Snakehead extermination approved

State leases Crofton pond

herbicide, poison to be used Sunday to kill fish

August 16, 2002|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

State officials set an execution date last night for the snakehead fish that have taken up residence in a Crofton pond: Sunday at dawn.

The announcement came after a week of intense negotiations between the state and the owners of three ponds in the neighborhood.

The MacQuilliam Organization, which owns the large pond where the voracious fish were discovered in June, agreed yesterday to lease the land to the Department of Natural Resources for the remainder of the year so state biologists can treat the pond.

But as of yesterday evening, William Berkshire, general partner of the Lancer Corp., which owns the two smaller ponds adjacent to the MacQuilliam pond, had not consented to the agency's terms.

"We have an obligation to protect the environment and the Chesapeake Bay. We will do it without having to access Berkshire's property," said DNR Secretary J. Charles Fox.

He added: "This is not the path we would have chosen."

Since a state-convened panel of experts recommended poisoning a Crofton pond to rid it of the northern snakehead last month, DNR fisheries experts have been planning the mass execution of the Yangtze River native that can breathe air, slither on its fins and survive on land for up to three days.

The fish was discovered in the pond in June, and a local resident later admitted he dumped two snakeheads -- one male and one female -- in the pond after they outgrew his aquarium.

Biologists have since caught more than 100 juveniles, and fear hundreds more of the aliens are feasting on bluegills and smallmouth bass in the 4-acre pond.

Mindful that the fish could reach the Little Patuxent River just 75 yards away, the experts urged acting quickly to poison the snakehead-infested pond and the two adjacent ponds as a precaution. Though no snakeheads have been found in the Berkshire ponds, the state hasn't tested, and experts have said the fish could be lurking there.

MacQuilliam, who wanted protection from lawsuits if anything went wrong, was satisfied with the state's agreement to lease the property and thus become responsible for activity there in the next six months.

Starting Sunday, state biologists will apply two herbicides to kill the pond's vegetation, which will drop the pond's oxygen levels. Following the herbicide, they will apply rotenone, a root-based fish-killer that proved lethal to juvenile snakeheads in recent tests.

Negotiations with Berkshire foundered on liability and access issues. The final straw was a demand that the state promise not to sue the owner in order to poison the ponds. Fox refused, and said his agency is exploring legal avenues that will allow DNR to treat Berkshire's ponds.

While the agency can work around Berkshire's property to take care of the snakeheads, it won't be easy. They'll have to park farther from the pond, and they'll have to lug the boats to be used a longer distance.

They also won't be able to use a larger airboat with a back fan -- effective for quickly applying the chemicals. And they won't be able to use the most effective electroshocking equipment to see if the poison works.

Fox called the negotiations with the adjoining pond owner "very frustrating."

"We have tried to address every single legitimate issue. We have tried to do so forthrightly. We have tried to do so expeditiously," he said. "I do not begin to understand their motivations for what has happened so far."

Berkshire attorney John J. Klocko III, who said he did not know of the Sunday execution date when a reporter phoned him, said he is equally frustrated. He called the talks "a process, not an ultimatum," and was working on resolving issues last night.

Klocko said he wants the state to protect Berkshire against all potential claims resulting from the treatment.

"They're expressing disbelief like they just can't understand why," Klocko said. "They are proposing no solution that completely protects the landowner. And frankly, they don't seem to have much concern about that."

Klocko, who is also an Anne Arundel County councilman, did not rule out an agreement. "We're here for the duration to make this work," he said.

The announcement came as a relief to panel members, who have warily watched a week of optimal weather conditions for poisoning slip away.

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