PA Fish & Boat Commission says invasive Snakeheads are being found in the Susquehanna

02 August 2023- The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) today issued a strong advisory to encourage anglers who catch invasive Northern Snakeheads in the lower Susquehanna River, and elsewhere in the Commonwealth, to report and dispose of any fish caught.

This advisory follows multiple Northern Snakehead captures in Conowingo Reservoir by anglers and natural resource agency biologists this summer, including the first evidence of Northern Snakehead reproduction in the reservoir.  The PFBC and partner natural resource agencies have been conducting surveillance monitoring for Northern Snakeheads in the lower Susquehanna River since May 2020, when 21 fish passed the Conowingo Dam during fish lift operations for native migratory fish passage.  While Northern Snakehead abundance currently appears to be low in Conowingo Reservoir, documentation of reproduction is concerning. 

The Northern Snakehead is an invasive species, in contrast to native species like American Eel that play an ecologically important role in the aquatic community, or species naturalized in the river system like Smallmouth Bass that support a world-class fishery. 

“Northern Snakeheads are voracious predators and may cause declines in important sport fisheries, such as bass and panfish, and may inhibit recovery efforts for species of conservation concern in the region such as American Shad and Chesapeake Logperch,” said Sean Hartzell, PFBC Aquatic Invasive Species Coordinator.  “This is a critical time to protect the Susquehanna River from further expansion of invasive Northern Snakeheads by removing them to reduce adverse impacts.”

In response to these recent findings in Conowingo Reservoir, which is managed jointly by the PFBC and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the PFBC is reminding anglers to harvest or properly dispose of any Northern Snakeheads caught and report captures from Pennsylvania waters to the PFBC at the following link: (https://www.fishandboat.com/Conservation/AIS/Pages/default.aspx).

Anglers are reminded that possession, transport, and importation of live snakeheads is illegal in both Pennsylvania and Maryland, and violations of these regulations may incur legal consequences following investigation by conservation law enforcement professionals.  In Pennsylvania and Maryland, Northern Snakeheads have no size or creel limits and may be taken by hook and line, as well as by bowfishing. 

Harvest is strongly encouraged and anglers in possession of a Northern Snakehead must immediately kill the fish onsite.  Because Northern Snakeheads are tough, air breathing fish which can survive outside of water for extended periods of time, it is recommended to kill them by removal of the head, removal of the gill arches, or removal of the internal organs.  Northern Snakeheads produce white meat fillets that are considered desirable table fare.  Carcasses may also be disposed of appropriately in the trash or used as garden fertilizer.

“Biologists are monitoring for Northern Snakeheads and removing individuals caught to reduce abundance both during targeted work and during fisheries surveys for other species,” said Kris Kuhn, Director of the PFBC Bureau of Fisheries.  “Anglers play a critical role in controlling the spread of this invasive species by harvesting and reporting any fish caught.  We’re counting on their cooperation.” 

The PFBC will also be posting signs at river access areas encouraging anglers to harvest and report Northern Snakeheads and providing instructions on how to distinguish them from similar looking species, such as Bowfin.  The PFBC is also collaborating with other resource agency members of the Susquehanna River Anadromous Fish Restoration Cooperative and hydropower facilities on strategies to prevent and control invasive fishes like the Northern Snakehead while also optimizing migratory fish passage on the Susquehanna River.

Northern Snakeheads are native to parts of China, Korea, and Russia.  They were first reported in the Mid-Atlantic region in the early 2000s and have colonized waters in multiple states through unlawful introductions and dispersal among waters where no natural or artificial barriers occur.  For more information on Northern Snakeheads in Pennsylvania, including an identification guide, visit the PFBC snakehead resource page on the PFBC’s website: https://www.fishandboat.com/Fishing/All-About-Fish/Catch-PA-Fish/Pages/Snakehead.aspx