No Snakehead ban? - Your questions answered

09 December 2017

Snakeheads are freshwater fish native to Asia and Africa. Although the family includes some large species used primarily as food, many of the smaller species have become well established in the aquarium trade. The smaller species, such as Channa stewartii are often colourful and quite easy to keep, and with new species and varieties turning up on a regular basis. Stores like Wildwoods routinely maintain stocks of the most popular Snakehead species, appealing as they do to experienced aquarists with an interest in oddball fish but without the space for traditional tankbusters.

However, in recent years the family has come under fire by various agencies concerned with their potential to become invasive pests. Certainly some species have become established outside their natural range. In the USA the import of live Snakeheads has been prohibited, and in some states it is illegal to own them, even if locally bred. The European Union has been looking at Snakeheads recently, as part of the ongoing process of updating EU Alien Invasive Species regulations.

Aquarium Glaser reported on December 8th that the total ban of Channa species is off the table. But does that mean the Snakehead will continue to be traded freely in the UK?

Why would the EU ban Snakeheads?

At least one species, Channa argus, is native to East Asia and naturally adapted to quite cold winters. This species has already managed to become established well outside its natural range, including parts of Japan and the USA. Given that adult Northern Snakeheads are predatory fish that measure around a metre in length when fully grown, they have the potential to dramatically affect whatever ecosystem they find themselves in.

Are Snakeheads really that bad?

Economically, the biggest black mark against Snakeheads is that they consume the sorts of small to medium-sized fish that support populations of valuable game fish like pike or salmon. Without any natural predators, they have the potential to multiply very quickly, and as well as small fish, Snakeheads are known to consume an extremely wide range of prey items, including insects, crayfish, frogs and waterfowl.

But surely the species we keep are tropical fish?

Indeed, and one criticism British aquarists can make of the EU regulations is that very few Channa species are at all likely to survive a British winter, much less maintain breeding populations year-in, year-out. But the EU regulations have to include Southern and Central Europe in their deliberations, and live Snakeheads have been found in at least three European bodies of water already: Italy, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

Comparisons with the United States can be made, where Snakeheads seem to have become established in the warmer states such as Florida and Maryland, and that's the concern here. EU countries with broadly similar climates, such as Spain, Greece and Italy, may be at particular risk, and climate change could make other parts of Europe more viable habitat for Snakeheads than they are at the moment. This is something the EU has to think about, which is one reason for erring on the side of caution.

If we're keeping Snakeheads in aquaria, how would they get into rivers and lakes?

Unfortunately, some aquarists do indeed dump unwanted fish in local waters. The Centre for Environment Fisheries and Aquaculture Science works closely with the Ornamental Aquatic Trade Association Ltd to try to minimise this, for example by ensuring aquarists are aware of ways to rehome unwanted fish. While the fish released this way tend to be Goldfish that have outgrown their tanks, the sad fact is that deliberate releases of unwanted tropical fish cannot be entirely ruled out.

Doesn't Brexit take the EU regulations off the table anyway?

Possibly, but most if not all existing EU regulations will be carried across into English and Scottish law before being amended or abolished. In any case, DEFRA already restricts trading in at least one Snakehead species, Channa argus, as well as a variety of other, potentially invasive, coldwater fish.

So does that mean Snakeheads will be available for years to come?

At least for now, that does appear to be the case. See for example the selection of Snakehead species currently available at Wildwoods that you can buy in person or by mail order. But until we know precisely which way the EU and DEFRA are going to go on this, if you're interested in keeping Snakeheads, this is probably as good a time as any to buy your livestock. Who knows what the situation will be a few years from now?