Crabber nets snakehead in Inner Harbor

no threat to bay

Biologists say species is different, likely dumped

September 07, 2002|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

Even as state biologists pulled more dead snakehead fish out of a poisoned Crofton pond yesterday, a crabber netted another large one, very much alive, in the Inner Harbor.

Biologists said the 22-inch carnivorous fish probably had been dumped in the harbor from an aquarium and posed no threat to the Chesapeake Bay.

But the surprising catch prompted state and federal wildlife officials to renew their plea to Maryland lawmakers to ban possession of the torpedo-shaped fish from Asia.

"There's no need to panic," said federal biologist and snakehead expert Walter Courtenay. "This is not a good thing, people dumping these fish indiscriminately. But they can't live long in water with high salinity, and it couldn't possibly survive a Baltimore winter."

The fish was taken first to the National Aquarium and then to the Department of Natural Resources in Annapolis, where biologists identified it as a giant snakehead, a different species than the ones poisoned by the state this week in Crofton.

It was caught near the Korean War Memorial in Canton Waterfront Park by James Scritchfield, 35, of Baltimore, who saw the large fish struggling and retrieved it in his dip net. It died a short time later.

"It was in distress, which leads us to believe it had been dumped within the last 24 hours," said DNR spokesman John Surrick. "Whoever did it almost certainly knew what they were doing."

Courtenay said the new invader is a tougher customer than the northern snakehead, and is sold in Baltimore area pet shops.

"Of all the 28 species of snakehead, the giant has the sharpest, longest most developed teeth," he said. "It's the one fish I know that kills more fish than it eats. It's the one reported to have attacked and killed a human."

U.S. Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton is expected to approve a ban on the importation and transportation of all 28 species of snakehead as early as next week. But that, said a spokesman, doesn't end the problem.

"Unfortunately, that's as much as we can do," said Interior's Ken Burton. "States like Maryland have got to take the lead on banning possession. If they don't take action, people can keep buying them in pet stores and when they get too big, dump them in local ponds."

"Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Arkansas have banned them," Courtenay noted. "I don't run the politics in your state, but if I did, I would. ... Nobody needs snakeheads."

Maryland lawmakers have declined to give fisheries officials the power to take action against dangerous aquatic life, preferring to dole it out on a case-by-case basis. Dumping exotic fish is prohibited in freshwater; the penalty is a $100 fine. Dumping is not prohibited in tidal water.

DNR Secretary J. Charles Fox is expected to ask the legislature in January to broaden the department's powers.

"With all the publicity, I can't think of any Marylander who could not know the seriousness of releasing a snakehead in the wild," said Mike Slattery, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Chesapeake Bay office. "They had to know it was something that was risky and wrong."

Also yesterday, state biologists found two more adult northern snakeheads floating among the dead fish in Crofton, raising doubt about the presumption that biologists had already accounted for the pair dumped in the pond two years ago by a local man.

The most likely explanation, Courtenay said, is that the northern snakeheads grow rapidly, perhaps as much as a foot a year, and the four dead adults represent two generations.

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