The Northern Snakehead (Channa argus), a fish native to China and Russia, has become a problem invasive species in several states, including Delaware. Anyone who catches a snakehead in Delaware is encouraged to kill it and notify the Division of Fish and Wildlife.
Northern snakehead (Image by Susan Trammel-USGS)
Snakeheads 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.
If you catch a snakehead in Delaware, you should kill it. Then you should contact the Division of Fish and Wildlife with information on the date and specific location of the catch and the size of the fish. If you can, take and submit a photo, to help confirm the catch.
The information you share will help the Division of Fish and Wildlife document the occurrence of this species and gain a better understanding of the potential impact this species could have on Delaware’s freshwater ecosystems.
Once established this hardy fish has proven difficult to eradicate, making preventative measures even more crucial. Information provided by anglers has been an important part of this process.
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.
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 to 3 years of age (12 to 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. 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).