Pond most likely has more than one snakehead

Exotic fish eludes experts, who turn to local anglers

July 03, 2002|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

State and federal biologists staking out a Crofton pond for a voracious alien fish received a double dose of bad news yesterday: They are almost certainly dealing with more than one finned intruder, and the critters are playing hard to get.

A leading federal expert concluded that the 26-inch fish caught and killed Sunday was a northern snakehead, a toothy, torpedo-shaped native of China that preys on local fish and can use its fins to walk short distances on land.

"That is a big one, much bigger than market size, which is about 12 to 14 inches," said Walter Courtenay of the U.S. Geological Survey after looking at e-mailed photos of the fish. "So I'd have to say it's been in there for a while."

Northern snakeheads are sold in Asian specialty markets and are on the menus of some Chinese restaurants.

Department of Natural Resources officials took a more cautious approach, saying they wanted to talk to Courtenay before accepting his conclusion.

Courtenay, who is studying the fish as the first step in seeking a federal ban on importation, said there are 28 species of snakeheads, making identification difficult.

"But [the northern] is a totally different beast, to say the least," said the professor emeritus of zoology at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

Northern snakeheads grow to be 3 feet and can live up to three days out of water. They can survive below ice and breed prolifically in Maryland's heat.

If Courtenay's opinion holds, DNR will have documentation that at least two fish were dumped in the pond. An 18-inch snakehead was caught, photographed and released May 15.

Unverified is a Crofton angler's claim that before he caught the fish Sunday, he hooked and lost a snakehead in April "the size of a golf bag."

Local anglers are having better luck catching the fish than the scientists are.

More than a dozen traps baited with cat food and set Monday by DNR and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff were pulled up empty yesterday morning, save a single snapping turtle that was quickly set free.

Biologists with fishing rods who scooted around the weed-choked water in canoes and a flat-bottom boat also failed to land the big one, or any one for that matter.

"We're a bust," said DNR biologist Bob Lunsford. "We're pulling everything out for the Fourth of July weekend and letting the local experts - the guys who fish this regularly - take over. ... This is definitely going to be a lengthy process."

Soaring temperatures and rotting vegetation in the 9-acre pond off Route 3 lowered the oxygen in the water, triggering a reduction in fish activity, he said. Rain and lower temperatures forecast later this week should improve conditions.

DNR biologists also might seek help from the source: anglers who work the northern snakehead's home turf, the Yangtze River region.

"If these things are a popular fish to eat in China," said Lunsford, "someone knows how to catch them."

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