Exotic Fish Dealer Indicted for Allegedly Trafficking 'Invasive' Snakehead Species

An exotic fish seller in Pennsylvania has been indicted for allegedly trafficking an invasive and endangered species to the states, federal officials announced Monday.

Anthony Nguyen, also known as JoJo Nguyen or Jackie Lee, was charged with illegally importing and selling two species in violation of the Lacey Act. Along with importing the endangered Asian arowana, or "dragon fish," the 48-year-old Pittsburgh man is said to have sold snakehead fish, an invasive species native to Asia that can quickly overwhelm ecosystems and has the ability to migrate across land.

"Snakeheads present a serious risk to our native ecosystems," Jonathan D. Brightbill, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division, said in a statement. "These fish are prohibited for a reason. They are voracious predators, can live out of water for days, can move across land, and can wipe out the native species that inhabit freshwaters of the United States."

Snakehead Fish
An invasive snakehead fish is pictured after being pulled from a canal in Weston, Florida on May 16, 2012. Joe Raedle/Getty

Nguyen was indicted on two counts of allegedly selling the "aggressive" species in 2019, along with falsely labelling the fish for shipment across state lines by providing a fake name and address in place of his own. Under the Lacey Act, the maximum penalty for illegally importing wildlife deemed "injurious," as the snakehead fish are, is six months in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Populations of snakehead fish, apparently set free intentionally, have been spotted across the U.S. since at least 2002, when they were added to the list of "injurious" species, with a particularly large population wreaking havoc on the Potomac River's ecosystem. The fish may have been introduced into the river during the cultural tradition of a "prayer release," according to National Geographic.

Nguyen also faces one count for allegedly importing Asian arowana fish in 2016. The species may be the most expensive freshwater fish in the world, rumored to have sold for up to $300,000, according to CNBC. Despite being banned for sale in the U.S., they remain in high demand for aquarium owners who delve into the black market. In Asian cultures, the fish are sometimes associated with good luck and wealth.

"The illegal trafficking of endangered and invasive wildlife represents a serious threat to our critical ecosystems," said U.S. Attorney Scott W. Brady of the Western District of Pennsylvania. "I commend the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Law Enforcement for their investigation of this matter. My office will continue to aggressively prosecute those individuals who engage in the illegal selling of wildlife."

Newsweek reached out to the Office of Law Enforcement at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for comment.