Maryland Journal

`Frankenfish' saga grabbed the headlines, and the public gobbled it hook, line and sinker

Years later, snakeheads thrive

May 14, 2007|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,Sun reporter

There's scarcely a ripple on the tiny pond tucked behind the strip mall on Route 3 in Crofton. People do their banking, mail their letters and buy their coffee just steps from where, five years ago this week, the saga of Maryland's nastiest fish surfaced on the end of a fishing line.

Over the course of several months, the northern snakehead - also called "Frankenfish," "the baddest bunny in the bush" or the "fish from hell" - leaped from the waters of Southeast Asia to the world's headlines to the late-night talk shows.

The fish known by scientists as Channa argus became better known as the invasive critter that could walk on land, breathe air and eat everything in sight. Even Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton said it was "like something from a bad horror movie."

"It took on surreal dimensions," says Eric Schwaab, deputy secretary of the Department of Natural Resources. "It was a pop phenomenon."

The summer after Sept. 11 was shaping up as a somber one as the country struggled to find its rhythm. The nation appeared headed for war and Enron collapsed. Major league baseball was talking about another strike and the effects of a drought in Maryland added to the sense of gloom.

Then Paul DiMauro and James Griffith, construction workers and fishing buddies from Anne Arundel County, cut out of work early to chill out on the banks of the unnamed, homely pond.

Hoping for bass, they instead landed a toothy, torpedo-shaped fish. Not knowing what is was and fearing they had reeled in an endangered species, they threw it back. But not before snapping some pictures and taking them to the DNR.

By mid-June, state and federal biologists knew they had a snakehead.

One fish became two in June, when Joe Gillespie of Crofton reeled in a bigger fish and boasted that he could land more.

Scientists convened panels as the story grew.

"The first time I knew something weird was happening was when a drive-time DJ from L.A. called, wanting to talk about the snakehead - and in a playful way," recalls Schwaab. "Then I knew we really had arrived when the BBC called every day."

Agency officials tried to use the hubbub as a teachable moment, to remind people not to dump their aquariums or their bait buckets into local waters. When the source of the Crofton snakeheads turned out to be a man with a too-small aquarium, their lesson plan seemed vindicated.

But Eric Jay Dolin, author of the Smithsonian-published book Snakehead: A Fish Out of Water, says the frenzy turned the story into "a fishy soap opera," making it impossible to separate fact from fiction. When Jon Stewart and Jay Leno added snakehead jokes, the madness only grew.

"The press became the invasive species in this story," he says. "It spread out of control and, unlike the snakehead, there was no way to eradicate it."

With the media bearing witness from a safe distance, state biologists carpet-bombed the little pond and two others nearby with a cocktail of poisons to kill thousands of snakeheads.

The ponds were declared safe and then restocked with fish. By Halloween 2002, the world had moved on.

Still in the dark

Turns out, we know little more about the snakehead now than we did five summers ago.

One thing we do know is that there are plenty around Mount Vernon, George Washington's home on the banks of the Potomac River.

John Odenkirk, a fisheries biologist for the state of Virginia, has spent parts of the last several years tracking snakeheads with radio collars in the Potomac River and its tributaries.

"Every time we think we know what they do, they do the opposite," he says, laughing. "We really have no clue."

The one thing he does know is that their numbers "are going through the roof" because the fish are in a spawning mode for six months.

Anglers have turned in 20 fish, but calls "are coming in so fast, I haven't had time to update my database. With less media exposure, I think you can figure there's more being caught than we know about. They're the rabbits of the water."

"Snakehead Alley" is the nickname given by recreational anglers and biologists to two canals off Little Hunting Creek just upstream from Mount Vernon.

"You see them all over the place," says Steve Chaconas, a popular fishing guide who offers a "Bass and Snakeheads" package on the Web site www.snakehead

But truth is while customers ask about snakeheads and would love to catch one, they are mostly interested in largemouth bass.

"I'm trying to learn how to catch them, but I don't think you can. I think you just have to fish where they are," he says. "I'm worried about what happens if they spread. We can't drain the Potomac or fill it with poisons. I think you'll see areas of the Potomac dominated by them and squeezing out the other fish. Then you'll start to see a fight on the buffet line."

What happens when the habitat no longer supports the snakehead population is of interest to Walter Courtenay Jr. of the U.S. Geological Survey, who picked up the nickname "Dr. Snakehead" during the frenzy five years ago.

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