Invasive "Walking" Fish Found Across U.S. South

Bob Dart
Cox News Service
July 24, 2002
Snakeheads, the razor-toothed Asian fish that can walk on land and has
attacked humans, have been reported across the southern United States,
the Interior Department has warned.

The largest species of the bizarre freshwater fish, which can grow to four feet long (1.2 meters), has been found in open waters in Florida. In addition, illegal live snakeheads have been confiscated in Texas, Alabama, and Kentucky and are being sold over the Internet, the agency said.

"These fish are like something from a bad horror movie," said Interior Secretary Gale Norton. "They eat virtually any small animal in their path. They can travel across land and live out of water for at least three days. They reproduce quickly."

The Bush administration is seeking to ban the importation and interstate transportation of live snakeheads, which are eaten as a delicacy in Asia. Possession of the voracious fish is already outlawed in 13 states, including Georgia, Florida, and Texas.

Some species grow to be as big as a golf bag, and snakeheads guard their young ferociously. The Interior Department said there are reports from Asia of snakeheads attacking and in some instances killing people who approached a mass of their young.

"They have the potential to cause enormous damage to our valuable recreational and commercial fisheries," warned Norton. "We must do everything we can to prevent them from entering our waters, either accidentally or intentionally."

"Serious Threat"

Snakeheads have no natural predators in the United States and can cross land to reach new aquatic habitats, so it is vital to keep them from breeding here, Norton warned. "Once established, they are nearly impossible to eradicate," she said.

Meanwhile, they can wipe out the surrounding animal life.

"They will feed on native fish, amphibians, crustaceans, birds, small reptiles, and small mammals," said Steve Williams, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "They could impose a serious threat to some of our own endangered and threatened species."

Asked about importing some of the snakehead's natural predators from Asia, Williams said that "generally speaking, we don't want to go down that road." The predator may be an "injurious wildlife" on its own, he explained. Crocodiles, for example, eat large snakeheads.

The recent discovery of snakeheads in a Crofton, Maryland, pond spawned widespread media coverage about the creatures, dubbed "Frankenfish." However, it was the discovery of snakeheads in Broward County, Florida, last year that raised the initial alarm.

The Florida find pushed the Interior Department to consider adding 28 species of the fish to its list of "injurious wildlife" under the federal Lacey Act. After a 30-day comment period, the Interior Department will make it a crime to import live snakeheads or take them across state lines.

Potential Spread

Norton said the news coverage of Maryland snakeheads was a "coincidence in timing," because the Interior Department had already been planning to act.

While the northern snakeheads found in Maryland appear to have been confined to one pond, the bullseye snakeheads found in Florida were in open water with connecting canals that potentially could enable the fish to reach the Everglades. Northern snakeheads were also found in Florida in the St. Johns River in Seminole and Volusia Counties.

Interior Department officials said it is generally left to states to eradicate the snakeheads or other "injurious wildlife" within their jurisdictions.

Maryland has enlisted a panel of fish experts to determine how to kill its snakeheads, said Eric Schwaab, director of the state's Department of Natural Resources Fisheries. Most likely, he said, the agency will use herbicides to first kill the plants in and around the pond, and then pesticides to kill the snakeheads themselves. In the process, many innocent plants and fish will also die, the experts said.

Williams urged anglers to show any unusual fish that they catch to federal wildlife officials. The Maryland snakeheads were first found by a fisherman who hooked one.

Almost 17,000 snakeheads were imported into the United States between 1997 and 2000, the Interior Department reported, and at least hundreds more have come in since, the agency speculated.

Live snakeheads are sold here either as aquarium fish or, more often, as food in restaurants or fresh fish markets. The popularity of snakeheads as a food appears to be growing, the agency said. If the proposed federal rule is adopted, it would become a federal crime to import snakeheads without a license or transport them across state lines without a permit. Penalties could include up to six months in prison and $10,000 in fines.

Under the rule, live snakeheads or their eggs could be imported or transported across state lines only by permit for scientific, medical, educational, or zoological purposes.

Copyright 2002 Cox News Service

Join the National Geographic Society

Join the world's largest nonprofit scientific and educational organization, and help further our mission to increase and diffuse knowledge of the world and all that is in it. Membership dues are used to fund exploration and educational projects and members also receive 12 annual issues of the Society's official journal, National Geographic. Click here for details of our latest subscription offer: Go>>

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.