Southeast Missouri fishermen recently got more than they bargained for. They hooked a northern snakehead, an invasive fish that is a voracious predator capable of surviving out of water for days. Officials worry that the hard-to-contain species will spread and become a problem.
The northern snakehead is native to Communist China, where they are a delicacy believed to have healing powers. They reproduce quickly, have sharp teeth, can wiggle across muddy land and grow to nearly three feet in length. The federal government in 2002 banned the import and interstate transport of live northern snakeheads, but they are flourishing in some parts of the United States.
“They are knocking on the door in Arkansas,” said Dave Knuth, a Missouri fisheries management biologist based in Cape Girardeau. “They are a beast. I didn’t expect them to be this far up the state already.”
The first northern snakehead found in Missouri was caught in 2019 out of a ditch within the St. Francois River levee system in the Bootheel region. On May 19, state workers using a net to catch bait for a youth jug-fishing clinic pulled a 13-inch northern snakehead out of Duck Creek Conservation Area. Knuth said the fish was found in the same watershed as the first one, though about 70 river miles north of the initial catch.
Wildlife officials spent two days searching for additional northern snakeheads in the conservation area and neighboring Mingo National Wildlife Refuge. No others were found, but they fear others are lurking, at least in low numbers.
In 2019, the fish also was spotted in Pennsylvania and in Georgia. After an angler reported catching one in a private pond in Gwinnett County, Georgia wildlife officials issued a warning to other fishermen: “Kill it immediately.”
Anglers are also encouraged to report sightings of the fish to MDC’s Southeast Regional Office at 573-290-5858.
In 2015, a team of U.S. Geological Survey scientists found that a group of adult northern snakehead collected from Virginia waters of the Potomac River south of Washington D.C. were infected with a species of Mycobacterium, a type of bacteria known to cause chronic disease among a wide range of animals.
Larry Underwood, 73, who lives near the conservation area, wished Missouri well in its efforts to keep out the northern snakehead. As he fished, he noted that the state also tries to control feral hogs, but with little luck. “It’s kind of like the hogs,” he said. “You are going to eliminate that? Yeah, good luck.”
–Alan Goforth | Metro Voice