Although the Potomac receives most of the notoriety for its snakehead population, some Arkansas waters have them as well. And that has prompted Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGF) to begin a new monitoring program that it hopes will help keep the population in check.
"We need to refresh our information on exactly what species are in these areas and what the population dynamics are before the snakehead populations grow to cause any sort of impact," said Jimmy Barnett, AGF aquatic nuisance species program coordinator." "These baseline data will be critical in future management of the fisheries and the fight against invasives."
According to Barnett, biologists are concerned about the possible impact that the exotic predator is having on bass and other native fish. To find out what is going on, the agency will conduct in-depth fisheries profiles of about 40 sites in eastern Arkansas.
Back in the spring of 2008, a breeding population of northern snakeheads was found there in ditches and near an irrigation pump. Worried that they would spread into waterways connected to the White, Arkansas, St. Francis, and Mississippi Rivers, resource managers quickly applied rotenone, killing about 100 of the invasive predators and collecting 55 specimens for live study. AGF also attempted to eradicate the fish with the Piney Creeks drainage near Brinkley. But occasional reports still surface of someone catching or seeing a snakehead there.
"Snakeheads have spread slowly since their introduction, but the last three years in a row, we've seen them expand their range," Barnett said. "They once were only found in one of our fisheries districts, but now we're seeing them reach out to the edges of three other districts."
Barnett says the recent prolonged flooding in east Arkansas and the drainages connecting the White, Cache, and Arkansas Rivers may have increased the speed at which the species has spread.
"There have been a lot of sloughs and ditches that have had water in them for a longer period of time that could have helped the species reach new areas," Barnett said.
Anglers can help in the fight against snakeheads by continuing to kill any they catch and reporting them to the regional AGF office nearest the body of water where it was found.
"People should take a picture of the fish for positive identification, and try to keep the fish until they've talked to a biologist about it," Barnett said. "A native species, the bowfin, looks similar to the snakehead, so we want to verify these sightings to help paint an accurate picture of the species' expansion."
Snakeheads likely were introduced into Arkansas waters by a fish farmer, who intended to raise the exotic fish commercially before their possession became illegal. Upon the advice of state and federal officials, he decided to kill the fish by removing them from his ponds and dumping them on levees. Unfortunately, snakeheads can live for several hours out of water and even crawl to water, which probably is what happened.