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What You Need to Know About the Invasive Snakehead Fish


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Meet the northern snakehead. It's an aggressive invasive fish species with a snake-like head that can jump out of the water and wiggle across land to new waterways.

The northern snakehead fish is native to parts of Asia and Africa but has been tearing a trail of destruction across North American fisheries for the last 20 years. Believed to have been introduced by residential aquarium owners that released them into the wild, sightings of the snakehead have been reported and confirmed in several states all across the nation, including New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, California, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Arkansas, Virginia, and Rhode Island, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

These fish are distinguished by their unique ability to breathe air, which allows them to migrate short distances over land. They can do this because they have supra-branchial organs, which are primitive forms of labyrinth organs. National Geographic even called snakeheads "fishzilla," describing them as "an insatiable predator that obliterates the food chain...freshwater's public enemy number one: the snakehead."

Not only can they breathe air, but they can also survive on land for up to four days, provided they are still wet. All that's needed is a little mud. They have been known to migrate up to 400 meters, or a quarter of a mile, on wet land to other bodies of water by wriggling with their bodies and fins. They are a true invasive species in every sense of the word.

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A Snake-Like Fish

A snakehead fish on a black background

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The name "snakehead" comes from the long, cylindrical body and large scales on their head that give them a snake-like appearance. They have long dorsal fins, large mouths, and sharp, shiny teeth.

The snakehead is a top predatory fish in native ecosystems and disrupts the natural aquatic feeding structure. They cause substantial ecological damage because, in many areas to which they are not native, the absence of natural enemies give them apex predator status over all native fish. Each spawning-age female can release up to 15,000 eggs at once, and snakeheads can mate as often as five times a year once they reach maturity. This means in just two years, a single female can release up to 150,000 eggs.

Anglers in the United States are encouraged to kill, report, and even eat any northern snakehead fish they catch. In many parts of the world, the fish is revered as a nutritious and flavorful food source. It is a very common base for many Asian dishes.

A New Initiative

A snakehead fish on the end of a fishing line

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Efforts to encourage the catch and removal of snakeheads are growing in frequency. This past spring, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), announced a new tagging program established to monitor invasive northern snakeheads in the Chesapeake Bay and Blackwater River. 500 northern snakeheads have been tagged with either yellow or blue tags, and each tagged northern snakehead harvested from now until 2024 could be rewarded with a gift card of $10 or $200. In order to qualify, the harvester must report the tag number and is asked to take a picture of their harvested and tagged northern snakehead. By measuring the amount of northern snakehead harvested, the agencies will learn if population benchmarks are being reached, and ultimately help control the spread of the species.

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Snakeheads have been a problem species in Maryland for the past two decades. Harvesting snakeheads helps reduce predation pressure on the state's natural resources. Other local and regional agencies are addressing the snakehead issue as well. The more awareness there is, the less of a problem it may become.

World Record Snakehead

The world record northern snakehead was caught less than a decade ago in Virginia. According to the International Game Fish Association, a Spotsylvania County, Virginia resident caught the world-record 17-pound, 6-ounce northern snakehead at the junction of Aquia Creek and the Potomac River in 2013. Before that catch, the previous record had been caught in Japan.

Targeting Snakeheads

Florida Aims To Control Invasive Snakehead Fish Species

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For anglers that like a challenge, snakehead fishing can be a blast. Snakeheads are a tough-fighting freshwater fish, are very aggressive, and strike a topwater lure with explosive force. Look for them along riverbanks and in muddy, shallow bottoms. Bring along some pliers for getting these fish off the hook, because those razor-sharp teeth pack a punch.

Releasing snakeheads back into the same body of water they are caught from is not illegal in most states, but transporting live snakeheads is illegal. It is recommended that any snakeheads caught are killed and not released back into the water.

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