SNAKEHEADS

Snakeheads weigh up to 15 pounds and can reach 45 inches in length. (Photo courtesy of Georgia Department of Natural Resources)

Georgians enjoy some of the best fishing found anywhere in the nation. However, the report that a Georgia angler recently landed two northern snakeheads while fishing in a private pond located in Gwinnett County heightened concern that this exotic fish could potentially threaten the state’s diverse fish populations as well as the high quality of fishing we all enjoy in the Peach State.

The northern snakehead is native to the Korean peninsula, eastern Russia, and China’s Yangtze River basin. The northern snakehead was first discovered in the contiguous United States (it has long been raised commercially in Hawaii) in 1977 in California. Since then this exotic predator has shown up in at least 13 other states including Florida, Massachusetts, Maryland, New York, California, and Virginia.

When this voracious fish is reported to be swimming the waters of a state, it is often referred to with names such as Frankenfish or the fish from Hell. 

A movie named Snakehead Terror portrays a macabre story of what happens when a peaceful lake becomes infested with giant snakeheads.

More importantly state and federal fisheries agencies promptly employ a variety of techniques, such as electro fishing, poisoning or draining bodies of water harboring snakeheads and even staging snakehead fishing tournaments to eradicate this voracious predator.

Nobody knows how the snakehead reached Georgia. However, fishery experts in other states have found snakeheads can be spread in a wide variety of ways. Some are dumped into streams and lakes by hobbyists after the fish quickly outgrow their aquariums. In other cases, fish are released by people that consider snakeheads to be a culinary delicacy. In the past, snakeheads were often sold live in fish markets. Often these fish were quite expensive. This prompted some people to drop some of the fish into roadside ditches and canals, small ponds or streams, thereby creating an easily accessible and inexpensive source of the flavorful fish.

Walter Courtenay, a fisheries biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey also suggests that some of the releases have taken place as part of religious ceremonies. For example, a study conducted in Taiwan found 30 percent of Taiwanese citizens released northern snakeheads during worship services.

For quite some time federal and state wildlife agencies have been enacting laws and regulations to thwart the sale of snakeheads. In 2002 the Federal Government banned the import and interstate transport of snakeheads without a permit. Here in the state of Georgia, unless you have a valid wild animal license you cannot import, transport, transfer or possess any of the 28 species of snakeheads.

Snakeheads are not small fish. Snakeheads can attain a weight of up to 15 pounds and reach 45 inches in length. 

On top of that, they are extremely hardy. They can exist in water that is low in oxygen because they possess small sac-like structures located above their gills. When snakeheads swim to the surface and gulp air, these structures permit the fish to obtain oxygen from the air. They can also survive in the wet mud on the bottom of a drained pond. It has also been reported that, as long as they stay moist, these fish can live out of the water for up to four days.

Fishery biologists are concerned that snakeheads will out-compete native fish for food and habitat. This, in turn, could result in our streams and waters being over populated by snakeheads and lead to the demise of populations of native fish such as bluegills, channel catfish, redbreasts, crappie and others. According to University of Tennessee ecologist Dan Simberloff, “If the snakehead is different enough from the predators that natives have evolved with, it might drive some natives to extinction.”

Of particular concern to many anglers is its impact on largemouth bass. Both fish occupy similar habitats. It should be noted, in Virginia, a virus that causes a disease in largemouths has also been found in healthy snakeheads.

Here is a list of ways the Wildlife Resources Division recommends each of us can help thwart the threat posed by the northern snakehead:

• Learn to identify the northern snakehead.

• Dispose of aquarium animals and plants in the garbage.

• Dispose of all bait in trash cans, at disposal stations, or above the waterline on dry land.

• Dump water from boat compartments, bait buckets and live wells on dry land.

• If you catch a snakehead, do not release it.

• Kill it immediately and freeze it.

• If possible, take pictures of the fish. Include close-ups of its mouth, fins and tail.

• Note where it was caught, like the water body, landmarks or GPS coordinates.

• Immediately report it to your regional DNR Wildlife Resources Division Fisheries Office.

I hope that all of the snakeheads living in the Gwinnett County Pond will be quickly eliminated. Meanwhile, we cannot take a chance snakeheads are only living in this location. We all need to be on the lookout for others. We definitely do not want our aquatic habitats ruined by this alien invader.

Terry Johnson is retired Program Manager of the Georgia Nongame-Endangered Wildlife Program. He has written the informative column ‘Monroe Outdoors’ for the Reporter for many years. His book, “A Journey to Discovery,” is available at The Reporter. Email him at tjwoodduck@bellsouth.net.