What can we learn from America's snakehead woes?

ae8eb25f-e796-4b99-b6af-ea90a9f4fb08

Editor's Picks
 A perfect place for your Fighter to rest his little fins — the Betta Bed Leaf Hammock.
Gear Post
Review: Betta Bed Leaf Hammock
21 November 2017
 Just look at that little face... No wonder then, that so many fishkeepers find these little puffers so hard to resist.
Features Post
Join the puffer fish fan club!
28 September 2017
 Special care needs to be taken when catching Pictus catfish and other species with spines.
Features Post
Travels with your fish
03 August 2017

The world is going to end, if you listen to the fever-pitched American journalists. Aquatic death almost certainly lurks in every pond and stream, in the form of the Northern snakeheads. We have much to fear, and our friends and families will surely all be eaten by this unstoppable menace, bearing down on us as Barbarian hordes bore down upon the Roman empire.

I kid you not. The way the stories have been handled, anyone would be terrified to walk within 50m of any pond or stream, for fear of some pseudo Loch Ness monster suddenly flopping out of a tangle of bamboo and ingesting their dog, collar and all.

Tragically, most tabloids reporting on the subject don’t even know what a snakehead is.

In some of the weakest pitches I’ve ever seen, I have come to suspect they genuinely believe it to be at best some lab-derived hybrid, at worst a menacing antediluvian hangover. The way they describe it, it comes across as some crude affiliation of snake and fish, and an animal that has all the worst elements of a Great white shark, cunningly blended with the venomous subtleties of a King cobra.

Some news stations have drawn parallels to the size of a Northern snakehead with a person. "It’s as big as a man!" they cry, which kind of works if we’re referring to a severely undernourished dwarf. One metre in length with a weight of seven kilos is not that close to a human. Close to a basketball player’s leg, maybe, but not a person.

Other channels show videos of grainy, stock footage of a Channa in an aquarium scoffing down live goldfish. "Look at the damage! Oh the humanity!" and other such fear mongering is implied as we see a snakehead doing what snakeheads do with their dinner, like it’s suddenly grossly unnatural for a big fish to consume a smaller one.

Usually the report will be accompanied by an image of said snakehead, pictured in such a way to make the fish look 36' long, with its lips curled back and teeth exposed like it’s just trying to eat your soul right there and then.

Every one of these reports is missing a huge opportunity to cover an actual eco-based story. However, to their merit, they’ve taught me a few things about some American news stations.

  • They like to terrify their viewers without actually covering the facts.
  • They prefer attractive reporters to talented ones.
  • I learnt nothing else.

In all seriousness, there’s a huge problem here. The fish they’re referring to is Channa argus, the Northern snakehead, banned in the UK, banned in the USA, and banned pretty much anywhere on the planet with an ounce of sense. In some countries it’s used as a food fish. In others, it’s an ecological menace. I sure as hell don’t want one in my local canals.

One very real backlash to the shocking coverage on snakeheads is that some commentators, in a kneejerk reaction to these hyperbolic news reports, have subsequently downplayed it all. 'Relax,' seems to be their attitude. 'It’s not a shark, it’s no threat to humans or anything…'

Woah there. In the wrong environment, Channa argus is a huge, king sized, monumental, weapon’s grade mothership of ecological destruction. Don’t undermine it just because it’s only the size of a basketball player’s leg, and can’t actually eat a human. That’s harmful knee jerking.

This is a fast growing, tolerant-to-just-about-everything fish that will happily chomp its way through frogs, crayfish, other fish, its own species, and potentially even a good degree of juvenile waterfowl.

It tolerates low temperatures, happy to wallow around at 14°C or so. It’ll survive on land for several days if wet. If these things start to get into the larger water systems, then American waterways could quite feasibly be royally boned.

When these things are found in the wrong wilderness, the options are limited. Generally, the best approach to fixing the problem is to catch as many desirable fish species from the region as possible and hold on to them while the rest of the water gets destroyed with something like the fish poison Rotenone. That’s the cure. Kill everything. Literally, one step away from nuking the area from orbit. Except that Rotenone doesn’t really work for any snakeheads that have gone for a dry land wander while all of this takes place.

So how can we apply this to our own, humble UK hobby?

Well, it’s like this. Channa argus is an ILFA listed fish, ergo if you wanted one in the UK you’d need a license. You could apply for one, but frankly I suspect that the guys down at CEFAS would probably cough a lung at laughing at the request.

I’ve already mentioned that Northern snakeheads are illegal in America already, but that isn’t stopping them from taking over.

What I’m really twitchy about is that ILFA listed fish do still rear their heads in the UK. I had an email recently about a Lepomis pumpkinseed, and then went on to find a company that could get me things like Nase. I reported them, before you get the hump with me.

What I’m even twitchier about is the fish that aren’t on ILFA at the moment. I reported recently on how Whitelists could mess this hobby up for a lot of us, and made the point in there somewhere that it fell upon aquarists to behave sensibly. Most of us do, for sure. But some of us don’t, and it’s those few that are the problem.

Here’s the deal. If we start releasing aquarium fish into native waters, upsetting our own ecologies, then we are idiots of the highest order. If we reached the point in the UK of waterways having to be routinely destroyed and poisoned in a last ditch attempt to control some heinous invasive species introduced from Josephine Blogg’s aquarium, then our hobby wouldn’t last minutes.

I suspect – nay, know - that our slightly more cynical media coverage here in Britain would not be averse to laying all of the blame very firmly at our hobbyist doorsteps, and maybe rightly so. If we had to wipe out (tens of?) thousands of fish in English reservoirs and canals, then I’d be thinking on balance that maybe it was time for the hobby to have its wrists slapped.

The American snakehead model is showing us that invasive fish are a very real problem. We need to learn from that and remove our own complacency.

What we need is more people on the ground. I am, quite candidly and openly, asking you to all nurture your inner grass. There are clearly still problematic fish on sale in the UK - take a look at the ILFA list so that you can familiarise yourself with them all.

(Editorial note: Before I start a wave of snakehead hysteria, I would invite everyone to be aware that Channa argus adults do look incredibly similar to Channa micropeltes, the Red or Giant snakehead, pictured above. Let us please avoid a spate of repercussions against Red snakehead owners…)

If you see any of them, even if it’s in your favourite shop and they give you a discount off of buckets of flake food, I’m imploring you to do the right thing. Contact the guys at CEFAS, let them know what you’ve seen and where, and let them take these potential hobby-destroyers out of the system.

I can assure you, in this age of viral news reports and an easily impressionable readership, there only needs to be one big screw up in UK waters, and our hobby is toast. Carefully crafted news stories will turn public consensus against us if heartstrings can be plucked over whole lakes being killed to stop the spread of invasives. You don’t want that, I don’t want that, and the many stores relying on this trade for a living don’t want that.

Oh, and contrary to what the Americans are saying, Northern snakeheads probably aren’t going to eat you. They’ll just ruin your waterways, destroy whole ecosystems and potentially put an end to the hobby you love. Think about that, because to me that’s almost as scary as the threat of a fish crawling out of a pond and eating my dog.

Why not take out a subscription to Practical Fishkeeping magazine? See our latest subscription offer.

Don't forget that PFK is now available to download on the iPad.