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Image by Susan Trammel-USGS
Occurrence in Delaware
Northern Snakehead (Channa argus), a native fish of China and Russia, were brought to the U.S. for the live food fish market. Unfortunately these exotic invaders escaped or were illegally stocked and now occur in at least eleven states where they potentially threaten native fish and wildlife resources. In Delaware, Northern Snakehead have invaded the Delaware and Nanticoke River systems and their tributaries. They have also invaded non-tidal areas of the state and have been documented in stormwater facilities, private ponds and several public ponds including Becks Pond which is one of the most popular public fishing ponds in Delaware.
Northern Snakehead are identified by long dorsal (back) and long anal fins, a rounded tail, and a large mouth that extends beyond the eye. They also have many, sharp teeth. The adults are green or brown with darker, irregular shaped blotches along their sides. The juveniles are generally lighter tan or yellowish in color but otherwise resemble the adults.
Habitat and Life History
Snakeheads prefer shallow, stagnant, slow moving streams or ponds with heavy vegetation. A nest building species, snakeheads spawn between April and September. Both parents aggressively guard the eggs and larvae for up to a month. Snakeheads are opportunistic and prey on a variety of aquatic organisms including crustaceans, beetles, insect larvae, fish, amphibians and reptiles. Sexual maturity is reached at 2-3 years of age (12-14 inches in length). Snakeheads are tolerant of poor water quality and occur in a range of temperatures and salinities, although they do not occur in saltwater. In addition to obtaining oxygen from the water, they have the ability to utilize atmospheric oxygen which allows them to survive in stagnant shallow waters or out of the water for a variable period of time. They are not able to ‘walk’ on land but have a thick mucus layer that allows them to wriggle and move across short distances.
Illegal stocking of this fish has contributed to its spread in Delaware, especially in New Castle County. A regulation passed in 2013 prohibits the transport, purchase, sale, stocking and possession of live snakeheads in Delaware, so hopefully this will curtail illegal stocking. There are no season, creel, or size limits for Northern Snakehead. It is permissible to catch snakeheads from state waters by bowfishing, spear, or hook and line. NOTE: fish may not be taken by bowfishing on properties managed by the Division of Parks and Recreation or where prohibited by local ordinance (e.g. Becks Pond in Newark, Del.).
What to do if you catch a Snakehead
Anyone who catches a snakehead in Delaware is encouraged to kill it and notify the Division of Fish & Wildlife at (302) 735-8654 or 739-9914 or Edna.Stetzar@state.de.us with information on the date and specific location of the catch and the size of the fish. Submission of a photo allows the Division to confirm the catch. Unfortunately once established this hardy fish has proven difficult to eradicate, making preventative measures even more crucial. The Division of Fish and Wildlife is closely documenting the occurrence of this species in an effort to gain a better understanding of the potential impact this species could have on Delaware’s freshwater ecosystems. The information provided by anglers has been an important part of this process.
Additional northern snakehead links:
Northern snakehead removed from Broad Creek in Laurel.
Juvenile (fry) northern snakehead removed in August from Becks Pond.