An invasive fish species that can breathe air and survive for extended periods of time on land has made its way to Georgia.
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resources Division announced on Tuesday, Oct. 8 that a northern snakehead had been found in a private pond in Gwinnett County. This is the first known confirmation of the species in Georgia waters.
After three days of taking surveys around the private pond, Georgia DNR members have collected four other snakeheads.
Hunter Roop, fisheries biologist with Georgia DNR in Gainesville, said the additional four were found within 100-200 yards of the original pond.
“We aren’t detecting snakeheads anywhere outside roughly a couple hundred yards from the pond at most,” Roop said. “It appears to be a local issue, but right now we don’t believe there’s a threat to watersheds in Hall County at this time.”
Mattias Johansson, assistant biology professor at the University of North Georgia in Gainesville, has a background in studying invasive fish species, particularly marine life.
He said the snakehead is considered a nuisance species in North America because it is capable of rapidly reproducing and is a large predatory fish.
The long, blotchy-patterned fish can grow up to nearly three feet in length and has a dorsal fin that runs along its entire back.
Johansson said snakeheads are often confused with the native bowfin, which is slightly different in appearance by having a short anal fin, as opposed to the snakehead’s long anal fin.
Being an invasive species, he said snakeheads could negatively impact fish populations in Georgia by starting competition with native aquatic predators like the largemouth bass. Even the juvenile snakeheads pose a threat by competing for the same food as juvenile fishery species.
Snakeheads can migrate over land for short periods, but Johansson said this isn’t the reason for the species popping up in Georgia.
“Unfortunately, I’m 99% certain that the way they made it to Georgia is from somebody releasing them,” he said. “A common way for fish to be spread is either somebody is interested in having them, so they can fish in a private pond, or sometimes people are interested in setting up aquaculture (fish farming).”
Invasive fish like snakeheads are often found at local fish markets.
Johansson said a prime example of an invasive species being dropped off outside of its natural environment is the lionfish. Known for their bright bands and elegant fan-like fins, people typically come across them at pet stores.
Johansson said the lionfish is “a huge problematic invader throughout the Carribean.”
They prey on native species and because of their venom, lionfish have less predators in the Atlantic than in their natural Indo-Pacific habitat.
Today they can be found off the coast of Georgia and have made their way up to New York, Johansson said.
“Don’t release aquarium fish,” he said. “Kill them or give them away. You think you’re doing the fish a favor, but you’re doing Georgia no favor by releasing the fish.”
Georgia DNR advises people who think they’ve caught a northern snakehead not to release it, but to kill it immediately and freeze it.
If possible, Georgia DNR recommends taking a picture of the fish, including close-ups of its mouth, fins and tail. Take note of where the fish was caught by recording down the body of water, landmarks or GPS coordinates.
People are encouraged to report their findings to their regional Georgia DNR Wildlife Resources Division Fisheries Office, which can be located by visiting georgiawildlife.com/about/contact#fish.
For more information about the northern snakehead or other aquatic invasive species, visit georgiawildlife.com/aquatic-nuisance-species
Advice from Georgia DNR
If you think you’ve found a northern snakehead:
Do not release it
Kill it immediately and freeze it
If possible, take pictures of it, including close-ups of its mouth, fins and tail
Record where it was caught, including the body of water, landmarks or GPS coordinates
Report it to your regional Georgia DNR Wildlife Resources Division Fisheries Office, which can be located by visiting georgiawildlife.com/about/contact#fish