Foreign invader on the move in Virginia

Outdoors Bound

ROANOKE, Va. (WFXR) — The northern snakehead is back in the headlines. The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (VDWR) has taken to social media to make people across the Commonwealth aware that the species is spreading.

The northern snakehead is an invasive species that is native to East Asia, specifically Korea, China, and Russia. It was brought to the United States two decades ago and sold as an aquarium fish. Others were sold in markets. Some of them were released into the wild and they spread from there.

A northern snakehead caught in Virginia waters

Snakeheads are apex predators. At first, it was thought they might out-compete native game species like bass and striped bass. However, VDWR biologists say the fish has not had the adverse effect that was predicted. They have assimilated and don’t appear to be having a negative impact on local game species in waters where they’ve become established. They are being managed as a gamefish species in those bodies of water, however, state wildlife officials want to curb their spread, because the long-term effect in waterways where they aren’t currently found is not known.

A VDWR Conservation Officer holds a northern snakehead

To slow the spread, the Commonwealth toughened the laws regarding snakeheads. It is a Class 1 misdemeanor to possess a live snakehead in Virginia. Despite that, new populations of snakeheads are being found; the most recent in the Pamunkey River near Richmond.

The fish are easily targeted with the same methods used for largemouth bass. Snakeheads are known for their explosive strikes and drag-peeling fights.

Anglers are encouraged to fish for and keep snakeheads in the bodies of water where they are found.

“It’s good to catch them, they’re fun to catch and they’re good to eat,” said VDWR Biologist John Odenkirk in an informational video produced by the state. “We want people to catch these fish, take them home, and eat them, but remember it is illegal to possess a live northern snakehead in Virginia.”

That’s why anglers who harvest snakeheads need to kill them immediately. They also have to contact the VDWR at (804) 367-2925 to report the catch so the wildlife agents can track the spread of the fish.

Another issue is that snakeheads resemble a fish native to Virginia, the bowfin. The VDWR has posted photos and posters to help anglers determine the differences between the species.

Northern Snakehead

Courtesy VDWR

While snakeheads have not been identified in any bodies of water in southwest Virginia, the VDWR wants you to be vigilant. The agency says you can help prevent the spread of invasive species by not releasing fish outside of where the body of water where you caught them.

If you want to target snakeheads in Virginia, the VDWR says they have established themselves in the many Chesapeake Bay drainages including the Potomac, Rappahannock, and lower James Rivers. A population has also been established in Lake Anna in central Virginia.

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