What Ontario is Doing
To prevent this unwanted invader from coming into the province, Ontario has regulated all 28 species of snakehead (including Northern Snakehead) as prohibited under the Invasive Species Act. For more information on the Invasive Species Act and Regulations visit www.ontario.ca/invasionON.
The northern snakehead is a predatory fish native to southern and eastern Asia that is now found in several American states. This fish was likely introduced to the United States by people who bought live snakehead from fish markets or pet shops and later released them into lakes, rivers or ponds. The northern snakehead is a voracious predator that lives in lakes, ponds, rivers and streams in water temperatures ranging from 0° to 30°C. It has been reported to travel on land for short distances by wiggling its body forward. A lung-like organ enables it to absorb oxygen by gulping air at the surface, allowing it to thrive in water that is low in oxygen and to survive out of water in moist conditions for up to four days. The snakehead has been dubbed a “frankenfish” because of its reptile-like behaviour, aggressive eating habits and mouthful of long, sharp teeth.
Outside its native range, northern snakeheads have established breeding populations in the states of Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York. Small numbers of fish have been found in several other states.
Impacts of Northern Snakehead
The northern snakehead could spread throughout the Great Lakes watershed and seriously threaten native fish and invertebrate populations in Ontario.
- The northern snakehead has no natural enemies in North America. It eats native zooplankton, fish and fish larvae, frogs and toads, invertebrates, insects, small reptiles and even small birds and mammals.
- The northern snakehead’s ability to eat a wide range of foods and live in varied conditions allows it to compete with many native fish for food and habitat.
- Because the northern snakehead is highly adaptable it is likely to thrive in Ontario waters.
How to Identify Northern Snakehead
The northern snakehead can grow up to 85 centimetres long and weigh as much as seven kilograms. With a narrow, torpedo-shaped body and a long dorsal (back) fin, northern snakehead looks similar to Ontario’s native bowfin (Amia calva), and burbot (Lota lota). Check the chart below to know if you have a snakehead, a bowfin or another species.
- Enlarged scales on head
- Single long dorsal fin
- No bony plates on underside of head
- Pelvic fins closer to head compared to bowfin
- Anal fin almost as long as dorsal fin
- No eyespot on caudal peduncle (tail)
- Single long dorsal fin
- Bony plate (gular plate) present on underside of head
- Pelvic fins at mid-body
- Short anal fin
- Eyespot on caudal peduncle (tail) of m
What You Can Do
- Learn how to identify Northern Snakehead and how to prevent the introduction or spread of this unwanted species.
- Never buy or keep live snakeheads. It is against the law to keep a snakehead as a pet, use it as bait, or have a live snakehead in your possession.
- Don’t release any live fish into Ontario lakes or rivers. If you are fishing and incidentally catch a snakehead, you must destroy it. Do not return it to the water.
- If you have any information about the illegal importing, distribution or sale of live snakehead, report it immediately to the MNRF TIPS line at 1-877-TIPS-MNR (847-7667) toll-free anytime. You can also call Crime Stoppers anonymously at 1-800-222-TIPS (8477).
- If you’ve seen a snakehead or other invasive species in the wild, please contact the toll free Invading Species Hotline at 1-800-563-7711, or visit EDDMapS Ontario to report a sighting.
OFAH/OMNRF Invading Species Awareness Program (2012). Northern Snakehead. Retrieved from: www.invadingspecies.com.
This factsheet may be reproduced for non-commercial purposes.
Header photo by US Geological Survey
Bowfin & Burbot illustrations by New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
Northern Snakehead illustration © Joe Tomelleri