Angling for Snakeheads at Newton Lake

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A volunteer group is hoping to thin the population of invasive species in a weekend fishing tournament.

By Matt Skoufalos

The snakehead fish is an eating machine; an apex predator that can actually breathe air and move on land. It spawns as many as five times a year, and with little else to stop it, can quickly outpace other animals competing for food in the same ecosystem.

Although the snakehead is cultivated for food in places like Asia and Africa, that’s not the case in Newton Lake, where conservationists say it’s a dangerous invasive species that threatens the natural balance of the waterway.

That’s why the volunteer Newton Creek Watershed Association is hosting a fishing tournament this Saturday, June 14, with the aim of cutting back the local snakehead population.

Public domain image of a snakehead fish.

Public domain image of a snakehead fish.

“We don’t think our fishing tournament is going to eliminate all the snakeheads,” said Oaklyn resident and Watershed Association president Lois Giovacchini, “but we hope to educate people about what invasive species are.”

Snakeheads “are able to live everywhere and eat everything,” Giovacchini said, “so they push a lot of other fish out, and that’s really the problem. If you can manage to get them before they have a foothold, you have a better chance.”

Unlike most fishing at Newton Lake, which is catch-and-release, this tournament will be “catch-and-destroy,” which is mandatory for invasive aquatic species, according to the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife.

Destruction, in this case, doesn’t mean consumption, Giovacchini said.

“I would not eat anything that came out of Newton Lake, and I don’t think anyone else should either,” she said.

In addition to helping manage the invasive species in Newton Lake—there are several, according to this interactive map from the New Jersey Invasive Species Strike Team—the association is concerned with improving conditions throughout the entire watershed, which headwaters in Haddonfield and continues through Camden City.

“It is a small watershed, but it is sort of an urban oasis,” Giovacchini said, adding that the lake “does require some active management.”

Despite last year’s focus on controlling algae blooms in Newton Lake with copper-based chemicals, aerators to improve water circulation, and the physical removal of algae mats, the body is still threatened by mineral and pesticide runoff and sewer and stormwater drainage issues, Giovacchini said.

“Nothing has changed in terms of how things flow into the lake,” she said. “We expect that we’ll continue to have the same algae growth. I think in the long run, people are wondering where we’re going to get the money to fix it all.”

Until then, volunteer efforts to curb some of the contributing factors—like a fishing tournament designed to catch invasive species—will  have to provide a stopgap.

The Newton Lake snakehead tournament will be held at Lees Lane and Lakeshore Drive in Haddon Township from 7 to 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, June 14. Entry is $5 per person with a $10 maximum cost per family. Prizes will be awarded for the most snakeheads caught by age category. Contact newtoncreekwatershed@gmail.com to sign up.

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