Conserving the Nature of America

News Release


July 23, 2002


Division of Public Affairs
External Affairs
Telephone: 703-358-2220

Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton today announced a proposal to ban importation and interstate transportation of live snakeheads, voracious fish indigenous to Asia, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Africa..

Norton’s proposal would add the family of snakeheads, comprised of 28 species, to the Federal list of "injurious wildlife" under the Lacey Act, which authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to list nonindigenous wild animals deemed to be "injurious, or potentially injurious, to the health and welfare of people as well as to the interests of agriculture, forestry, and horticulture, or to the welfare or survival of wildlife or wildlife resources of the United States."

"These fish are like something from a bad horror movie," said Secretary Norton. "A number of these species can survive in the wild in freshwater almost anywhere in the United States. They can eat virtually any small animal in their path. They can travel across land and live out of water for at least three days. They reproduce quickly. They have the potential to cause enormous damage to our valuable recreational and commercial fisheries. We simply must do everything we can to prevent them from entering our waters, either accidentally or intentionally."

"I would like to thank the Department of Interior for taking this action today. Across the country, nonnative species invasions pose great threat to our natural landscape," said Eric C. Schwaab, Maryland Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service Director. "As you know, the presence of northern snakeheads in Maryland has created a potentially serious and highly visible threat to our states freshwater fisheries. Prohibiting the importation and transportation of these species across state lines is a valuable step in the right direction, and for this species, may prevent this problem from happening somewhere else. In order to better manage the states resources and combat the growing threat presented by invasive species, we will need strong leadership in the form of improved science, technical support, increased funding and effective regulatory action from our federal partners."

Three species of the fish have been found in open waters in California, Florida, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, and at least two have been established as reproducing populations (Florida and Hawaii). Thirteen States currently prohibit possession of live snakeheads; nevertheless, there is continuing evidence of illegal activity involving these fish even in States where they are prohibited.

The proposal is based on information collected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with assistance from scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Florida Caribbean Science Center in Gainesville, Florida. The agencies began conducting a risk assessment of snakehead species in 2001, following the discovery of snakeheads in Broward County, Florida, according to Service director Steve Williams.

"Regrettably, the information we have collected – and certainly our recent experience in Maryland – indicates that snakeheads are very likely to escape or be released into the wild and possibly become established," Williams said. "They will feed on native fish, amphibians, crustaceans, birds, small reptiles, and small mammals; they are likely to compete with our native species for food; they may spread parasites or pathogens to native species; and they will be extremely difficult to eradicate. They could pose a serious threat to some of our own endangered and threatened species." Williams said there are no known limiting factors to the potential spread of snakeheads. While some of the tropical and subtropical species require warmer waters, the northern snakehead can survive even in cold water.

No Federal law now prohibits the importation of snakeheads. If the proposed rule is adopted, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Customs inspectors will have the authority to stop and seize shipments of live snakehead fish or their viable eggs. Those caught bringing snakeheads into the U.S. or transporting them across State lines without a permit could face penalties that include up to 6 months in prison and fines as high as $5,000 for individuals or $10,000 for organizations. Under the proposal, live snakeheads or their eggs could be imported or transported across state lines by permit only for scientific, medical, educational, or zoological purposes and in accordance with state laws.

Snakeheads are widely available. They are sold in live food fish markets and some restaurants in Boston and New York, where the fish are legal. Snakeheads have also been sold through some aquarium fish retailers via the internet.

Almost 17,000 snakeheads, worth nearly $86,000, are known to have been imported in the U.S. between 1997 and 2000, where they were in turn retailed either as aquarium fish or food, primarily in restaurants or markets. The use of snakeheads as food fish appears to be growing in the U.S. Because snakeheads are air breathers, they can be easily shipped via air freight, making them more readily available.

Biologists believe that the availability of the snakehead in live food fish markets increases the probability of more releases into open water, and of the real possibility that the snakehead could become established in waterways stretching from Florida to the Canadian border.

The proposal will be Federal Register within a few days. Public comments on the proposal to add the family of snakehead species to the injurious wildlife list may be mailed to the Chief, Division of Environmental Quality, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 4401 North Fairfax Drive, Suite 322, Arlington, Virginia 22201, transmitted via fax to the same address at 703-358-1800, or transmitted by e-mail to">, in an ASCII format. Comments will be accepted for 30 days from the date of publication.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal Federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting, and enhancing fish, wildlife, and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 95 million acre National Wildlife Refuge System which encompasses nearly 540 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands and other special management areas. It also operates 70 national fish hatcheries, 64 fishery resource offices, and 78 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces Federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Aid program that distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state fish and wildlife agencies.

To learn more about the snakehead and other invasive species:

Snakeheads - The est Aquatic Invader

Maryland Department of Natural Resources snakehead page

Federal Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force page

List of Species Whose Importation is Prohibited Under the Lacey Act

U.S. Geological Survey Invasives page


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