Snakehead Confirmed In Georgia

An invasive fish caught in Gwinnett County pond is not good news.

GON Staff | October 9, 2019

Georgians have been dealing with the impacts of non-native, invasive coyotes for decades. Then last week we learned about giant lizards from Argentina roaming the woods of Toombs County. Now, Georgia has a confirmed report of a snakehead, a tooth-filled fish that can live out of water for days, grow to 3 feet long and eats just about anything it wants.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made importation of snakehead fish illegal without a permit under the Lacey Act in 2002. Like the Argentinian lizards now being found in the south Georgia woods, the northern snakehead is a common aquarium pet that when released into the wild could have serious impacts.

According to DNR, the Georgia snakehead was recently caught in a private pond in Gwinnett County.

The northern snakehead is a fish native to Russia, China and Korea. They first came to North America both as an aquarium pet and also as a food source. In the wild, a snakehead breeds up to five times a year, producing tens of thousands of baby snakeheads. Unlike most fish, both parents protect the hatchlings.

Snakeheads first appeared in the wild in the United States in 2002 in two Maryland ponds. They soon showed up in California, New York, Virginia, Florida and North Carolina. Snakeheads have now been reported in 14 states.

The snakehead is a long, thin fish, similar in appearance to a bowfin. They can grow up to 3 feet in length. They have a long dorsal fin that runs along their whole back, and they have a dark-brown, blotchy appearance. They can breathe air and can survive in waters with very low oxygen levels.

When snakeheads were found in the rural Arkansas Delta in 2008, state and federal officials had a dramatic reaction, something they called “Operation Mongoose.” They used more 3,000 gallons of liquid rotenone and 18,000 pounds of powered rotenone, some deployed by helicopters, and they killed every fish in 400 miles of waterways across 68 square miles at a cost of $750,000. The theory was that native fish like bass and bream could be restocked. The Arkansas efforts killed lots of snakeheads—and other fish—but it apparently didn’t eliminate all of them.

In 2017, the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks said a northern snakehead was caught in Lake Whittington, an oxbow lake of the Mississippi River in Bolivar County. They said they believed the snakehead traveled to the lake from Arkansas across the Mississippi River during high water levels.

So far only one snakehead has been confirmed in Georgia waters.

“Our first line of defense in the fight against aquatic invasive species, such as the northern snakehead, are our anglers,” said Matt Thomas, Chief of Fisheries for WRD. “Thanks to the quick report by an angler, our staff was able to investigate and confirm the presence of this species in this water body. We are now taking steps to determine if they have spread from this water body and, hopefully, keep it from spreading to other Georgia waters.”

According to WRD, if you believe you have caught a northern snakehead:

  • Kill it immediately (remember, it can survive on land) and freeze it.
  • If possible, take pictures of the fish, including close-ups of its mouth, fins and tail.
  • Note where it was caught (waterbody, landmarks or GPS coordinates).
  • Report it to your regional Georgia DNR Wildlife Resources Division Fisheries Office (


The U.S. Geologic Survey (USGS) table below shows states with documented occurrences of snakehead fish (as of Oct. 2, 2019), including the earliest and latest observations in each state, and the tally and names of watersheds with observations.

State Year of earliest observation Year of last observation Total HUCs with observations† HUCs with observations†
Arkansas 2008 2017 9 BigCacheL’AnguilleLower ArkansasLower Mississippi-GreenvilleLower Mississippi-HelenaLower WhiteLower White-Bayou Des ArcUpper White-Village
California 1997 1997 1 Mojave
Delaware 2010 2018 4 Brandywine-ChristinaChoptankDelaware BayNanticoke
District of Columbia 2005 2017 1 Middle Potomac-Anacostia-Occoquan
Florida 2000 2000 1 Upper St. Johns
Illinois 2004 2004 1 Lake Michigan
Maryland 2002 2019 13 Chester-SassafrasChoptankGunpowder-PatapscoLower PotomacLower SusquehannaMiddle Potomac-Anacostia-OccoquanMiddle Potomac-CatoctinMonocacyNanticokePatuxentPokomoke-Western Lower DelmarvaSevernTangier
Massachusetts 2001 2004 2 BlackstoneMerrimack River
Mississippi 2017 2019 3 Big SunflowerLower Mississippi-GreenvilleLower Mississippi-Helena
Missouri 2019 2019 1 Lower St. Francis
New Jersey 2009 2012 2 Crosswicks-NeshaminyLower Delaware
New York 2005 2017 3 BronxLower HudsonRondout
North Carolina 2002 2007 2 South Fork CatawbaUpper Catawba
Pennsylvania 2004 2019 6 Crosswicks-NeshaminyLower DelawareLower MonongahelaLower SusquehannaMiddle Delaware-MusconetcongSchuylkill
Virginia 2004 2019 11 AppomattoxGreat Wicomico-PiankatankLower PotomacLower RappahannockLynnhaven-PoquosonMiddle Potomac-Anacostia-OccoquanMiddle Potomac-CatoctinPamunkeyPokomoke-Western Lower DelmarvaRapidan-Upper RappahannockShenandoah

Table last updated 10/2/2019

A USGA list of references for all nonindigenous occurrences of Channa argus (northern snakehead) are found here.

Featured image by Brian Gratwicke.

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