What are snakeheads?

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.

A mature northern snakehead female can carry as many as 50,000 eggs, although some will not develop and others will be eaten by insects and small fishes following fertilization. Depending on water temperature, eggs can hatch in about 24-48 hours.

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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...

Where do snakeheads live?

Snakeheads are freshwater fishes with little, if any, tolerance for saltwater. Within their native and introduced ranges, they live in small and large streams, canals, rivers, ponds, reservoirs, and lakes. Many species can tolerate a wide range of pH, and one species living in Malaysia and parts of Indonesia prefers highly acid waters (pH 2.8-3.8...

What are the potential effects of snakeheads to our waters?

During all of their life stages, snakehead fish compete with native species for food and habitat. A major concern is that snakeheads might out-compete (and eventually displace) important native or other established predatory fish that share the same habitat. As adults, snakeheads can be voracious predators. Should snakeheads become established in...

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 snakeheads still be purchased for food purposes?

Dead snakehead fish--on ice or frozen--can be imported for food purposes to any state except those where importation or possession of dead snakeheads is illegal. Live snakeheads of one species that are being cultured in Hawaii (but not exported to the United States mainland) are available in one market in Honolulu. Hawaii regulations require that...

How did snakehead fish get into the United States?

Prior to being added to the list of injurious wildlife under the Lacey Act in 2002, which banned import and interstate transport without a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, snakeheads were sold in pet stores and in live food fish markets and some restaurants in several major U.S. cities, including Boston, New York, and St. Louis...

Can snakehead fish harm humans?

Most snakehead fish will avoid contact with humans. In captivity, many will actually act shy around people. However, when guarding their eggs or young, they can become aggressive if approached. One species, the giant snakehead ( Channa micropeltes ) native to southeastern Asia, has been reported to be aggressive toward humans who got too close to...

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...

What is an invasive species and why are they a problem?

An invasive species is an introduced, nonnative organism (disease, parasite, plant, or animal) that begins to spread or expand its range from the site of its original introduction and that has the potential to cause harm to the environment, the economy, or to human health. A few well-known examples include the unintentional introduction of the...
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Date published: January 11, 2017

A Breakthrough in Controlling Invasive Fish

On a windy July morning on Lake Superior’s Whitefish Bay, fisherman Ralph Wilcox of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and his son, Dan, netted 300 pounds of wriggling whitefish. The mild-flavored salmon relative is served in restaurants, in smoked fish spreads, and as gefilte fish at Passover. However, two of the fish in the Michigan fishermen’s nets were badly wounded.

Date published: June 14, 2016

Moving Barges Have Potential to Transport Invasive Fish

When a moving barge encounters small fish in the Illinois Waterway there is a possibility that the fish will become trapped in the gap between barges, according to a new study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Date published: October 29, 2015

Invasive Northern Snakehead Carries Bacteria as Bad as its Bite

The invasive northern snakehead fish found in the mid-Atlantic area is now cause for more concern, potentially bringing diseases into the region that may spread to native fish and wildlife, according to a team of U.S. Geological Survey scientists.

Date published: August 13, 2013

Largemouth Bass Virus Found in Northern Snakeheads in Virginia

A virus that can cause disease in largemouth bass has now been identified in otherwise apparently healthy northern snakeheads taken from two Potomac River tributaries in Virginia, the U.S. Geological Survey announced today. 

Date published: August 2, 2005

USGS Confirms Snakeheads in NYC Lake - Invasive fish species threatens native fauna

U.S. Geological Survey fisheries biologists in Gainesville, Fla., have confirmed the presence of the voracious non-native northern snakehead fish in Meadow Lake in Queens, N.Y. Five specimens have been collected by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation from the lake in Flushing Meadows Corona Park since early July.

Date published: September 9, 2004

Snakehead in your inbox? Welcome to the Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Alert System

Want to know how many new species have been found in your state in the past six months, or where the latest sighting of snakeheads occurred? You can find the answers to both these questions at the USGS Nonindigenous Aquatic Species (NAS) Alert System.

Date published: May 18, 1999


Skyrocketing numbers of invasive non-native fishes in the nation’s waters are increasingly threatening aquatic systems, according to three USGS biologists writing in a book recently published by the American Fisheries Society.

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Bullseye snakehead, Channa marulius
November 13, 2018

Bullseye snakehead, Channa marulius

Bullseye snakehead, Channa marulius, caught during Fish Slam November 2018

December 31, 2017


Chad Wells with snakehead caught in the Maryland Chesapeake Bay watershed

Two crew holding a bullseye snakehead (Channa marulius)
August 5, 2016

Two crew holding a bullseye snakehead (Channa marulius)

Two electrofishing crew members holding a bullseye snakehead (Channa marulius)

Bullseye snakehead (Channa marulius)
August 5, 2016

Fish Slam 2016 - Bullseye snakehead (Channa marulius)

Bullseye snakehead (Channa marulius)

Image: Northern Snakehead
March 21, 2016

Northern Snakehead

Virginia unit researchers study seasonal movement, dispersal, and home range of invasive Northern Snakehead Channa argus. Scientists also research growth and reproductive behavior in a newly established population of northern snakehead.

Attribution: Ecosystems
Image: Snakehead Fish
March 15, 2016

Snakehead Fish

Snakehead fish are originally from China and Korea, but recently they've been found in Maryland, Virginia, Arkansas, California, and Florida.

Attribution: Ecosystems
Image: Snakehead Fish
March 15, 2016

Snakehead Fish

Snakehead fish are originally from China and Korea, but recently they've been found in Maryland, Virginia, Arkansas, California, and Florida.

Attribution: Ecosystems
September 23, 2008

What are snakeheads and what do they look like?

Listen to hear the answer.

Northern snakehead (Channa argus)

Northern snakehead (Channa argus)

Northern snakehead (Channa argus) is an aquatic invasive species in the mid-Atlantic region and elsewhere.