Law Enforcement
Northeast Region
Snakehead seized during the investigation. Credit - NY State Dept. of Environmental Conservation
Snakehead seized during the investigation. Credit: NY State Dept. of Environmental Conservation
Snakeheads, invasive freshwater fish native to China, have been found in rivers and lakes throughout the United States. Photo credit - USGS
Snakeheads, invasive freshwater fish native to China, have been found in rivers and lakes throughout the United States. Credit: USGS

Invasive Snakeheads Seized in New York

The plane touched down at JFK International Airport on the eve of the Chinese New Year – Feb. 13, 2010. On board, among the other cargo, was a shipment of live Chinese fish. But unbeknownst to the intended recipient, a team of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents and inspectors, along with officers from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation laid in wait.

Acting quickly and covertly, the agents diverted the shipment to a private corner of the warehouse where they could examine its contents. As they cracked open the containers, the agents’ fears were realized. Inside were hundreds of live, invasive snakehead fish. If they escaped into the wild, they could devastate New York’s waterways.

Species of invasive snakeheads, a predatory, freshwater fish native to China, Russia and Korea, have been found in rivers and lakes across the United States, from California to Maryland’s Potomac River. With no natural enemies here in this country, these voracious feeders out-compete native species, disrupting both the native, aquatic ecosystem and the commercial fishing industry dependent on native species.

Snakeheads are air-breathers and can travel short distances over land, writhing their body and fins until they reach a suitable aquatic habitat. Referring to the potential ecological effects of the fish, National Geographic memorably nicknamed snakeheads, “fishzilla.”

Often sold in live fish food markets and some restaurants in Boston and New York, snakeheads have been confiscated by authorities in Alabama, California, Florida, Kentucky, Texas and Washington; all states where possession of these fish is illegal. Snakeheads are also readily available for purchase over the Internet. Moreover, some believe a soup made from the live fish has medicinal properties.

In February 2010, the Service’s Valley Stream Office of Law Enforcement received a tip that a retail fish market in Queens was selling illegal snakeheads. Using this information, Wildlife Inspector Stephen Finn was able to determine that the species in question – labeled “sleeper fish” by the merchant – were indeed snakehead. Then the plot began to thicken.

“We began investigating the merchant’s importer,” said Special Agent Paul Chapelle of the Valley Stream office, “We discovered that since January, the importer had brought multiple shipments of so-called sleeper fish, which have little commercial value, into the U.S.”

The discovery eventually brought the agents to JFK Airport on that February night. After re-sealing the containers, agents tailed the shipment to the importer’s fish store in Brooklyn. There, team members conducted an inspection and in addition to the recently delivered shipment, seized 82 additional snakeheads from the premises, some labeled as “San ban,” a common Cantonese nickname for the invasive fish.

In the days that followed, New York environmental conservation officers conducted inspections at city markets suspected of buying live snakeheads, seizing more than 200 additional live, illegally possessed snakeheads. All told, more than 600 live snakeheads were seized as a result of the investigation.

“These fish could have escaped or been released into the wild to wreak havoc on native species,” said Chapelle. “We’re extremely proud of the work of both the Service and our state counterparts. New York’s waterways are safer because of our joint operation.”

Connect with Us RSS feeds

Last updated: January 9, 2012