This illegal alien has invaded the great state of Maryland and inspired game officials to offer a bounty: for its head.

Not to be confused with the Snakehead criminal organization,  this snakehead is of the fishy variety and is capable of sinking its toothy jaws into a steel-toed boot and travel on land.  A native of Asia, it is a fish from Hell that is ravaging game fish such as large-mouth bass and upsetting the natural ecosystem. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources is offering a $200 gift card from the iconic Bass Pro Shops to residents who can capture and kill this wily predator. The DNR wants to remove it from the state’s waterways. It was first seen in Crofton, Maryland, in 2002, when an adult fish measuring 18 inches was caught in a local pond.  It has no natural predators in this part of the U.S.

Getting rid of the fish may prove next to impossible, though, if the example set by other invasive species holds true. In other areas of North America, sportsmen, farmers, and game officials are contending with invasive species ranging from Russian boar, emerald ashborers, piranhas, Asian carp, African land snails, and iguanas, besides various plants. And that is not to mention the already naturalized species now familiar to Americans such as sparrows, starlings, and goldfish. The snakehead is able to survive out of the water for up to four days, perhaps laying to rest the old adage about fish out of water.

These long, spotted and predatory fish are distinguished by a long dorsal fin, and a big mouth full of shiny and sharp teeth. They breathe air with what is called a suprabranchial organ:  a primitive form of a labyrinth organ. The two extant genera are Channa in Asia and Parachanna in Africa, consisting of 30-35 species. The mother of all snakeheads was the Eochanna, and is found in the fossil record dating back to 50 million years ago in the Eocene era  on the Indian subcontinent.

While it is illegal to sell snakehead fish in most U.S. states, it has not stopped enteprising businesses to set up illicit selling operations in New York, Florida, Texas and Missouri. The Maryland DNR does not expect sportsmen to eradicate the snakehead, but hope to track the spread of the beast through the payment of bouties. To get the DNR bounty, anglers must upload a photograph of themselves with a snakehead at the Maryland DNR website. But like the proverbial recipe, which starts with the words ‘First catch yerself a rabbit, actually catching a snakehead can prove difficult.

A photo uploaded on the DNR site showed a sport fisherman boasting of seven dead snakeheads. He had to shoot them. Identified as ‘Berry’, the angler wrote that snakeheads are overwhelming local spawning grounds of the bass population.

Asian snakeheads are now permanently established in the Potomac River, and may also be present in Florida. Reports have come in from Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina claiming catches of the toothy fish. Adding to the concerns about Asian carp invading the Great Lakes, a snakehead was caught in 2004 off Chicago in Lake Michigan. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, snakeheads have also been spotted in California, Florida, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Arkansas and Rhode Island, too.

Why are these fishing getting around so much? They do move on land, but thankfully because of their relatively undeveloped pectoral muscles and fins they cannot travel far out of water. Rumours that snakeheads may have devoured an infant child are therefore thought to be unfounded.  It seems obvious that they are traveling with human intervention. It turns out that they are very tasty as food. A Los Angeles supermarket was found to have sold approximately $25,000 of live snakesheads in 2002 and 2003. These illegal sales were followed by reports of snakeheads in California waterways.

A New York fishmonger was arrested in 2011 for importing more than 300 live snakeheads, having tried to fool inspectors into thinking that they were fish known as Chinese black sleepers (Bostrychus sinensis). He admitted to importing six more shipments during the previous year.

Scientific classification

Kingdom:     Animalia
Phylum:     Chordata
Subphylum:     Vertebrata
Class:     Actinopterygii
Order:     Perciformes
Suborder:     Channoidei
Family:     Channidae
Genera:  Channa

Representative species: Giant snakehead, Channa micropeltes;. Grand snakehead, Channa marulius; and Dwarf snakehead, Channa gachua; Northern snakehead, Channa argus.



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