Days numbered for invasive snakehead

Published Monday, March 16, 2009

The name alone is enough to cause many Arkansans to shiver. Snakehead. It's a fish, not a reptile, and it is trouble.

The invasive fish has been found in an east Arkansas creek and is the target of a massive eradication campaign to be launched in a few days by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The variety found in Arkansas is the northern snakehead, originally from China. A number of the fish have been found in Piney Creek in Lee County, southeast of Brinkley.


How the snakeheads got there is not known, but they have been sold for a number of years across the nation as aquarium fish. One theory is some aquarium snakeheads grew too large for the owners, and they w ere dumped in a stream. They are reproducing in the wild in Piney Creek. But no snakeheads have been found in other waters in the state, AGFC sources said.

To try to wipe out the unwanted and threatening snakeheads, the AGFC and Fish and Wildlife Service are mounting a massive campaign involving most of the fisheries personnel of Arkansas and many federal fisheries people form outside the state.

The eradication process includes the use of helicopters, boats, ground crews and amphibious track vehicles to spread rotenone, a chemical that kills fish by paralyzing their breathing process.

Rotenone is used in both powder and emulsified liquid forms. It isn't regarded as harmful to humans, but precautions are being taken for the personnel involved in the east Arkansas eradication campaign. They will wear hazardous material (haz-mat) suits, and the areas where the chemical is applied will be closed off for a few days.


Rotenone dissipates fairly quickly in both water and on land.

The chemical will kill all fish in the treated areas of Piney Creek and its feeder streams and dtiches, AGFC sources said. The objective is to wipe out all fish, snakeheads included, then restock the creek with fish from AGFC hatcheries.

AGFC Chief of Fisheries Mike Armstrong said that using the chemical is the only way to make sure that snakeheads are removed from the area. "People are going to see a lot of dead fish in these areas," he said. "There is going to an impact to the native fish population. But, I want to make certain that people know these areas will recover quickly. The AGFC will restock these areas with native gamefish and with natural re-colonization the creek will be well on its way to recovery by the end of summer with the stocking expected to provide an improved fishery by next summer."

The biggest fear that AGFC fisheries biologists have concerning the species is its impact on native fish such as largemouth bass, bream and crappie. Snakeheads are extremely aggressive predators, attacking food species as well as fish their own size.

"The northern snakehead is used as a food species in Asia, and we know some were brought to fish farms in the U.S. before 2002," said AGFC Assistant Chief of Fisheries Mark Oliver. "Fish farmers in Arkansas realized the potential danger the species posed and tried to eradicate them even before bans were imposed."

"We can't be sure exactly where this population came from and we just don't know how far they've spread," added Oliver. "Their abilities to live in extremely poor water conditions and reproduce quickly make them a difficult target to completely eliminate."

Oliver said, "They're a top-shelf predator in our fisheries, but they aren't some kind of Frankenfish that will attack people or chase them on land. Our people have handled quite a few of them, and no one has had any sort of injury or bite."

The northern snakehead resembles a bowfin or grinnel, a common rough fish in Arkansas. A readily discernible difference is in the anal fin. A snakehead's anal or lower fin is long. A bowfin's anal fin is short.

(Log Cabin outdoor writer Joe Mosby can be contacted by e-mail at

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