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PFBC urges anglers to report, dispose of any invasive Northern Snakehead fish they catch

The invasive species of fish has been seen in the lower Susquehanna River, between Maryland's Conowingo Dam and the Holtwood Dam in Lancaster County, the PFBC says
Credit: Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission
PFBC Fisheries Biologist Doug Fischer poses with a Northern Snakehead fish.

LANCASTER COUNTY, Pa. — The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission issued a statement Friday urging anglers to report and dispose of any Northern Snakehead fish they might encounter in the lower Susquehanna River.

The Northern Snakehead is an invasive species native to parts of China, Russia, and Korea, the PFBC said. The fish first drew attention in the MId-Atlantic region when a pair were discovered in a Maryland pond, according to the PFBC.

The fish was first found in Pennsylvania in 2004 in Philadelphia County, and have since been spotted in Lancaster County, the PFBC said. In 2018, anglers began encountering them in the Octoraro Creek, a tributary of the Susquehanna River.

On May 12, the PFBC said, the movement of 21 Northern Snakeheads past the Conowingo Dam into the Conowingo Pool, a 14-mile section of the Susquehanna River between the Conowingo Dam in Maryland and the Holtwood Dam in Pennsylvania was documented.

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Fisheries management of this river section is shared between the PFBC and Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

The fish were spotted by operators of fish passage systems used to assist in the migration of American Shad during their spring spawning runs earlier this month, the PFBC said.

Over a four-day span beginning May 12, 35 Northern Snakeheads were spotted in the east fish lift of the Conowingo Dam, the PFBC said. Of that total, 14 were netted and removed, while another 21 entered the Conowingo Pool, the PFBC said.

During this same time, only 485 American Shad were counted at the east fish lift, the PFBC said.

Fish lift operations began late in the migration season because of delays caused by the COVID-19 outbreak, the PFBC said.

Due to the concern over increased invasive species passage and the lateness of the season for successful American Shad passage, the Susquehanna River Anadromous Fish Restoration Cooperative recommended that fish passage operations be immediately ceased to prevent further passage of snakeheads. 

Fish passage operations at the Holtwood and Safe Harbor dams upriver were also ceased immediately, although no snakeheads were observed at either location, according to the PFBC.

During two days of operations, 21 American Shad passed the Holtwood Dam, while one shad was observed passing the Safe Harbor Dam fish lift. 

“Further introduction of an invasive species such as the Northern Snakehead to the Susquehanna River watershed in Pennsylvania is something we take very seriously,” said Joshua Tryninewski, Fisheries Biologist with the PFBC’s Anadromous Fish Restoration Unit. “Unfortunately, a late start to fish passage operations followed by an increasing occurrence of the unwanted fish presented unfavorable conditions for successful shad passage and have posed a serious threat to the Commonwealth’s aquatic resources.”

The PFBC said it began conduction surveillance operations in the Conowingo Pool in an attempt to locate and remove the Northern Snakeheads. 

On Thursday, while targeting likely habitat areas for the species, the PFBC said it successfully located and removed one snakehead from the river. 

In addition, a private environmental consulting firm which had been conducting an unrelated survey on the same section of the river also collected one snakehead and provided the specimen to the PFBC, the agency said.

“Moving forward, biologists will combine other ongoing survey work targeting other species within the lower Susquehanna River to serve the dual purpose of searching for and removing snakeheads in the Conowingo Pond and its tributaries,” said Kris Kuhn, Director of the PFBC Bureau of Fisheries. “Anglers also play a critical role in controlling the spread of the invasive species and we’re counting on their cooperation.”

Anglers are reminded that possession, transport, and importation of a live snakehead is unlawful in both Pennsylvania and Maryland. Any of these invasive fish that are caught should be killed and disposed of properly or consumed. 

Anglers who suspect they have caught a snakehead are encouraged to NOT release it, and report it to the PFBC at (610) 847-2442 or via email (tgrabowski@pa.gov).

For more information on Northern Snakeheads in Pennsylvania, including an identification guide, visit the snakehead resource page on the PFBC website.