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July 23, 2004
An unusual fish species native to Asia has been confirmed as being present in a Philadelphia waterway. Officials with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) today confirmed the presence of northern snakeheads in Meadow Lake within FDR Park.

Snakeheads are a diverse family of fish native to parts of China, Russia, and Korea. All snakeheads are distinguished by their torpedo-shaped body, long dorsal and anal fins without spines, and toothed jaws. Northern snakeheads are typically distinguished by flattened, pointy heads with long lower jaws.

The first report of snakeheads in the 17-acre Meadow Lake came late last week when an angler caught two snakeheads, preserved them and contacted the Fish and Boat Commission. A total of six northern snakeheads have now been taken from the lake, including three captured by PFBC biologists. The lake is part of a maze of interconnected embayments and tidal sloughs and the Commission believes additional snakeheads are likely present elsewhere in the system.

The introduction of exotic species into areas beyond their natural range shifts the balance of an eco-system. Exotics can introduce parasites, diseases and genetic pollution of closely related species. At the very least, even an otherwise innocuous exotic takes up space and food that might someday be used more beneficially by other species. Northern snakeheads are a predatory fish and will compete with other fish species for forage and habitat. It is too early to say what impact the presence of snakeheads will have on species already in Meadow Lake such as panfish, catfish, carp, gizzard shad, blueback herring, eels, and largemouth bass.

Commission biologists have concluded that there is no practical method for eradicating snakeheads from Meadow Lake and that, given the nature of the system, snakeheads may have already accessed adjoining waters like the nearby lower Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers. As a result, the PFBC has decided that it will monitor the pond and surrounding waters, it will take no concerted effort to eliminate the species.

“Based on the experiences of other states where northern snakeheads have been previously identified and become established, we believe that an aggressive approach to eradicate the species from the Meadow Lake would be neither practical nor effective. Furthermore, efforts such as draining the lake or using fish toxins would likely do more damage to resident fish populations than the threatened competition for habitat and forage posed by the snakeheads themselves,” said Dr. Douglas Austen, PFBC Executive Director.

Anglers catching snakeheads should dispose of them properly. It is against Fish and Boat Commission regulations to possess any variety of live snakeheads. Anglers certain they have caught a snakehead are encouraged to not release it, but report it to the Commission by calling 610-847-2442 or via e-mail to Northern snakeheads are considered good table fare and were introduced to this country via fish markets, where they were often sold live. The Commission will produce and distribute literature designed to help area anglers identify northern snakeheads. Snakeheads are sometimes confused with native Pennsylvania species bowfin and eels.

Northern snakeheads first drew attention in the mid-Atlantic region in 2002 when a pair were discovered in a Maryland pond. Fed by national media coverage that dubbed the hardy species “Frankenfish”, the public imagination was fueled by the fish’s ability to live for periods of time out of water and to use its front fins to drag itself across land for short distances. While the northern snakehead may have established itself as among the most famous aquatic invasive species, it is merely another on a growing list of such species. Foreign imports, such as the round goby found in Lake Erie, can have negative impacts on ecosystems. In addition to gobies in Lake Erie, there are serious concerns about another fish species thought to have been originally transported via freighters, the ruffe. Zebra mussels are another non-indigenous species impacting Lake Erie and spreading to inland waters.

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