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Northern Snakehead

Northern snakeheadNorthern snakehead
Photos courtesy of Joe Perillo, Philadelphia Water Department

Snakeheads are a diverse family of fish native to parts of China, Russia, and Korea.

Northern snakeheads were 1st confirmed in Pennsylvania in July 2004 after an angler caught and preserved two from the 17-acre Meadow Lake in Philadelphia county. PFBC biologists confirmed they were indeed northern snakeheads and captured additional ones from the lake. The lake is part of a maze of interconnected embayments and tidal sloughs and the Commission believes additional snakeheads are likely present elsewhere in the system, including the nearby lower Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers.

Northern snakeheads first drew attention in the mid-Atlantic region in 2002 when a pair were discovered in a Maryland pond. They have been found in Florida, North Carolina, California and Massachusetts.

Northern snakeheads are a predatory fish and will compete with other fish species for forage and habitat. It is too early to say what impact the presence of snakeheads will have on other species already in Meadow Lake and other waters.

Partly based on the experiences of other states, Commission biologists have concluded that there is no practical method for eradicating snakeheads from Meadow Lake and given the nature of the waterway snakeheads may have already accessed adjoining waters. The PFBC has decided that while it will continue to monitor the pond and surrounding waterways, it will take no concerted effort to eliminate the species.

IDENTIFICATION

All snakeheads are distinguished by their torpedo shaped body, long dorsal and anal fins without spines, and toothed jaws. Northern snakeheads are typically distinguished by a flattened, pointy head with long lower jaws.

Northern snakeheads can be confused with native Pennsylvania species like the bowfin and burbot. One way of identifying bowfin from snakeheads is to view the tops of their heads. Bowfin have no scales on their head; snakeheads have scales on their head with a scale pattern that is more interlocked or mosaic-like in its pattern—similar to a snake. Burbots have a single barbel (whisker) on the chin and the presence of two dorsal fins. Neither bowfin or snakeheads have these characteristics. For help telling them apart, view one of the following identification guides:

bowfin illustration
BOWFIN

Bowfin are most commonly found in Lake Erie and western Pennsylvania waters, but are infrequently caught by anglers in the Delaware River and Estuary, and Schuylkill River.

Bowfin are listed as a "candidate species", which means that anglers are strongly encouraged to return any fish caught to the waters from which they were taken.

burbot illustration
BURBOT

The only Pennsylvania populations of burbot occur in Lake Erie and the Allegheny River headwaters. Even though burbot are found in several streams in the Allegheny River watershed, they are rarely abundant at any given location.

Burbot are listed as an "endangered species" for inland waters, which means if caught in these waters they must be immediately returned to the water unharmed. The catching, taking, killing, possessing, importing to or exporting from Pennsylvania, selling, offering for sale or purchasing of any individual of these species, alive or dead, or any part thereof is prohibited. Burbot are not endangered in Lake Erie and can be harvested - see Lake Erie regulations for details.

PA REGULATIONS

    • It is unlawful for a person to sell, purchase, offer for sale or barter live snakehead species in Pennsylvania.
    • It is unlawful to possess live snakehead species in Pennsylvania.
    • It is unlawful to introduce or import live snakehead species into Pennsylvania waters.
    • Transportation of live snakehead species in or through Pennsylvania is prohibited.

IF YOU CATCH ONE

Anglers catching snakeheads should dispose of them properly. Anglers suspecting they have caught a snakehead are encouraged to NOT release it, and report it to the Commission at 610-847-2442 or via email.