“Frankenfish” hasn’t reached West Virginia yet, but it might not be long before it does.
An invasive northern snakehead fish was caught recently in the Monongahela River, near Pittsburgh. Biologists believe the fish is the first to be discovered west of the Allegheny Mountains.
The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission said the fish, caught by an angler and turned over to the agency’s biologists, was a fully grown adult that measured 28 inches in length. Biologists for the commission said the fish was almost certainly placed in the river illegally, because there are no streams that connect the Monongahela to waters that are known to harbor snakeheads.
Mark Scott, fisheries chief for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, said the discovery has the potential to affect both the Monongahela and Ohio rivers.
The Monongahela joins the Allegheny in Pittsburgh to form the Ohio, so the species could follow the Monongahela upstream into the Mountain State, or follow the Ohio downstream along the state’s western border.
“We’re hoping the snakehead that was caught was the only one,” he said. “But if you catch one, it’s always possible there are more.”
The species, native to China, Russia and South Korea, became established in the Washington, D.C., area in 2002. Biologists there suspect the fish there initially were released from aquariums and became established in a pond near Crofton, Maryland.
Dubbed “Frankenfish” or “Fishzilla” for their voracious predatory behavior, snakeheads often eat the young of native fish species or compete directly with the adults for food. Scott said that if the species were ever to make it to West Virginia, his agency would take “serious measures” to try to keep them from becoming well established.
“I would guess that we’d put no limits on catching them,” he said. “I would hope we’d also pass some sort of mandatory-harvest regulation that required anglers to kill every snakehead they catch.”
He added, however, that it’s possible the alien fish won’t find West Virginia’s rivers to their liking.
“It’s my understanding that they’re sluggish-water fish,” he said. “They might not like our rivers, which have pretty strong currents. They might feel at home on some backwaters of the Ohio, but probably wouldn’t adapt well to the mainstream portions of the Ohio and the [Monongahela].”
Scott said if anglers ever catch a snakehead in Mountain State waters, they should kill the fish, freeze it and immediately report the catch to a DNR district fisheries biologist. He said snakeheads resemble bowfins, a primitive-looking species that is native to West Virginia, so anglers should learn how to distinguish between the two.
“Anglers should also be sure never to move fish from one watershed to another,” he said. “That’s how invasive species get spread. For that reason, it’s illegal to move fish within the state. It’s legal to use minnows for bait, but those minnows should always be caught in the same watershed where they’re going to be used.”