The northern snakehead, an invasive fish that can breathe air and survive on land, has been spotted for the first time in the state of Georgia, prompting officials to warn the public to destroy the species on sight.
“Kill it immediately,” instructed the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resources Division in a statement on Tuesday. “DO NOT RELEASE IT.”
The northern snakehead is a freshwater fish native to Eurasia, but it has made inroads in 14 other states before its debut in Georgia this month. An angler captured the species in a private pond in Gwinnett County, northeast of Atlanta, prompting state officials to issue their recent warning to the public.
The fish looks innocuous enough, with a narrow, spotted body that can grow to about three feet. But the northern snakehead is a voracious predator that poses a major threat to fish, amphibians, crustaceans, and other native species, and can be aggressive when protecting young, according to the US Geological Survey.
The snakehead spawns multiple times a year, with females laying as many as 100,000 eggs annually, so its takeover of ecosystems can be quick and devastating. The species has also evolved air-breathing respiratory organs that enable it to survive out of water for several days, giving it plenty of time to wriggle to nearby freshwater systems.
The fish first attracted major attention in the US in 2002, when a pond infestation was discovered in Crofton, Maryland. State officials poisoned the entire habitat and retrieved the carcasses of over 500 newborn snakeheads. The Crofton event inspired two Syfy movies released in 2004: Snakehead Terror and Frankenfish.
Georgia officials hope to stem the infestation of the species before it travels overland to other water bodies in the state.
“Our first line of defense in the fight against aquatic invasive species, such as the northern snakehead, are our anglers,” said Matt Thomas, chief of fisheries for the Wildlife Resources Division, in a statement.
“Thanks to the quick report by an angler, our staff was able to investigate and confirm the presence of this species in this water body,” he added. “We are now taking steps to determine if they have spread from this water body and, hopefully, keep it from spreading to other Georgia waters.”