Snakeheads Banned in Delaware

July 30, 2004

Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Secretary John A. Hughes signed an Emergency Order yesterday, July 29, to ban the transport, purchase, possession or sale of live northern snakehead fish (Channa argus) in Delaware.

This action was taken because of well-publicized reports this summer from the states of Maryland and Virginia about multiple captures of northern snakehead fishes in the Potomac River system and a report released on July 23 by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission concerning the confirmed identification of northern snakeheads in the Meadow Lake system within FDR
Park. This system of interconnected lakes and tidal ditches that connects with the Delaware River and Schuylkill Rivers may mean that snakeheads now have direct access to the Delaware River.

In taking this emergency regulatory action which remains in effect for 120 days and is renewable for up to another 60 days, DNREC is putting the public on notice that snakeheads are not to be stocked anywhere in Delaware, and that anyone presently in possession of live northern
snakeheads should destroy them at once or contact the Division of Fish and Wildlife for information on proper disposal.

“No one presently in possession of live northern snakeheads will be fined if they promptly kill them or notify the Division of Fish and Wildlife,” said Roy Miller, Fisheries Administrator. “This unusual action was taken to help prevent the unwanted introduction of a potentially harmful exotic
species.”

Snakeheads are native to Asia and Africa and have been imported into this country both as a food and as an aquarium species. All 28 species of snakeheads were added to the list of injurious species recognized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in October 2002, meaning that according to federal law, no snakeheads may be imported into this country or transported between states.

The northern snakehead is known to be tolerant of temperate climates and could be expected to survive and multiply if it gains access to Delaware waters. By taking this regulatory action, Delaware joins 36 other states that presently ban one or more species of snakehead fishes. The northern snakehead is an aggressive predator that is known to attain maximum lengths of four feet. In addition, it has the ability to breathe air for short periods using its suprabranchial chambers and can wriggle through wet grass to pass from pond to pond.

According to Miller, because of its highly predatory tendencies, snakeheads can threaten the ecological balance of our waterways by out-competing native gamefishes. “Northern snakeheads cannot tolerate sea water, so the threat is primarily to freshwater systems in the state.”

Snakeheads superficially resemble some native species such as the American eel. It can be distinguished from the American eel by its blotchy brown color and distinct tail. It also resembles the bowfin that lives in inland waters from Virginia southward and can be distinguished from the bowfin by the fact that snakeheads have a long anal fin that runs half the length of
the body. Snakeheads are known to eat invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, and small birds and small mammals.

The Division of Fish and Wildlife will schedule a public hearing this fall to consider making the ban on northern snakeheads permanent and will also consider whether or not to include other species of snakeheads in the ban to mirror federal legislation. The public will be invited to comment on
the regulation at the hearing and during the comment period to follow.

If you are in possession of live northern snakeheads and wish for the Division of Fish and Wildlife to dispose of them for you, call the Fisheries Section at 302-739-3441 to make arrangements. Again, do not release these fish into the wild because even what might seem like a closed system may not remain so during storm events like Delaware has been experiencing this summer. For additional information, contact Roy Miller, Fisheries Administrator, or Craig Shirey, Fisheries Program Manager with the Division of Fish and Wildlife at the above phone number.

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