One day this past April, an angler caught a feisty northern snakehead in Pine Lake, in Wheaton, Maryland, outside Washington, D.C. Local officials drained the lake but found no more snakeheads. The sheriff sets a bright orange hunting vest on his desk in front of an anxious woman. These fish prefer freshwater habitats with a variety of hiding places like logs and underwater plants. Get the best of Smithsonian magazine by email. The various species of snakeheads differ greatly in size; dwarf snakeheads, such as Channa orientalis, do not surpass 25 cm (10 in) in length.Most other snakeheads reach between 30 and 90 cm (12 and 35 in). It was the 20th northern snakehead caught in the Potomac watershed, and the first juvenile. (A study conducted in Taiwan in the 1990s, for instance, found that 30 percent of Taipei citizens— most of them Buddhists—had released animals as part of a prayer.). The northern snakehead (Channa argus) is known for being able to survive on land for days at a time. Like the Crofton fish, the Philadelphia ones had settled in and started reproducing. Snakeheads couldn’t survive in the mildly salty water of the bay, but they could scarf down shad, fish that spawn in the Potomac and other freshwater tributaries. A snakehead fish is considered a non-native invasive species, which means it affects native species by competing for food and habitat. Millions of dollars have already been spent on fish stocking, dam modifications and other projects to help the shad, which used to be plentiful enough to support a commercial fishery in the bay. We do know, though, that walking catfish are extremely pervasive across southern Florida and many scientist consider the introduction of the walking catfish into the area as one of the most harmful introduction in North America. Goldfish, carp, channel catfish—none is native to the river. If they’re not kin, they were likely dumped in the river. Python Patrol is fighting Florida’s Burmese python invasion, reducing the invasive snake’s threat to the Everglade’s endangered species. He already knows whether the snakeheads are reproducing in the Potomac, but he isn’t telling; adhering to scientific protocol, Orrell declines to share his data until they’ve been reviewed by other experts and published in a scientific journal. Carp stir up a riverbed and make the water too cloudy for some other fish. Odenkirk, driving an aluminum boat through Dogue Creek, a Potomac tributary, was “electrofishing,” which involved running about 1,000 volts through a boom that protruded from the bow and trailed wires in the water like tentacles. Invasion of the Snakeheads The voracious “Frankenfish” has turned up in the Potomac River, Lake Michigan and a California lake, sparking fears of an ecological Armageddon. Capt. The culprit in the Sci Fi Channel’s made-for-TV movie Snakehead Terror turns out to be a lakeful of monster fish. The next best thing to explosives,” read the small print on the back of Odenkirk’s green “Snakehead Task Force” T-shirt, which he designed to sell to colleagues for $12 apiece. But, as in the Potomac, some native fish still hang on in the lake, and he says it’s worth fighting new invasions. The 2004 Snakehead Roundup was about to get under way. “They don’t like the juice and they try to avoid it.” Still, a snakehead that got close to the trailing wires would be stunned and surface, for Herrmann or Owens to snag. Courtenay says the fish probably first got into Florida waters through ritual animal release, a common practice in East Asia that some immigrants have continued in their new land. The bay fuels the region’s economy through recreation and fishing. In Asia, it's a delicacy. It has tan, dark brown or black coloring with a mottled, snake-like pattern. It’s hard to predict what will happen, though. Vote Now! But other officials say they’re not convinced the fish are here to stay. “Most invasive species don’t cause a huge amount of trouble, but some fraction of them do, and we haven’t been too good at predicting that,” he says. Aquarists that find them self stuck with a large fish that they do not wish to care for anymore will unfortunately often release the fish into the wild instead of going trough the trouble of finding it a new home or euthanize it. A female lays thousands of eggs at a time, and both parents guard their offspring in a large nest they make in a clearing of aquatic plants. Early remained unpersuaded even after a baby snakehead was found in a Potomac tributary this past September. Six adult snakeheads went belly up—as did more than 1,000 juveniles. The northern snakehead, which is native to parts of China, far eastern Russia and the Korean peninsula, may seem plug-ugly to the undiscerning eye—it has big, pointy teeth and, given its particularly heavy mucus covering, a slime problem. What is Being Done About it. When she demurred, he kept them in his aquarium and later released them. It has a large mouth with a protruding lower jaw and many teeth. Report the sighting (see below). The seaweed invasion is being fed by modern agricultural practices. Originating from China, Russia and Korea, the Northern Snakehead (Channa argus) is an invasive species to the Americas. A couple more appeared in Florida waters in 2000. The scene is a sheriff’s office near a mountain lake, where a hunter and his dog have been found dead. Steve Early, assistant director in the fisheries service at the DNR, worked on the Crofton pond in 2002 and has handled some of the Potomac snakeheads. A Los Angeles grocer was arrested this past May for allegedly smuggling live northern snakeheads into the country from Korea and selling them in his store; he pleaded guilty to importing an injurious species. The northern snakehead is a long, thin fish, similar in appearance to the native bowfin. The now-widespread common carp, brought over from Europe, was put in the river in the late 1800s. A reporter from the Baltimore Sun called it “a companion for the Creature from the Black Lagoon.” The scariest reports, fortunately, turned out to be mistaken. “Of course, I’m worried about what potential it could have to impact the fishery,” he says. She last wrote for Smithsonian about Panamanian tree frogs. The Crofton snakeheads were eventually traced to a Maryland man who’d bought two of the fish in New York City for his sister to eat. Remember, this fish is an air breather and can live a long time out of water. It’s hard to estimate the extent of the snakehead’s impact on largemouth bass and other Potomac species. If the snakehead is different enough from the predators that natives have evolved with, it might drive some natives to extinction. Anglers who suspect they have caught a snakehead are encouraged to NOT release it, and report it to the PFBC at (610) 847-2442 or by sending an email to tgrabowski@pa.gov. The roundup was sponsored by the Marina Operators Association of America to remind boat owners to take care not to transport unwanted species from one place to another—as hitchhikers on their boats or trailers, for example—and to let them know what northern snakeheads look like. “Out of eight species of salmon here, six are introduced,” Willink says. Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark. Most have blotches of dark scales flecked in white along the side of the body. Unlike most fish, the northern snakehead has little sacs above its gills that function almost like lungs; the fish can surface and suck air into the sacs, then draw oxygen from the stored air as it swims. They’ve also been sold live in markets in the United States. She nods, identifying it as her husband’s. Or so it appeared. The northern snakehead (Channa argus) is a species of snakehead fish native to China, Russia, North Korea, and South Korea, ranging from the Amur River to Hainan. Northern snakeheads can get up to three feet in length. Like its reptilian namesake, it’s long and slender and can sport blotchy snakelike patterns on its skin. They have a long dorsal fin that runs along their whole back, and a dark brown blotchy appearance. Then, like an ecological game of Whac-a-Mole, another northern snakehead reared its toothy head the very next week when a professional bass fisherman pulled a 12 1/2-incher from Little Hunting Creek, a Potomac tributary in Virginia about 15 miles south of the nation’s capital. The largemouth bass, native to other U.S. rivers, was introduced into the Potomac in the 1800s. Human Health Risks: Most snakeheads will avoid contact with humans. Experts worried that snakeheads in the Potomac, by eating other fish or out-competing them for food, could drive down numbers of more desirable species, such as shad or largemouth bass. Odenkirk said he’s always conflicted after an unsuccessful day of snakehead fishing. Cliff Magnus is a semiprofessional fisherman (he says he’s been sponsored for the past ten years by “Team Spouse,” a.k.a. Young snakeheads may be golden brown or pale gray, darkening as they grow older. 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