right-hand corner, Rosato traces Douglass’s life in the public art to the civil rights era and Dr. Martin Luther King, and finally to the the historic inaugurations of former president Barack Obama and Vice President Kamala Harris — representing the lasting ideals of Douglass.
“The people that stood on Frederick Douglass’s shoulders were the people that were inspired by his words,” said Rosato. “His words ran deep as they went through the experience — they marched, they demanded they be heard — and it evolves into Barack Obama as the first elected African American and then Kamala Harris as the first woman of color vice president. And that’s an incredible journey.”
The top half of the mural shows Douglass’s descendants standing proudly, on both sides of the artwork, in military uniform. That includes Tarance Bailey Sr., the five times great nephew of Douglass, who served in Afghanistan for the U.S. Military.
“There’s still activism and volunteerism, and it’s very impressive to me that they continue to journey,” Rosato added. “This is a rich, rich mural, and I think it’s a testament to the power of public art and the ability to tell the story.”
Bailey spearheaded the effort, which took roughly three years to complete. He was inspired in 2018 to get a mural up after discussing his vision to continue commemorating Douglass with a family friend and civil rights activist, Michelle Garcia-Daniels, of Rochester, New York.
Garcia-Daniels backed the project, helped organize it and raised $20,001 dollars for the cause. She spoke at the event, and said she was going to continue commemorating Douglass’ life.
“You have no idea how many people you are making happy,” Garcia-Daniels said of the mural. “They’re going to walk here, they’re going to see that, and they’re going to ask questions. And the history will not be lost or forgotten.”
Direct descendants of the Douglass family also spoke at the event. Kenneth Morris Jr., the great-great-great grandson of Douglass, said Douglass has always been an inspiration in his life, especially when growing up as a child.
Morris cited one example, recalling a portrait of Douglass, hung up in his house, that was so powerful it intimidated him.
“I would try and sneak past that portrait. But you know what happened. His eyes were following me. And by the time I could get down to the end of the hallway I could feel his steely glare burning like fire down the back of my neck,” he said. “And I always imagined, as a little boy ... his booming baritone voice bellowing down on my tiny person and he would say, ‘You will do great things, young man.’”
Morris said “there was a lot of pressure” growing up among his family, but he had always felt awed by his ancestors, who fought “so that some of us even have a right to sit in a classroom.”
“We’ve spent our adult lives trying to step out of the vast shadow of our great ancestors, but all of us descend from somebody that made a difference,” he said. “We all have greatness flowing through our veins, and history lives within each of us. The future depends on how we carry that history forward.”