State plans to allow some varieties of snakeheads as pets

Only the breed found in a Crofton pond in 2002 will be banned

Hobbyists had complained

September 02, 2004|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

After intense lobbying from owners of pet snakeheads, the Department of Natural Resources reversed yesterday plans to ban the voracious fish completely and will allow hobbyists to keep tropical varieties.

The department will ban only the northern snakehead, the breed that was discovered in a Crofton pond in 2002 and turned up in the Potomac this summer. An angler caught one in a Wheaton pond in April.

DNR had proposed banning all 29 varieties of snakehead in a regulation scheduled to take effect Sept. 13. But officials said yesterday that they will impose a narrower ban targeting only the drably colored northern snakehead, known as Channa argus. The new regulation will take effect by the end of the year, they said.

"We haven't put it down on paper, but that's our intent at this point," said Howard King, DNR's director of fisheries.

The colorful tropical varieties of snakehead have never been a threat to Maryland waterways because they can't survive cold winters here, King said.

Anglers have caught 18 snakeheads, all northerns, along a stretch of the Potomac near Fort Belvoir, Va., since spring. None was spawning, leading regulators to believe that they were dumped there, King said.

The northern snakehead, nicknamed "Frankenfish" for its voracious appetite and strange behavior, is an Asian import that preys on other species, can breathe air and survives on land for about three days. It thrives in cooler climates, and wildlife biologists say that if left to multiply in Maryland waters, the snakehead could devour other fish and crowd out native species.

Although Maryland law prohibits dumping invasive fish into state waterways, northern snakeheads infested a Crofton pond in 2002 and spawned hundreds of juveniles. Eventually, the fish were poisoned. After another northern was caught in April in a Wheaton pond, DNR proposed a ban on possession of snakeheads.

DNR was deluged with complaints from fish keepers because the ban also prohibited owning tropical snakeheads. State regulators received several hundred letters and e-mails, and they listened to pet owners' concerns at a July hearing, King said.

Fish aficionados supported the change.

"That was nice of them," said Michael Hresko, who with his brother owns House of Tropicals, a fish store in Glen Burnie. Hresko said tropical snakeheads come in reds, blues and a shade called cobra brown. They can grow to about a foot long and should be kept in water temperatures in the 70s.

Tropical snakeheads are unlikely to be for sale soon, however.

A federal law, enacted after the Crofton discovery, prohibits the importation of snakeheads and transporting them across state lines. Hresko said the federal ban dried up the commercial supply of tropical snakeheads.

"You can't sell any if they can't be brought in," he said.

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