HARRISBURG, Pa. — The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission is treating the most recent sighting of a non-native northern snakehead in Pennsylvania as a lone fish rather than an ecosystem-threatening, new population of the species that is native to Russia, China and Korea.

An angler caught the 28-inch fish last week in the Monongahela River at Pittsburgh, killed the fish and notified the commission.

It’s the first sighting of the species in western Pennsylvania.

In spring of this year, 81 snakeheads — an unstoppable, invasive species sometimes referred to as “frankenfish” — were caught in the fish lifts at Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River, about 5 miles downriver of the Pennsylvania state line, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Only one snakehead — a predatory species that can grow to nearly 5 feet in length — was found in the lifts in 2017, and none were found in the lifts last year.

The Conowingo Pond, the reservoir upriver of the dam, extends upriver 8 miles into Pennsylvania.

All the snakeheads were destroyed before moving upriver of the dam, but the DNR described the spike in numbers seen in the lifts as “dramatic” and expressed concern over “a possible northern expansion by the aggressively invasive species.”

The two fish lifts were installed on the east and west sides of the Conowingo Dam decades ago to allow passage of migratory fish such as American shad and river herring. They operate during the spring migration as part of restoration efforts for those migratory fish species. Spring is also when snakeheads are known to travel longer distances in the watershed.

After the snakehead was observed in the east fish life in 2017, an agreement was established between the Conowingo Dam’s owner, Exelon, and the Susquehanna River Anadromous Fish Restoration Cooperative “to implement voluntary, adaptive best management practices that reduce the spread of northern snakeheads while still allowing migratory fish passage,” according to the DNR.

Smaller dams upriver of Conowingo Pond, which include Holtwood, Safe Harbor and York Haven, in Pennsylvania, may help to slow the northward spread of snakeheads.

However, snakeheads can breathe air from the atmosphere using an air bladder that works like a lung and are known to travel short distances on land.

The Northern Snakehead Working Group of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service notes, “Although the northern snakehead can survive up to four days out of the water, overland migration is only possible for juveniles. The rounded body of the adult northern snakehead is not as conducive to overland migration as observed in more horizontally flattened snakehead species.”

After examining the snakehead from the Monongahela, Kris Kuhn, chief of the fisheries management division for the commission, told TribLive.com that the fish was likely released illegally into the river. She noted that there are no connecting populations of snakeheads.

In Pennsylvania it’s unlawful for anyone to possess, sell, buy or trade live specimens; to introduce or import them into Pennsylvania waters; or to transport them in the state.

Kuhn and Gary Smith, area fisheries manager for the commission’s southwest region, said the fish is being treated as a single fish find because there is no evidence of an established group of fish.

“It’s not total panic mode,” Smith said. “We’re not too alarmed at this point, as we don’t know if they are established.”

Snakeheads were first documented in the U.S. in 1977, in California, and subsequently in southeastern states. They were found in Maryland in 2002, and shortly after its discovery in the Potomac River in 2004, the species gained a foothold in tidal waters. Since then it has spread to every major tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.

They were first confirmed in Pennsylvania in July 2004, when two were caught in Meadow Lake in Philadelphia. The lake, part of a maze of interconnected bays and tidal slough, led the commission to believe the fish were likely present in the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers.

A snakehead was caught in May 2017 in Bernhardt’s Dam in Berks County and two were caught in Octoraro Creek in Lancaster County in July 2018.

According to the working group, “northern snakehead likely arrived in U.S. waters by importation for the live food fish market. Unauthorized intentional release from this trade, as was the case in the founding individuals of the Crofton pond population in Maryland, continues to be the major mechanism for introduction. The northern snakehead has become widely popular in ethnic markets and restaurants over the last two decades.

“Recognized as a highly injurious species, importation and cross-border transport of northern snakehead was prohibited in the U.S. by a 2002 listing under the Lacey Act. Nevertheless, cases of northern snakehead for sale in areas where possession is illegal are not uncommon.”

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