BRINKLEY - Almost a year ago, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission fisheries biologists confirmed a breeding population of northern snakehead, an invasive species from Asia, near Brinkley. The population was discovered when a farmer found an unusual fish wiggling along a gravel farm road near a ditch and contacted the AGFC regional office in Brinkley. Later this month, AGFC and U.S. Fish and Wildlife personnel will begin a process to eradicate the invasive species from Piney Creek and its watershed.
The goal is to prevent snakeheads from threatening native fish populations in Arkansas and elsewhere in the lower Mississippi River basin. An eradication plan originally scheduled for October last year was postponed due to heavy rainfall associated with tropical storm systems Gustav and Ike. The rainfall caused higher-than-normal water flows in Piney Creek, limiting the AGFC's ability to effectively implement the eradication plan. Weather conditions also delayed the rice harvest in many fields adjacent to Piney Creek, another factor that hampered the eradication project.
The eradication process includes the use of helicopters, boats, ground crews and amphibious track vehicles. The crews will be spreading Rotenone, a chemical for fish eradications, which will kill out all fish in the waters where it is placed. AGFC Chief of Fisheries Mike Armstrong said that using the chemical is the only way to make sure that snakeheads are removed from the area. "People are going to see a lot of dead fish in these areas," he said. "There is going to an impact to the native fish population. But, I want to make certain that people know these areas will recover quickly. The AGFC will restock these areas with native gamefish and with natural re-colonization the creek will be well on its way to recovery by the end of summer with the stocking expected to provide an improved fishery by next summer," Armstrong added.
The species was banned in Arkansas in 2002 and placed under a federal importation ban the same year because of its potential to cause problems with native fish. However, biologists believe the species may have been brought to Arkansas before these regulations were passed. "The northern snakehead is used as a food species in Asia, and we know some were brought to fish farms in the U.S. before 2002," said AGFC Assistant Chief of Fisheries Mark Oliver. "Fish farmers in Arkansas realized the potential danger the species posed and tried to eradicate them even before bans were imposed."
According to Armstrong, the largest fear biologists have concerning the species is its impact on native fish such as largemouth bass, bream and crappie. Snakeheads are very aggressive predators, attacking food species as well as fish their own size. "If snakeheads are not removed, there could be permanent damage to many of the state's fisheries in eastern Arkansas," he says.