They are the bad boys of the fish world, known for using their teeth and size -- they grow to be 3 feet long and up to 40 or 50 pounds -- to attack other fish and sometimes even humans.
Giant snakeheads also are a prohibited species, one of the reasons an Ontario pet dealer was charged Tuesday in Amherst with smuggling them into the United States.
Muk Leung "Jim" Ip is accused of illegally exporting snakeheads and two other prohibited species -- arowanas, a fish considered a symbol of luck, and axolotls, a salamanderlike amphibian -- as the result of a yearlong cross-border undercover investigation.
Prosecutors hailed the case as an important step in preventing snakeheads, a highly invasive and predatory fish from Southeast Asia, from entering the Great Lakes and other local fresh waterways.
"This effort provides further evidence that law enforcement and preventative policies are critical to keeping these harmful invasive species away from our shores," Jennifer Nalbone, director of navigation and invasive species for Great Lakes United, said in a statement Tuesday.
Ip, who was charged in Amherst Town Court, is accused of sending a shipment of 26 snakeheads from Ontario to Amherst last July and selling them to an undercover agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Prosecutors said he sold another 154 snakeheads to an undercover agent about five months later.
"Some species of wildlife -- such as the giant snakehead in this case -- can be dangerous to the indigenous life forms and ecosystems we have here in Western New York," said U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr.
Ip, 49, of Scarborough, Ont., is charged with two felony counts and one misdemeanor count of selling prohibited fish.
Snakeheads are regarded as extremely aggressive predators with the potential to harm native fish species and hurt recreational fishing. That is why New York State prohibits the possession, sale and distribution of live snakeheads.
The fish also are viewed as capable of adapting to new habitats and have been spotted in U.S. waterways from Maine to Arkansas. They also are voracious eaters and have been known to attack anything it views as threatening, including humans.
"This is a case where law enforcement cooperation between two countries and multiple agencies resulted in shutting down an operation that attempted to advance an individual's self-interest at the expense of New York's natural resources, specifically our Great Lakes," State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said in a statement.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron J. Mango said the charges against Ip stem from a state and federal investigation that included an undercover agent posing as an interested buyer.
Court papers claim that the agent paid Ip, an employee with the Lucky Aquarium in Markham, Ont., $1,500 for the snakeheads.
Ip also is accused of selling $1,500 worth of arowanas, knowing that the prohibited fish would be smuggled into New York State.
"Throughout the country, invasive species are inflicting serious damage in waters where they simply do not belong," Katy Dunlap, Eastern Water Project director for Trout Unlimited, said.
Dunlap said the prohibited fish are harming existing fisheries, hurting the recreational fishing industry and causing long-term problems for the environment.
The two other species Ip is accused of selling are prohibited.
The arowana is commonly known as the "dragon fish" or "lucky fish" in Southeast Asia and, like the snakehead, can grow to up to 3 feet in length. In China, the fish is considered a symbol of wealth and power.
The other species, axolotls, are amphibians with the ability to regenerate limbs. For that reason, they are a popular subject of scientific research.