Fishing out the northern snakehead

Concerns grow after man catches what looks to be one of the predatory fish

July 02, 2002|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

Evidence mounted yesterday that there's more than one exotic predatory fish living in a Crofton pond, creating a greater sense of urgency for biologists attempting to corral it - or them.

A local angler showed up at the Department of Natural Resources with a cooler holding a 26-inch fish that biologists say appears to be a northern snakehead. The fish, caught Sunday, is 8 inches longer than one caught and photographed May 15 before it was released.

"If it came from this pond, it was not the fish caught in May. We are checking it, but it looks like the right species," said Bob Lunsford, the DNR biologist who has been directing pond-side operations. "If that's the case, it heightens our concerns."

The angler, Joe Gillespie of Crofton, said he caught "one the size of a golf bag" in April, but it broke free from his light fishing tackle.

"It was like something from the X Files," he said.

The northern snakehead, one of 28 species of snakeheads, is a native of the Yangtze River region of China. It has a voracious appetite, can grow to be 3 feet long and can live out of water for up to three days. When threatened by a loss of food or deteriorating environmental conditions, it can walk short distances on its fins.

The Little Patuxent River is about 75 yards away, and two small ponds are even closer - fueling biologists' fears that the troublesome fish could spread.

Yesterday, about a half-dozen biologists from DNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service set traps baited with cat food in the 9-acre pond just off Route 3. They will check the traps today and if they come up empty replace them with other varieties.

"I'm pretty sure we're dealing with more than one fish," said Mike Slattery of the wildlife service's Chesapeake Bay office. "If it's as voracious and aggressive as the literature says it is, I'd be surprised if we don't catch one."

Scientists don't know how the snakehead got into the pond. Some snakehead species are sold to pet stores. Others, such as the northern snakehead, are sold in Asian specialty markets.

Slattery said the snakehead was most likely introduced "within the last four years. And we're fairly confident that it has remained contained."

Just to be sure, Lunsford said biologists may monitor several points along the river with electro-shocking equipment.

Gillespie set out Sunday with his 10-year-old son, Mark, and Jake Harkey, 12, a neighbor's son, "on a mission to catch a snakehead."

The anglers paddled out on the pond on sailboards. Gillespie was carrying a large surf casting rod baited with a minnow.

The fish ignored the bait and rose to the surface to gobble the bobber.

"He was aggressive. He bumped into our feet. He hit the paddles. He put up a pretty good fight," said Gillespie.

Gillespie said he was going to get the fish mounted for display, but he wishes he had the one from April.

"My brother picked him up out of the water, but he was covered with weeds and hard to hold. He looked like a car tire," he said.

Julie Thompson, a federal biologist who studies invasive species, said the dumping of exotic animals such as snakeheads into Maryland waters is a growing concern.

"Everything has a consequence," she said. "People have to learn that they can't empty aquariums and bait buckets indiscriminately. After something is introduced, it's hard to put a stop to it."

Maryland is a terrific environment for the snakehead, said Walter Courtenay, one of the leading exotic fish experts who is studying the species for the U.S. Geological Survey.

"It can live under ice, so it can easily tolerate Maryland winters," he said. "It breeds in summer temperatures similar to Maryland's. And a full-grown female can lay as many as 100,000 eggs in a year."

Courtenay's study is the first step in establishing a federal ban on the importation of snakeheads. It is illegal to possess them in 13 states, but not in Maryland, Washington or Virginia.

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