Snakehead is the T-1000 of Invasive Fish

In yet another example of aquarium fish becoming invasive species, the northern snakehead (Channa argus) has been taking over waterways in the Mid-Atlantic states and possibly beyond. When it comes to an invasive threat, the fish, originally from China, have all the tools they need to take over. It is a strong, hardy fish that grows big and can tolerate a wide range of temperatures. Snakeheads have a slender, elongated body and a distinctive snake-like head, it can reach lengths of over three feet.

The fish can survive out of water by gulping air thanks to its labyrinth organ. A labyrinth organ is a specialized structure found in certain fish. Aquarium buffs will recognize this from pet gouramis and bettas. This unique organ allows these fish to extract oxygen both directly from the air, and through their gills. The labyrinth organ that enables these fish to survive in low-oxygen habitats like swamps, is also what makes them so threatening as an invasive species.

Snakeheads breed twice per year and if anyone has seen a breeding pair in an aquarium, they will mess up anything that gets near the eggs. These traits make the fish a potential threat to the entire continental US by out-competing local species.

They are tough and will eat almost anything, my friend had one when we first got into the fish tank craze as teenagers. That thing finished off a tank with oscars and shovel-nose catfish in it. After he ate or killed all his tank mates, he moved onto his favorite food…hot dogs! Now imagine a breeding population of these terrors infesting American waterways. Most domestic fish species would not stand a chance, their young would be devoured before they reached adulthood.

Is There a Market for This Fish?

With a name like snakehead and with looks only its very protective parents could love, the fish already has two strikes against it, at least marketing-wise. The fish itself is white, very firm, and mild. Kevin Ambrose of the Washington Post did a snakehead taste test and from the results it looks like snakehead has a flavor to rival flounder or cod. Perhaps it is time to rebrand it into a more marketable sounding fish.

Much like invasive lionfish, snakehead is a fish worth eradicating from our waterways, but tasty enough to do it by human consumption. I for one, would like to try it but I doubt I will find it on menus beyond the Mid-Atlantic States or perhaps Florida.

Can I Buy Snakehead?

Yes you can buy snakehead meat online, but much of it is coming from Asia, which defeats the purpose. It seems like most snakehead eaten in the US are caught by recreational fishermen. In researching this topic, I discovered that in Virginia, it is illegal to sell snakehead meat commercially. However, there are local fish markets within the general area that do sell fresh and frozen snakehead. A quick online search found a few small markets in Maryland that sell fillets. Profish, a market out of Washington DC occasionally sells snakehead meat on their website.

Unlike Asian carp and lionfish, I feel that the snakehead threat is a little under the radar for many of us. This may be due to the fact that videos of Asian carp jumping into boats have gone viral and lionfish are beautiful and live on coral reefs. Let’s all help get rid of this invasive species by either spreading the word or better yet, putting them on our dinner plates!

If you have tried snakehead, or if you sell it in your market or restaurant, tell us your story in the comments section.