Northern Snakehead Spotted In Conowingo Reservoir: Local Anglers Key To Stopping The Invasive Fish


Northern snakeheads are able to breath air for short periods of time, making it essential for anglers to kill them immediately after capture. (Credit: Maryland Department of Natural Resources)

HAVRE DE GRACE - Sightings of the Northern Snakehead in the Conowingo Reservoir have prompted a call to action by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC)

According to the PFBC, both anglers and biologists from resource agencies have noted the increasing prevalence of the fish, indicating that they are reproducing within the reservoir. The commission is urging anglers to immediately kill and dispose of the invasive species upon capture.

The Northern Snakehead, native to China's Yangtze River, can grow over 33 inches, thrive in temperatures between 32-85°F, favors stagnant, muddy, vegetation-filled waters, and females can spawn multiple times annually, producing up to 100,000 eggs. Due to its wide temperature tolerance and rapid spawning, the predatory Snakehead outcompetes native species like largemouth bass and the American Eel, damaging the region's fragile ecosystem.

"Northern Snakeheads are voracious predators and may cause declines in important sport fisheries, such as bass and panfish, and may inhibit recovery efforts for species of conservation concern in the region, such as American Shad and Chesapeake Logperch," said Sean Hartzell, PFBC Aquatic Invasive Species Coordinator. "This is a critical time to protect the Susquehanna River from further expansion of invasive Northern Snakeheads by removing them to reduce adverse impacts."

The PFBC has been on alert for Northern Snakeheads in the Lower Susquehanna River since May 2020, when 21 of these invasive fish were observed crossing the Conowingo Dam during operations to facilitate the movement of native migratory fish.

The Maryland and Pennsylvania state governments are undertaking efforts to monitor the fish. Still, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), everyday anglers play a massive role in controlling the Northern Snakehead's spread.

"We have learned that harvest by anglers can remove over 25% of the local population, which goes a long way toward reducing snakehead numbers. For this reason, we encourage anglers to target and harvest Northern Snakehead when captured," the agency said in a news release. 

In both Pennsylvania and Maryland, keeping, transporting, and importing live snakeheads is illegal. Anglers catching a Northern Snakehead must kill the fish immediately because it can survive outside water for extended periods. The fish can be killed by removing its head, gill arches, or internal organs.

The PFBC emphasized that the white meat fillets from the Northern Snakehead are edible and can make a good meal. The fish's carcass can also be used as garden fertilizer.

According to the PFBC, Signs will be posted at river access points to remind anglers to harvest and report Northern Snakehead sightings and to provide information on how to identify them from similar species like the Bowfin.

"Although it is doubtful that complete eradication can be achieved, control efforts have been successful," the USFWS wrote. "With the help of the public, we can continue to control populations of Northern Snakehead where they exist, which should help minimize future negative impacts."

For more information about how to properly identify and dispose of the Northern Snakehead, visit the Maryland Department of Natural Resources website.

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