Angler finds Crofton pond holds more snakeheads

DNR confirms baby fish caught likely is invader

breeding in area is feared

Anne Arundel

July 10, 2002|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

State biologists have bagged a bundle of bad news: a 3-inch fingerling that looks a lot like a baby northern snakehead, the invader from overseas that has infested a pond in Crofton.

Snakehead stalker Joe Gillespie - the Crofton angler who landed a 26-inch specimen two weeks ago - packed the little green creature in a plastic bag and gave it to Maryland Department of Natural Resources biologists yesterday.

Gillespie told them he netted seven more just like it Monday night, said DNR spokesman John Surrick.

It looks like they're breeding there, the biologists say.

"This ups the ante a little bit," said DNR fisheries director Eric Schwaab, who is coordinating efforts to get rid of the unwelcome visitors from China's Yangtze River region. "We're going to have to do something a little more comprehensive."

The northern snakehead eats anything it can cram into its toothy maw. It can live under ice, in 100-degree water, or on land for three days - where it can walk using its fins.

It's a short hike from the pond where the snakeheads have been caught to the Little Patuxent River about 75 yards away. Once in the river, they could wreak havoc on native fish populations and would be nearly impossible to eradicate, Schwaab said.

That scenario came to life May 15 when an angler caught and photographed one before tossing it back, not realizing the danger. At first, DNR biologists thought there was only one. Then Gillespie caught another, raising fears that the fish were breeding in the pond, a former gravel pit behind a row of fast-food restaurants.

Biologists from DNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service searched the pond. They found no more snakeheads, although thick patches of water lilies and duckweed offered concealment.

Gillespie, who fishes the pond often, spotted a school of young fish frothing the water and scooped up eight in a dip net Monday, DNR officials said.

His new find spawned a media frenzy. Reporters swarmed the pond yesterday, where they outnumbered captive baby snakeheads by about 20 to 1.

DNR fisheries restoration manager Steve Early briefly set the little fish down on the pond's muddy bank. Too young to walk, it flopped toward the water's edge, fins outstretched, while the cameras rolled.

The Crofton snakehead hunt has captured headlines nationwide. Since the find became public three weeks ago, DNR staffers have been interviewed by every local news organization, as well as ABC, CBS, National Public Radio, the New York Times, and National Geographic. Surrick said the Canadian Discovery Channel is nibbling at the story, too.

And the public is hooked.

DNR has printed "wanted" posters featuring a photo of the northern snakehead and posted them around the pond. "Unfortunately we can't keep them up," Schwaab said. "They make great souvenirs."

Meanwhile, anglers have thronged the pond.

"I figured on a Tuesday it would be nice and quiet. I'd have the place to myself," said would-be fisherman Les Glick of Crofton, who instead found himself surrounded by microphone- and notebook-wielding reporters.

Gillespie declined to be interviewed yesterday.

DNR officials said they are awaiting confirmation from an expert in Florida, but they don't doubt the juvenile fish Gillespie gave them from the Crofton pond is a northern snakehead.

To reduce the risk that curiosity-seekers might accidentally spread the fish to other water bodies, the state is closing the pond to the public, posting "no trespassing" signs and asking local police to patrol the area, Schwaab said. The agency will convene a task force of expert scientists, local residents and government officials to plan an eradication campaign.

Among the options being considered: poisoning the pond or electrifying the water to shock the fish to the surface.

Breeding populations of other snakehead species - there are 28 - have been found in Florida and Texas, where they have escaped into rivers, Schwaab said.

But in Maryland, there's no evidence that they've moved beyond the Crofton pond, he said.

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