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How Did Snakehead Fish Get Into the United States

Snakeheads are air-breathing freshwater fishes that are not native to North America.

In scientific terms, snakeheads are divided into two distinct genera:

  • Channa (snakeheads of Asia, Malaysia, and Indonesia

  • Parachanna (African snakeheads)

In the summer of 2002 and again in late spring 2004, Channa argus, the northern snakehead, generated national media attention when anglers caught this fish in a pond in Maryland and, more recently, in the Potomac River in Maryland and Virginia. Fisheries scientists consider snakeheads to be invasive species because they have the potential to threaten native fishes, the recreational fishing industry, and aquatic ecosystems.

Besides Crofton and the Potomac, the fish have popped up in several other places in the United States. In 1997, one was caught in a Southern California lake. A couple more appeared in Florida waters in 2000. In Massachusetts, one was caught in 2001 and a second in 2004. And in July 2004, an angler caught two in a lake in a Philadelphia park.

Sparking fears of an ecological Armageddon, they are now found in Lake Michigan and California.

What is the Federal Government doing about snakehead fish?

Two agencies within the Department of the Interior (DOI) are responsible for researching and regulating snakeheads: the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). As the research arm of the DOI, the USGS has conducted extensive, worldwide research on snakeheads that provides a basis for regulating the importation and interstate transport of those fish in the United States

Funding for that research was sponsored through a grant from another DOI agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is responsible for fisheries management, regulations, law enforcement, and education. In 2002, the FWS added the snakehead family of fish (Channidae) to the list of injurious wildlife under the Lacey Act. This includes all currently recognized species and any new species that may be described within that family in the future. By taking this action, snakehead fish can no longer be imported into the U.S. or be transported across state lines without a permit.

What should be done with a captured snakehead fish?

If you capture a snakehead fish: Do not release the fish or throw it up on the bank (it could wriggle back into the water). Remember, this fish is an air breather and can live a long time out of water. Kill the fish by freezing it or putting it on ice for an extended length of time. Photograph the fish if you have access to a camera so the species.

Can aquarium hobbyists still possess snakeheads as pets?

In some places, yes, snakehead fish can still be kept as pets, but under several constraints. Specifically, importation and interstate transport of live snakeheads is prohibited. Many states prohibit possession of snakeheads, and several of those states have done so for decades. Aquarists can obtain information about regulations concerning…

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