The Truth Behind Fishzilla and His Killer Reputation

Despite rumors to the contrary, this fish is not out to eat your face.
Northern snakehead may be an invasive species, but they otherwise don't live up to their dangerous reputations. (Photo: William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)
May 2, 2013· 3 MIN READ
Joanna writes about environment and energy for the NYT, Popular Science, OnEarth Magazine, and more.

Sea Monster, Fishzilla. You can tack the word "fish" onto just about any name of a mythical monster, and the media has probably already used it to describe the northern snakehead. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Fish? Loch Ness Fish-ster? Ok, I made those up, but you get the idea. The fish has been on the public's radar since first discovered in a Maryland lake back in 2002.

No, it doesn't demolish cities and it isn't made up of dead fish parts, but it is an invasive species, which should only be found in rivers and lakes in China and Russia, and as a top aquatic predator, it does have the potential to cause some serious ecological havoc.

Most recently, stories have been flying around on the web that the northern snakehead has made its way into Harlem Meer, a popular fishing spot in the northeastern corner of Central Park in Manhattan. The story, repeated and re-repeated, suggests that northern snakehead are in the park, they will destroy everything, and then crawl out of the lake in search of their next victim, I mean pond.

If this sounds fantastical, it's because it is. But that hasn't stopped major news outlets from reporting it. So what's true and what's sensationalized media buzz?

According to Rodney Rivera, Special Assistant to Region 2 New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, one northern snakehead was found in Harlem Meer back in 2008. At that time, the park proceeded by posting signs around the lake warning anglers of the invasive species and instructing them on what to do should they happen to catch one of the intruders.

Over the years, the signs have slowly been taken down or pilfered. Late last year, an angler reported having seen a northern snakehead, and the park responded by reposting the signs around the urban fishing hole. All of that, however, happened five to six months ago, and there are still no confirmed sightings of any Frankenfish.

Reports that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation was testing the lake for the presence of northern snakehead are also erroneous. While the service was out on the lake Tuesday, it was part of a very routine sampling study the service does every few years and was not in response to the alleged sighting from last year.

"At DEC, we're all sort of chuckling about how this story has suddenly become larger than life," says Rivera.

The reports that northern snakehead can spread over land are also completely unfounded. Nicolas Lapointe, who studied northern snakehead in the Potomac for years for his dissertation at Virginia Tech, says that while some species of snakehead fish—there are 30 distinct species—can cross small amounts of land from lake to lake, the northern snakehead, which is the only species that could survive as far north as New York, does not walk on land.

"We once had National Geographic come and shoot a video with us down on the Potomac," says Lapointe. "We explicitly told them that these species don't walk on land and gave them a demonstration. Somehow they still ended up suggesting in their documentary that these fish wander about. Walking catfish have little spines in their fins that they can kind of use as legs to get about on land; northern snakehead have soft fins that just don't work that way."

Lapointe has plenty of experience with outlandish beliefs about northern snakehead.

"I once had a man ask me in all seriousness if it was OK for him to let his five-year-old son play out in the yard," says Lapointe. "His house was adjacent to the river and he was afraid that a snakehead would crawl out of the water, over a three-foot embankment and attack his child. I assured him, he had nothing to worry about."

He adds, "I know the media loves a good story, but honestly, this poor guy was scared for his kids because he had heard terms like 'Fishzilla' thrown around and believed, like so many seem to, that these fish can travel great distances over land and are born to kill."

From all of Lapointe's experience working with the fish, he says they are actually very shy and retreating. They might nibble toes, if they mistook them for something else, but that's about as dangerous as it gets.

"I actually think they are amazing fish with all sorts of neat adaptations," says Lapointe. "They are this beautiful olive green color with a purple iridescence and camouflage pattern. They are almost always photographed after having been freeze-dried with their mouths pulled back to show their teeth. I don't think any of us would look appealing under those circumstances. They certainly don't belong here, but they also don't deserve this crazy bad reputation."

So if you see a northern snakehead outside of its native habitat in China and Russia you should definitely report it to wildlife officials. Just don't run home and hide your wife and kids.

"I think the real story here is the threat posed by all invasive nonnative species. The introduction of one can be devastating but usually it's the combined effect of many," says Lapointe. " Overall the amount of global change that is occurring through these introductions is tremendous. It's right on par with climate change and habitat loss."

Have you heard any mythical tales about the northern snakehead? Tell us about them in the Comments.