Northern Snakehead

The Missouri Department of Conservation is encouraging anglers to report sightings of the Northern Snakehead in the state’s waterways.

Fisheries management biologists with the Missouri Department of Conservation are encouraging anglers to report sightings of a Northern Snakehead in the state’s waterways.

Dave Knuth, a fisheries management biologist, said the fish is an invasive species in the state and competes for the resources of native fish.

He said an angler recently caught a Northern Snakehead from a borrow ditch within the St. Francis River levees in Dunklin County in southern Missouri.

According to the conservation department, a Northern Snakehead population was discovered in eastern Arkansas waterways in 2008, so they believed it was only a matter of time before it would migrate north from the bordering state.

He said the Northern Snakehead is native to eastern China and southeastern Russia. This species is a popular live-food fish in the Asian markets. It was commonly imported to the United States before the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service prohibited its importation and interstate transportation in 2002.

The Northern Snakehead was brought for private fish farming in Monroe County, Arkansas, in 2000, before the ban was in place, and escaped from there into Arkansas waterways.

Since the discovery of this species in Arkansas waterways in 2008, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission most recently collected a Northern Snakehead from the St. Francis River drainage near Lake City, Arkansas, in May of 2018.

This was approximately 15 miles south of where this fish was discovered in Missouri in the spring of 2019, which confirmed their presence in the state.

“This fish’s wide temperature tolerance, potential to spawn multiple times in one year and ability to survive in low-oxygenated waters are reasons why it’s a threat to Missouri waters,” Knuth said. “The impacts of this species on native fish populations are still to be determined in states where they’re already established and research is ongoing in several states to determine this invader’s true impact.”

He said sampling efforts in the area where the angler caught the fish yielded no additional snakeheads, which means the species may not be well established in Missouri yet.

“We will continue to monitor the spread in southeast Missouri,” Knuth said.

Knuth said one of the concerning factors for the conservation department is the water temperatures in the state can become more optimal for that species.

It is illegal to import, export, sell, purchase or possess a live Northern Snakehead in Missouri.

The Northern Snakehead is similar in appearance to the native Bowfin. The Northern Snakehead has a much longer anal fin and the pelvic fins are much closer to the pectoral fins than the Bowfin.

“We do encourage anglers to be careful on identification before reporting a sighting because the fish do look similar,” Knuth. “But we do want people to tell us if they are found so we can investigate those locations.”

The conservation department encourages anglers to not release a Northern Snakehead alive if they catch one.

“We do encourage anglers who catch one to harvest it on sight,” Knuth said. “We do not want them to be thrown on the ground because it can often make its way back into the waterway. They can move across moist surfaces.”

Anglers are asked to report any sightings of the invasive fish to MDC’s Southeast Regional Office at 573-290-5858.

Margaret Slayton can be reached at