Massachusetts Man Catches Strange Invasive Fish That Moves on Land, Breathes Air

A Massachusetts man snagged a rarely caught invasive fish on Friday that has a bizarre ability to breathe outside of water.

Michael Powell was trying to catch bass on Reservoir Pond, south of Boston, with a friend on Friday afternoon, when he felt something tugging on his line at about 4 p.m.

But the fish wasn't a bass like Powell was hoping. Instead, it turned out to be a northern snakehead fish, known scientifically as Channa argus.

"I fished my whole life, so I kind of knew what to do and I knew it wasn't a fish that was part of this area," Powell told Boston.com. "As soon as I got it on the boat, I said 'holy sh*t, this is a snakehead fish.'"

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), northern snakehead fish have long, thin bodies with a characteristic head covered in large scales that looks almost snake-like, as the name suggests.

The fish has a large mouth with sharp teeth and is capable of growing to nearly four feet in length, while weighing up to 15 pounds.

Snakeheads have the unusual ability—among fish at least—to absorb oxygen directly from the air with the help of an air bladder that functions like a primitive lung. This enables them to survive for up to four days out of the water, and to thrive in stagnant bodies of water, such as swamps, canals and ponds, that contain very little oxygen.

The fish can also survive for longer periods out of the water if they burrow themselves in moist sediment and lie dormant, which they do in periods of drought.

The juveniles can travel short distances across land by "wiggling" their bodes, enabling them to move from one body of water to another, if necessary, This becomes harder for the fish as they grow older and their long, narrow bodies become rounder, according to National Geographic.

The snakehead caught by Powell measured 2.5 feet in length and weighed five pounds. It's only the fourth fish of this species to have been caught in Massachusetts since 2002—the year that the first established population of C. argus was identified in the United States in the state of Maryland.

The fish is native to parts of China, Russia and Korea, but is has now been introduced to other regions, including some central Asian nations, portions of eastern Europe, Japan and the United States.

Intentional Release in the U.S.

It is thought that the fish, which is sometimes eaten, was introduced into the environment in the U.S. through intentional release by Asian food importers or by people who owned them as pets.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the fast-growing, carnivorous species is now established in Delaware, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Arkansas. A few individual specimens have also been identified in California, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts and North Carolina, but the fish isn't known to be established in these states.

The unusual capabilities of this species to survive in environments where other fish can't, their varied and flexible diet—which includes fish, frogs, crabs, birds and small mammals—and their predatory and aggressive nature, have allowed snakeheads to spread and adapt to a wide range of habitats.

Environmentalists consider the fish to be a problematic invasive species because they prey upon and outcompete native species for resources, while also potentially carrying parasites.

Powell knew that he had to notify the authorities about his catch and eventually handed the fish over to Massachusetts state wildlife officials after keeping it alive for a whole night in a home-made tank.

"Did you see the teeth on that thing? Try catching it—I didn't know what the hell to do with it either and I've fished my whole life," Powell said.

"We had it out of the water for two hours while I was trying to figure out what to put it in, and as soon as we put it in the water it let out a giant gulp of air and started breathing through its gills again. I said that's it, I don't want to see it anymore. It's doing stuff that fish aren't supposed to do."

A northern snakehead fish
A northern snakehead fish swims in a tank at the Academy of Natural Sciences April 28, 2005 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Last Friday, a Massachusetts man caught a northern snakehead fish, which is considered to be an invasive species in the United States. William Thomas Cain/Getty Images