Attack of the Snakeheads

"Frankenfish" Invades North America

Snakehead Fish
Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images

They've been described as "something from a bad horror movie." They purportedly attack animals and humans alike without provocation, and even eat human flesh. They're considered such a grave threat to national security that officials have proposed banning the so-called "vicious predators" from American shores.

What reviled species is this? It's or northern snakehead fish, a freshwater-dwelling meat-eater native to Southeast Asia, first found on the North American continent in a Maryland pond in 2002.

This unsightly creature, dubbed "Frankenfish" in the media, walks on dry land and can reputedly survive out of water for as long as three days.

The idea of a walking fish seems particularly disturbing to Americans. Why, I don't know. Maybe it smacks too much of evolution, another item high on the list of Dangerous Things That Must Be Banned.

Snakehead soup

What's ironic is that even as scientists plotted to exterminate the fearsome beast when it first showed its ugly head in Maryland, large-scale artificial breeding projects were underway in China and neighboring countries to meet a growing demand for snakehead meat throughout Asia, where it's valued as both a soup ingredient and a home remedy. Singapore alone imports more than 1,200 tons of northern snakehead a year. Locals there, who prize it in noodle dishes and wound-healing salves, are said to be "amused" by the outbreak of snakehead hysteria in the United States.

To be honest, even homegrown fish experts balk. The northern snakehead fish can only survive for a few hours out of water, they say; its "walk" is really more of a wriggle; it's known for being sedentary in its natural habitat and rarely wanders far; and it won't eat your pets, much less you.

"More Hollywood than science"

Not that its presence doesn't pose an environmental problem — it does, like that of other non-native species taking root in the U.S. The trouble is that the humble snakehead has suffered more than its fair share of media hype and bureaucratic zeal since its presence was discovered here.

"This has been more Hollywood than science," complained a Florida fish and wildlife official in Time magazine during the first wave of hysteria in 2002.

Which is an apt way to put it. It's like Jaws for the New Millennium — we're just going to need a bigger stockpot.