Invasive snakehead caught in a Missouri ditch. If you see one, kill it, officials say

An angler caught an invasive Northern snakehead in Missouri last month, and if there are more, the fish species could threaten the state’s waters.

The snakehead was caught on April 25 in a “borrow ditch within the St. Francis River levees in Dunklin County,” the Missouri Department of Conservation said in a news release.

This “was the first time the fish had officially been found in Missouri,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

“MDC sampling efforts in the area where the angler caught this fish yielded no additional snakeheads, which means this species may not be well established in Missouri yet,” a news release from the Missouri Department of Conservation says.

But wildlife officials don’t want to take any chances with the fish.

“This fish’s wide temperature tolerance, potential to spawn multiple times in one year, and ability to survive in low oxygenated waters are reasons why it’s a threat to Missouri waters,” said Dave Knuth, a fisheries management biologist, in the news release.

That’s why the Missouri Department of Conservation wants you to kill any snakeheads that you see — after taking a photo to positively identify and report it, that is.

An invasive Northern snakehead fish was caught in Missouri on April 25, 2019. Arkansas Game and Fish Commission

If you see one, you can kill it by “severing the head, freezing the fish, or putting it on ice for an extended period of time,” the conservation department says.

“It’s illegal to import, export, sell, purchase, or possess a live Northern snakehead in Missouri,” the news release states.

Not only is the fish invasive, snakeheads are “considered rather ugly,” the U.S. Department of the Interior says. The DOI is one of two departments “responsible for researching and regulating snakeheads.

Snakeheads “have ... large scales atop the head, and eyes located far forward on the head — making their heads resemble those of snakes,” according to the Missouri wildlife department.

“And, they have big mouths with lots of sharp teeth,” the DOI says. “All the better to eat stuff with. An adult northern snakehead may consume prey up to a third (33%) of its own size.”

What they eat can disrupt the food chain.

“When introduced to North American waters, they damage the ecological balance,” the Missouri Department of Conservation says. “They compete with native species for food and habitat. Lacking their natural predators, these large, fast-growing, fast-reproducing fish become the top predators and may potentially lead to a decline in our bass, crappie, and other fish populations.”

And while they live in the water, a snakehead out of water can survive for up to four days, according to the DOI.

“They can thrive in some nasty places and, when they don’t like those places anymore, crawl out of the water and go someplace else. No kidding,” the DOI said. “Because snakeheads are obligate air-breathers, they can live in poorly-oxygenated stagnant water ... The juveniles can migrate overland. The adults are too round-bodied – and stuffed full of our beloved native fauna – to make the trek.”

They crawl by “flexing their body and pushing with their tail, while using their broad pectoral fins to stabilize their head,” according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In addition to competing with native fish species, snakeheads can carry potentially-harmful diseases and parasites, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said.

And if a mature snakehead female is pregnant, thousands more could take over since they can carry up to 50,000 eggs at a time — and they hatch in one to two days, the agency said.

“Although some will not develop and others will be eaten by insects and small fishes following fertilization,” the agency said.

“Most snakeheads will avoid contact with humans,” the agency continued. “However, when guarding their eggs or young, they can become aggressive if approached.”

The invasive species was likely brought to the United States through the “growing trade in live food fish,” according to the DOI. They are native to Russia, China, North Korea and South Korea.

“We will continue to monitor the spread in southeast Missouri,” Kruth said in the news release.

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