Earlier this year, several staff members at Duck Creek Conservation Area in Missouri went out to look for crawdads as bait for a fishing competition but instead found a 13-inch predator: the northern snakehead, aka “Frankenfish.”
“Northern snakeheads are a beast of a fish. Dave Knuth is a biologist in the Missouri Department of Conservation’s fisheries department. He said that they can live for several days without water.
One of the earliest sightings in the US was in 2002, when an unfortunate local in Crofton, Maryland, came across the long, spiky-toothed fish. The tale of the monstrous creatures took the nation by storm and inspired several horror movies, including “Frankenfish” and “Snakehead Terror”.
Of course, the fish isn’t a monster, but it is a voracious predator that disrupts American ecosystems wherever it goes.
Since 2002, people have reported encounters with the Frankenfish in 17 US states and DC. The majority of sightings are on the East Coast, in Maryland and Virginia. But a second population has been spreading in Arkansas since 2008.
While there was a previous 2019 sighting in southern Missouri, the fish caught this past May is the furthest into the Midwest that Americans have seen these predators.
Conservationists warn this sighting is proof that the fish are spreading deeper into the country.
How did Frankenfish get to Missouri?
Frankenfish are impressively resilient. They breathe air through a special organ called the suprabranchial chamber. The fish will swim up to the surface and cough, which expels the old air and creates a vacuum for new air to fill in.
This adaptive feature means that if the snakehead’s current home dries up or gets overcrowded, the fish can wiggle its way across land to find wetter accommodations.
“They don’t always make it,” Knuth said. “I know the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission used to see them on the roadside, dead, you know, trying to cross.”
Before you ask, it is highly unlikely that this fish hitchhiked its way all the way up to Missouri. The northern snakehead is still a fish, so most of its journey was almost certainly through water and likely via the Mississippi River, Knuth told Insider.
“They’re in the Mississippi River already, so that is a huge highway for the species,” Knuth said. “It will just be a matter of time before we see them spread north.”
Frankenfish spread quickly and destroy ecosystems
Once a northern snakehead has reached new territory, the population spreads quickly. Their ability to breathe air lets them cross river systems in ways other fish can’t.
They can breed five times a year, laying 50,000 eggs each time.
While northern snakeheads normally avoid humans, they are very protective of their young. Knuth said adult fish have been known to lunge and bite at people who get too close to their egg nests or fry balls (a group of newly-hatched fish). But he said unprovoked northern snakehead attacks are very rare.
The greater concern is whether these fish, with their voracious appetites, will hurt local Missouri wildlife as they did in Maryland.
In 2019, researchers looked at how the Blackwater River watershed changed before and after northern snakeheads invaded. Seventeen native species saw significant population decline anywhere from 30%-97%. Fisherman’s favorites, like White Perch or Black Crappie, were the species that suffered most. The endangered American Eel seems to be one of the northern snakehead’s favorite prey to eat.
The Duck Creek Conservation Area contains some of Missouri’s last remaining lowland and swamp habitats, Knuth said. Some fish species only live in this specific ecosystem. If the Frankenfish invades, they don’t have anywhere else to flee.
What to do if you see a Frankenfish
If you happen to spot a northern snakehead, the US government recommends killing it right away.
While Americans will probably never get rid of all northern snakeheads, culling their numbers can prevent this invasive species from spreading further.
There are many ways to kill a “Frankenfish.”
The staff at Duck Creek Conservation Center put their fish on ice. You could also cut off its head, gut it, or even cook it. After all, northern snakeheads are part of a traditional Chinese diet and are widely cultivated in southeastern Asian countries for food as well as use in pharmaceuticals and medicine.
Whatever you do, don’t throw the fish onto land to suffocate it. These Frankenfish can breathe and crawl back into the water.
Knuth said it’s important to make sure a fish is actually a northern snakehead before culling it. Bowfins are also an air-breathing fish that resemble northern snakeheads, but with a fishier head and shorter anal fin. They are native to North America and an important part of ecosystems.
If you find and kill a northern snakehead, you can report the capture to your local fish and game agency. If you aren’t able to capture the fish, at least report your sighting to help researchers keep track of the species spread.
People who spot Northern Snakeheads near the Duck Creek Conservation Area can call the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southeast Regional Office at 573-290-5858.