Snakehead Fish Now Found in 14 US States, Could ‘Forever’ Change Ecosystem

'Kill it immediately'
October 10, 2019 Updated: October 10, 2019

A viral warning from officials in Georgia has told people that if they see a snakehead fish to “kill it immediately.”

The state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) warned people that a snakehead specimen was found in Gwinnett County. The fish is native to East Asia, but there have been reports of the invasive species in 14 U.S. states.

The agency, in a recent blog post, wrote that should one come across a snakehead, “DO NOT RELEASE IT.”

“Kill it immediately and freeze it. They can survive on land,” the agency also stated. “If possible, take pictures of the fish. Include close-ups of its mouth, fins, and tail.”

Are They That Bad?

In the United States, snakeheads were first discovered in Maryland in 2002, causing panic as people though the large fish would eat up native species and take over waterways, according to National Geographic, which said those claims are partially true.

But the U.S. Geological Survey says that snakeheads “compete with native species for food and habitat” during every life stage.

“A major concern is that snakeheads might out-compete (and eventually displace) important native or other established predatory fish that share the same habitat. As adults, snakeheads can be voracious predators. Should snakeheads become established in North American ecosystems, their predatory behavior could also drastically disrupt food webs and ecological conditions, thus forever changing native aquatic systems by modifying the array of native species,” it says.

The fish were imported from Asia for seafood and aquarium uses until about 2004.

A juvenile northern snakehead fish (Georgia Department of Natural Resources)

The fish are native to China, the Korean Peninsula, and Russia.

“They have long, thin bodies and can reach nearly three feet in length,” said National Invasive Species Council (NISC) Executive Director Dr. Jamie K. Reaser. “They were first detected in the United States in California in 1997. Since then, they have been found in canals, ponds, lakes, and river systems in more than a dozen states. The rate of new introductions and their spread within watersheds is alarming.”

The snakehead is a long, thin fish that looks similar to the native bowfin. They can reach lengths of three feet. (U.S. Geological Survey)

The Department of the Interior (DOI) noted that the fish are voracious eaters, including largemouth bass.

“Adult snakeheads not only eat other fish, they prey on insects, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and birds. Yes, birds,” the agency says on its website.

Mouth and teeth of a northern snakehead fish. (U.S. Geological Survey)

The fish have been dubbed “Frankenfish” the media. The reason why is because the species can survive for up to four days out of the water and juveniles can migrate overland. Adults are too round, DOI officials say.

The snakehead also has an “air bladder,” says the Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force, adding that it can also burrow into mud.