Snakehead Fish: A Non-Native Species Causes Trouble in U.S. Waters

Bullseye Snakehead Fish
This is what a Bullseye Snakehead fish looks like. Florida Fish and Wildlife

The Biology of a Snakehead Fish

 

The snakehead (Channa or Parachanna sp.) is a non-native, air-breathing freshwater fish that is regarded by U.S. fisheries scientists as an invasive species, due to the fact that it can potentially threaten native species and native ecosystems, much the way non-native carp have disrupted native populations in some waters. An unusual feature of this fish is its ability to "walk" by using its fins to haul itself over short distances of land from one body of water to another.

 

Originally from China or Africa, the various subspecies of snakefish were imported to the U.S. as aquarium fish or as food fish served in restaurants, but can cause serious problems to native fish populations if they get established in U.S. waters. The fish compete with native species for food and habitat, and widespread invasion could, it is feared, devastate some native fish species. In some states, it is illegal to possess live snakefish. And it is a Federal offense to transport any life snakehead across state lines. 

Unfortunately, there are increasing examples of snakehead being caught in U.S. waters, though the extent of invasion is not known. Some brief examples of media attention suggesting the spread of the species. 

  • Quite a stir occurred when a snakefish was originally found in a pond in Maryland in 2002. The media frenzy was perhaps far out of proportion to the true danger. Since then snakeheads have been found in U.S. waters dozens of time.
  • A snakehead was found in a river in Wisconsin in 2003.  Incredibly, it was released back into the river before it was identified. It is not clear if it was an aquarium pet that got too big and was dumped, or if it had been imported for food and somehow been released into the river
  • By 2010, populations of snakefish sufficient to be a target for sportsmen have been reported in parts of Arkansas and the Potomac River, as well as other bodies of water. 
  • Today, on-line chat boards and fisherman's forums based in the eastern U.S.  now frequently have discussions on the snakefish, including tips on how to catch and cook them, and how to prevent their spread. 

Appearance

In appearance, snakeheads look a lot like bowfins; they feed in similar ways and have teeth. According to a data sheet from the USGS: 

Snakeheads have a long, cylindrical body with a large mouth and sharp teeth. They have enlarged scales on top of their heads and their eyes are located far forward on their head, similar to the scale patterns and eye positions of snakes. Because their heads are similar to the heads of snakes, they have long been known by the common name “snakeheads.” Size and color patterns vary among 29 recognized species. The largest recorded snakehead was almost 6 feet in length. 

If You Catch a Snakefish

The snakefish is a species that should be killed if you happen to catch one.  Snakeheads are not considered game fish so there are no limits or seasons on them. They should hit live bait or artificials that look like little minnows since that is their major food.

It is allowable to eat snakefish you catch, and despite its unusual (and to some, ugly) appearance, its flesh is good to eat, saying to remind one of the tastes of cod or tilapia--or for some people, chicken.

It can be cooked in much the same way as cod or other whitefish, and some fine restaurants even buy fish from sportsmen who catch them. 

If you catch a strange looking fish, contact your local Game and Fish Department and have them identify it. Non-native species of any kind are a distinct problem for U.S. waters, and drawing attention to a snakefish or any other unusual species will help keep your fishing waters clear of problem fish.