AGFC Warns of Northern Snakehead in Little Red River
4/22/20 - Christy Graham, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission
This week, Trout Management Program and District 10 fisheries personnel were assisting the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff with collecting Brown Trout on the Little Red River (Greers Ferry Tailwater). This is part of an ongoing effort to evaluate Brown Trout spawning activities on the river. While collecting fish on April 20th, AGFC personnel also collected three Northern Snakehead, an invasive fish species, in the area of the river just downstream of Scroncher Shoals (~1.5 miles downstream of the Barnett (Swinging Bridge) Access). Last summer, we received an unconfirmed report from an angler of a Northern Snakehead in the same general area. In the 2017 Greers Ferry Tailwater Management Plan, one strategy we incorporated was to provide information to the public regarding the presence of invasive species in the tailwater. Northern Snakehead are similar in appearance to a native Arkansas species, the Bowfin. I've attached a guide on how to tell the differences between the two species, but the information can also be found on Page 52 of the 2020 AGFC Fishing Guidebook (https://www.agfc.com/en/resources/regulations/guidebooks/).
Northern Snakehead were first discovered in eastern Arkansas in 2008, likely due to an accidental escape from a fish farm. Since that time, Northern Snakehead have spread into other areas of the Mississippi River basin, including the White River. Therefore, confirmation by AGFC biologists that Northern Snakehead are indeed present in the Little Red River is not unexpected, as they have been moving upstream within the White River drainage for years. Some anglers may be alarmed that we have found Northern Snakehead in the Little Red River and the potential impacts they could have on the trout population. However, for several reasons, we do not anticipate Northern Snakehead will negatively affect the Little Red River trout fishery. Many studies conducted throughout the country have failed to document changes in fisheries (e.g., Largemouth Bass in the Potomac River) where Northern Snakehead have invaded. Therefore, concerns about competition between trout and Northern Snakehead for resources (e.g., food) are unlikely. Secondly, the Little Red River would be a challenging environment for Northern Snakehead to thrive and spawn successfully. They prefer spawning in areas with soft-bottoms (e.g., silt), dense aquatic vegetation and little flow. Therefore, outside of a few back-water areas, there is little spawning habitat available to Northern Snakehead within the trout water of the Little Red River. Additionally, generation from the dam would likely flush away any Northern Snakehead eggs if they do spawn, so the chance that they will hatch and then grow to adult sizes in the Little Red River is nearly impossible. Research has also indicated that Northern Snakehead do best at water temperatures around 82°F, which is far warmer than the average water temperature on the Little Red River, even at the lower end of designated trout water. For example, in 2019, the average water temperature at the Highway 305 Bridge (30 miles downstream from Greers Ferry Dam) from May 2019 to January 2020 was 55°F (range = 45-69°F). Additionally, for two reasons, we are not concerned that Northern Snakehead will eat a lot of trout. First, although Northern Snakehead are fish-eaters in the Potomac River, in eastern Arkansas they appear to eat a variety of fish and invertebrates (e.g., crayfish) in the ditch based systems where they are found. Secondly, Northern Snakehead have a small mouth opening, which will make eating stock-size or larger trout nearly impossible. In 2018, 92% of the 1,378 trout we collected from the Little Red River were 10 inches or longer.
You all have the potential to be very helpful to us in documenting where Northern Snakehead are caught or observed on the Little Red River. We would like to request your help in reporting these fish. If at any time you catch a Northern Snakehead on the Little Red River (or anywhere else), please report the catch immediately to the following email: ReportANS@agfc.ar.gov. You can also call our statewide Aquatic Nuisance Species Coordinator, Jimmy Barnett (501-912-6843). Please document the date, location (GPS coordinates, if possible), collection method, collector name and phone number, and take a picture if you can. You should be aware that it is currently illegal to keep Northern Snakehead, regardless of whether they are dead or alive. As an agency, we will be proposing to revise our current Code of Regulations regarding the possession of Northern Snakehead. The proposed change would allow anglers to keep Northern Snakehead, as long as they have killed the fish by severing the head from the body immediately. We want there to be zero chance they could escape alive and spread to another location. Until that proposed regulation change is approved, our recommendation is that if you catch a Northern Snakehead, kill the fish, then throw it back in the river or up on the bank. Please do not throw Northern Snakehead on the bank alive because they can live for several days out of water (under the right conditions) and could potentially make their way back into the river.
Besides proposing a change in the current regulations regarding the possession of Northern Snakehead, there are several other things we will do as an agency in response to finding them on the Little Red River. We will continue to monitor the Little Red River for Northern Snakehead as we conduct our routine field work. We will also work with the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff personnel in an effort to determine whether the Northern Snakehead we collected were spawned in the Little Red River, or whether they moved into the system from another area. Northern Snakehead have exhibited upstream movements during the spring in other Arkansas watersheds, so this is the time of year when we would expect them to be moving. If we collect more Northern Snakehead, we will also assess their stomach contents to determine what they are eating in the Little Red River.
Life is Better on the Little Red River!
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