NJ bill would increase fines for releasing exotic,

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Legislators bait hooks for 'Frankenfish'

Measure on invasive species takes aim at the voracious snakehead

August 29, 2002

BY TOM HESTER, Star-Ledger Staff

Two lawmakers said yesterday they will push legislation designed to keep the predatory snakehead fish out of New Jersey waterways.

Sen. James S. Cafiero and Assemblyman Nicholas Asselta (both R-Cape May) said they want to increase penalties for possession or release of invasive fish or animals into the environment. The lawmakers say they were spurred by reports that the snakehead fish presents a threat to Maryland's ecosystem.

Nicknamed "Frankenfish," the snakeheads come from China and have wide, ugly mouths, big teeth and heavy scales, making them look like a snake's head and enabling them to swallow prey as large as themselves. Snakeheads can grow up to 3 feet long, reach 15 pounds and travel short distances over land from one waterway to another. They prey on frogs, birds, other fish and small mammals.

But the fish are also apparently good to eat and considered cool by some aquarium enthusiasts, according to state Department of Environmental Protection officials. For that reason, they may be coveted by people in New Jersey, officials said.

State wildlife officials have reason to be nervous. They are already worried that flathead catfish, one of America's most aggressive freshwater predators, may have found their way for the first time into the Delaware River.

While snakeheads have not been discovered in New Jersey waterways, they have been found in a half dozen other states. The Bush administration is preparing a ban on the importation of snakeheads without a special permit.

"One unsuspecting act put the ecosystem in the entire state of Maryland at risk. We must not let that happen here," Asselta said. "By making it illegal to own snakehead fish in New Jersey, we are protecting our environment and all of our residents."

DEP officials said they would welcome the support. Division of Fish and Wildlife Director Bob McDowell warns fish enthusiasts that releasing exotic fish into state waters can be detrimental to the ecosystem. In fact, he noted, state law already prohibits releasing any fish species or its eggs into any waterway -- public or private.

"People who keep fish as a hobby must realize that for whatever reason, releasing exotic species into local waters is illegal and a serious threat to native species," McDowell said.

The proposed legislation would ensure that anyone who releases an invasive fish, mammal, bird, reptile, or amphibian into the environment would be subject to a fine of not less than $500 for the first offense and $1,500 for any subsequent offense.


For information on euthanizing or placing a pet fish, visit the Fish and Wildlife Division's website at http://www.njfishandwildlife.com.
 


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