A snakehead fish is a large, predatory freshwater fish native to Africa, Malaysia, Indonesia, and other parts of Asia. There are 28 varieties of snakehead fish. The snakehead is imported to the U.S. as a food fish and also for the aquarium trade where many thousands are sold every year as pets.
The snakehead fish is unique in several ways from most other fish. Similar in body-type to a muscular eel, some varieties can grow to 4 feet (1.2m) in length, while many others mature to about 4 to 5 inches (10.16 to 12.7 cm). The snakehead has a flat snake-like head and toothed maw, hence it's name. What makes the snakehead so unique, however, is its voracious appetite and its ability to breathe air. In fact the snakehead can travel short distances across land and live for up to three days out of water! It will eat fish equal in size to itself and will consume small mammals as well. There are even reports in Asia of snakeheads attacking and killing humans.
The northern snakehead is extremely adaptable to various climates including cold waters, and like all snakeheads, breeds easily. Adaptability, carnivorous appetitive, lack of natural enemies and ability to transverse land, makes the northern snakehead a real threat to U.S. waterways and indigenous species of fish and amphibians. Tropical and subtropical breeds of snakeheads can pose an additional threat to warmer waterways like those in Florida and Hawaii.
Snakehead fish have been found in U.S. waters in several states, released by aquarists and freed from food markets. Many states now ban the importation of live snakeheads, however, illegal snakehead-activities have been recorded in most of these states and snakeheads are readily available over the internet.
Many people do realize the environmental impact of releasing a pet or a food fish into local waters where that fish is not native. With no natural enemies in U.S. waters, the snakehead's prolific breeding habits and hardy natures create a real potential for snakehead fish to multiply and destroy entire populations of fish and amphibians in the waters in which they are released, including many species on the endangered list. This could cause significant damage not only to the environment but also to fishing and other recreational industries that rely on the preservation of lakes and rivers.
Some snakehead species are known in the aquarium trade as tankbusters; they grow to be very large and require a substantial investment to keep, not only because of the tank size required but also because they must be fed large amounts of food daily. For this reason snakeheads are often released at some point by their owners. Hobbyists should return these fish to the aquarium trade where they can be placed with other willing aquarists, local fish stores, or public aquariums. It is illegal to release non-native fish into local waters, whether a snakehead or any other type of fish. While many species of snakeheads have earned a bad rap as a tankbuster, dwarf snakeheads are quite popular with aquarists.
The threat of snakeheads finding their way into U.S. waterways is not likely to go away anytime soon. Only strict monitoring, swift action and stiff fines can prevent what might otherwise be a potentially devastating loss to the local environment with significant economic impact.
To find out if snakeheads are legal in your state, contact your local Fish and Game Department.