A reviled snake-like fish that can slither on land and has inspired a string of horror films is now popping up in Louisiana.
The northern snakehead, an invasive fish from Asia that that out-eats and out-breeds many native species, was confirmed for the first time in Louisiana this week.
An angler spotted a pair of adult snakeheads and a mess of their babies in Old River, an oxbow lake branching off the Mississippi River in Concordia Parish, about 12 miles from Natchez, Miss.
“Our greatest concern is that they’ll rapidly expand and have an impact on our Louisiana fisheries,” said Rob Bourgeois, the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries’ aquatic nuisance species coordinator.
Snakeheads made their first appearance in the U.S. in a pond behind a strip mall in Maryland 21 years ago. Since then, the fish has spread to at least 12 other states.
Usually, measuring about three feet, the snakehead will eat just about anything it can sink its jagged little teeth into: crawfish, dragonflies and fish popular with anglers, like bass and crappie. They’ve been known to wriggle out of the water to poach lizards and tree frogs. Ducks, mice and even AA batteries have been found in snakehead bellies.
The snakehead can breathe air, a rare trait among fish that allows the species to gulp air while dwelling in shallow, low-oxygen waterways.
“They seem to live in places they shouldn’t,” Bourgeois. “It can be hot, shallow, grassy or poor water like in an agriculture ditch.”
They really only need enough water to keep their skin glowing with a mucus-like film.
“As one guy told me, the water can be so low that they’ve got their belly in the dirt and their back in the sunshine,” Bourgeois said.
They get their name from their serpentine looks: pointed teeth, eyes on the top of a flat, scaly head, and mottled body markings similar to a python or boa constrictor.
Gale Norton, the former Secretary of the Interior, once said snakeheads reminded her of “something out of a horror movie.”
Filmmakers may have been taking notes. The fish has inspired at least three movies: “Snakehead Terror,” “Snakehead Swamp,” and “Swarm of the Snakehead.”
Native to China and North Korea, snakeheads were likely brought to the U.S. as aquarium pets or for sale at live-food markets.
The snakeheads’ voracious appetite and ability to consume animals a third their size means they leave little for other species to eat. In many Maryland waterways, it’s become the top fish predator.
They’ve gotten so bad in Virginia that the state urges residents to treat them like zombies: “Kill the fish by removing the head.”
Snakeheads also owe their success to frequent breeding, rapid growth and dedicated parenting. While many fish drop their eggs and forget them, male and female snakeheads care for and aggressively defend their treasured roe. Once hatched, a batch of young snakeheads will form a swirling mass that is closely patrolled by mom and dad.
It was one of these broods of little snakeheads that recently drew the eye of an angler in Concordia Parish, near the town of Minorca.
“He sent me a video on Monday, and I saw the ball of babies,” Bourgeois said. Then a snake-looking adult darted into view. When it came up for air, Bourgeois knew: “They are here.”
How bad is this for Louisiana? That’s unclear. Louisiana’s a bit warmer than snakeheads prefer, but the state’s flatness may help the fish slither the gaps between ponds, canals and wetlands, potentially allowing it to spread at a rapid rate.
Snakeheads look and act a lot like bowfins, a native fish that also thrives in shallow, stagnant water. Bowfins, often called choupique in Louisiana, may struggle to find food if snakeheads begin pillaging their territory.
Louisiana doesn’t yet have a snakehead response plan, but officials hope to track its spread. Wildlife and Fisheries is asking anyone who catches a suspected snakehead to report it.
There is one silver lining to a possible snakehead invasion. The mean, ugly fish are actually quite delicious, with a white, flaky meat that’s not unlike cod. In Baltimore, they’re featured on the menus of fancy restaurants.
After a little time in Louisiana, snakeheads may start popping up in po-boys.
“Another biologist told me he actually prefers them to catfish,” Bourgeois said.
Wildlife and Fisheries asks that anyone who catches a suspected snakehead fish to not return it to the water. Anglers are asked to take a photo of the fish, kill it, double bag it and freeze it. Then call the Wildlife and Fisheries aquatic invasive species hotline at (225) 765-3977 or send an email to aquaticInvasives@la.gov.
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