Bill introduced to help control targeted exotic species in state

Agency would be granted authority to outlaw them

February 19, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

The aggressive, alien fish found breeding unchecked in a Crofton pond last summer did more than introduce Marylanders to an eerily named creature able to survive above the surface and crawl on land.

The saga of the northern snakehead, a native of China, also exposed holes in the state's net of regulations for controlling exotic aquatic species that find their way with growing frequency into state waterways.

The General Assembly has begun working to mend those gaps.

Legislators began discussion yesterday on a bill that would grant the Department of Natural Resources authority to outlaw targeted species, enter private property to get rid of them and charge responsible property owners for the cost of their action.

State authorities realized they had none of those powers as they plotted last year to eradicate snakeheads from Anne Arundel County - lest they travel a few dozen yards and enter a tributary to the Chesapeake Bay, where they could wreak havoc on a threatened ecosystem.

"They can breathe and walk on land and live for days outside of water," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat and sponsor of the bill heard before the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee to broaden the department's reach. "It's almost like something out of a horror movie."

"There are very likely other species, as yet unknown to us now, that could threaten our fisheries and waterways in the future," he said.

Authorities were able to negotiate access to the Crofton pond, where they killed more than 200 of the tenacious fish through a combination of herbicide and poison.

Valued in Asian cultures for medicinal purposes, a breeding pair of the fish had been dumped in the pond two years earlier when they outgrew an aquarium where they had been kept, officials said.

It was not illegal to possess snakeheads in Maryland, and taxpayers absorbed the $110,000 cost to get rid of them.

Officials say the law would help them respond quicker and more effectively to future emergencies.

"The problem is certainly not limited to the snakehead," said Eric C. Schwaab, the state fisheries service director. "We have been seeing a never-ending stream of non-native species being brought here."

"Right on the heels of the snakehead incident, we began reading about nuclear worms," he said, referring to the pink, 5-foot-long Vietnamese invertebrates brought here for bait.

Schwaab said the Natural Resources Department supports the bill.

The legislation heralds a shift of authority from the General Assembly to a state agency: In the past, when problem species came to light, lawmakers in Annapolis would write a new law banning them, as they did with green crabs several years ago.

The law would allow the department to respond to emerging threats by creating its own list of "nuisance" animals, then determining whether a "state of nuisance" exists that would allow inspectors to enter property to deal with the problem.

"This is an appropriate delegation," Frosh said. "It happens so fast. We weren't in session when the snakehead became a problem."

Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Baltimore County Republican, expressed reservations with one component of the bill: Property owners shouldn't be charged for eradication operations, he said, if they didn't know an animal was prohibited, or if the species was made illegal after it was on their property.

"If it's not willful or reckless, then why shouldn't the state bear that cost?" Harris asked.

Frosh and department officials said the bill could be amended to address those concerns.

Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, chairwoman of the environmental committee and a Baltimore County Democrat, said she thought the bill's prospects were good.

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