Snakeheads in Delaware

Philadelphia — There have been 12 separate confirmations by Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission personnel of northern snakehead fish being caught or killed in the Delaware River and its tributaries.

The invasive fish have been found as far north as the mouth of Martins Creek on the New Jersey side of the river, according to  according to Mike Kaufmann, Area Six fisheries manager for the agency.

“That was a report confirmed in August, and that point is above the city of Easton,” he said.

Some of the other 12 confirmations include:

  • A May report of 10 to 15 snakeheads being taken in a bow-fishing tournament near Trenton Falls;
  • A June report of about 20 fish at the Fairmount Dam spillway area on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia;
  • Two other August reports of snakeheads in Tohickon Creek in Tohickon Park;
  • Another August report on the Delaware one mile upstream from I-95 bridge at Scudder Falls;
  • And a September report again on Tohickon Creek of a snakehead at Meyers Dam.

The northern snakehead is native to China’s Yangtze River, and was first discovered in a Maryland pond outside of Washington after an illegal introduction.

To date they have been confirmed in a number of waters in Arkansas, California, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

The snakehead is considered a very hearty and aggressive toothy mouthed fish.

With the capability to live in low oxygen brackish water along with an occasional travel through a mix of fresh and salt water, plus a robust ability to adapt to new environments, it can quickly flourish wherever it becomes established.

However, there is still uncertainty about how established snakehead populations will diminish native fish species.

Studies performed by Virginia fisheries biologists on the snakehead populations in the Potomac River have found that snakeheads have not yet “wreaked havoc” on other species.

Snakehead populations have grown there since studies began in 2004, but so has largemouth bass populations living in the same area during that span, which is of course a popular regional sport fish that brings in an estimated $622 million annually to Virginia, plus supporting 5,500 jobs.

Biologists there feel it’s just too early to know the effect on the native environment.

Kaufmann said that is illegal to possess a live snakehead in Pennsylvania – there have been already been some successful prosecutions for this violation – but anyone who catches one should kill the fish immediately.

“They are considered excellent eating,” he said.

“So harvesting them is fine. But they should be removed from the water, killed and then reported to the Fish & Boat Commission about time and place of catch.”

There is also another significant concern the agency has regarding snakeheads, and that is one of identification.

“Because snakeheads look similar to bowfins and burbot, we have had occasions where anglers have killed the wrong fish thinking they were snakeheads,” Kaufmann said.

“Since bowfins are already a candidate for the endangered list, and burbot a native species, the commission has designed and printed numerous posters that will help anglers identify the three species.

“Many posters have already been placed at different access points on the Delaware.”

Kaufmann said the only thing that seems to  stop the spread of snakeheads is dams. “They do not do very well when on land,” he said. “So a dam would halt their movement up a waterway.”

Angling for snakeheads is still the best method to control their spread and overall numbers Kaufmann noted.

“Snakeheads are extended summer breeders,” he said.

“This means they can breed anytime in the summer. But they are also aggressive nest guarders, both the male and female, and with their nests formed in shallow water or cleared patches of weed beds, they are easy for anglers to locate.”

Reports indicate that crankbaits, the same ones used for bass fishing, work best targeting these nest areas, and when both the female and male are removed from guarding the nest, the eggs and fry become easy prey for panfish such as bluegills.

“They may also be taken legally by bow and arrow, but again it is imperative that absolute positive identification as to being a snakehead is made before shooting,” Kaufmann said. 

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