Two fish reported to have been caught in a North Carolina lake are snakeheads, a Chinese predator that's caused alarm elsewhere on the East Coast, a state scientist has confirmed.
It was the first time the alien species has been detected in the state.
In addition, West Virginia authorities seized four snakeheads that had been bought in a pet shop.
Scientists in Crofton, Maryland are scrambling to wipe out 100 snakeheads, the spawn of two adult snakeheads dumped in a pond two years earlier. They were discovered last month.
Snakeheads, sold live in markets, can grow to more than 3 feet long, feed voraciously on other fish, crawl short distances on land, and compete with native fish for food.
"They could pose a serious threat to native game fish and threatened or endangered wildlife species," said Ed Hamrick, director of West Virginia's Division of Natural Resources.
Snakeheads are indigenous to Asia, Malaysia, Indonesia and Africa.
Fisheries managers fear they could spread throughout the northeastern United States, Hamrick added.
A federal proposal would bar people from importing snakeheads or shipping them across state lines. The fish, allowed in North Carolina, are banned in 14 states.
Charlotte, N.C. fisherman Gene Polk said he and a fishing partner caught the two toothy, foot-long fish in Lake Wylie Wednesday morning.
"The only thing we know for sure is they are snakeheads," said Lawrence Dorsey, district fisheries biologist for the wildlife commission.
Dorsey said the state will keep a "vigilant eye" for further reports from fishermen but don't, for now, plan to go looking for the fish.
Wayne Starnes, research curator of fish at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, identified the fish Thursday through digital images. They're probably a northern species of snakehead, like those found in Maryland, Starnes said.
"If they're in (Wylie) and established, then the horse is out of the barn," he said.
West Virginia wildlife officials say the owners of Aquariums Unlimited in Martinsburg and the unidentified person who purchased the fish are cooperating in the investigation. No charges have been filed.
A resident concerned about the presence of the fish in West Virginia reported them to Division of Natural Resources law enforcement officers, Hamrick said Friday.