Second predatory exotic caught from Maryland pond

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Fishing out the northern snakehead

Concerns grow after man catches what looks to be one of the predatory fish

By Candus Thomson, Baltimore Sun Staff

July 2, 2002

Evidence mounted yesterday that there's more than one exotic predatory fish living in a Crofton pond, creating a greater sense of urgency for biologists attempting to corral it - or them.

A local angler showed up at the Department of Natural Resources with a cooler holding a 26-inch fish that biologists say appears to be a northern snakehead. The fish, caught Sunday, is 8 inches longer than one caught and photographed May 15 before it was released.

"If it came from this pond, it was not the fish caught in May. We are checking it, but it looks like the right species," said Bob Lunsford, the DNR biologist who has been directing pond-side operations. "If that's the case, it heightens our concerns."

The angler, Joe Gillespie of Crofton, said he caught "one the size of a golf bag" in April, but it broke free from his light fishing tackle.

"It was like something from the X Files," he said.

The northern snakehead, one of 28 species of snakeheads, is a native of the Yangtze River region of China. It has a voracious appetite, can grow to be 3 feet long and can live out of water for up to three days. When threatened by a loss of food or deteriorating environmental conditions, it can walk short distances on its fins.

The Little Patuxent River is about 75 yards away, and two small ponds are even closer - fueling biologists' fears that the troublesome fish could spread.

Yesterday, about a half-dozen biologists from DNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service set traps baited with cat food in the 9-acre pond just off Route 3. They will check the traps today and if they come up empty replace them with other varieties.

"I'm pretty sure we're dealing with more than one fish," said Mike Slattery of the wildlife service's Chesapeake Bay office. "If it's as voracious and aggressive as the literature says it is, I'd be surprised if we don't catch one."

Scientists don't know how the snakehead got into the pond. Some snakehead species are sold to pet stores. Others, such as the northern snakehead, are sold in Asian specialty markets.

Slattery said the snakehead was most likely introduced "within the last four years. And we're fairly confident that it has remained contained."

Just to be sure, Lunsford said biologists may monitor several points along the river with electro-shocking equipment.

Gillespie set out Sunday with his 10-year-old son, Mark, and Jake Harkey, 12, a neighbor's son, "on a mission to catch a snakehead."

The anglers paddled out on the pond on sailboards. Gillespie was carrying a large surf casting rod baited with a minnow.

The fish ignored the bait and rose to the surface to gobble the bobber.

"He was aggressive. He bumped into our feet. He hit the paddles. He put up a pretty good fight," said Gillespie.

Gillespie said he was going to get the fish mounted for display, but he wishes he had the one from April.

"My brother picked him up out of the water, but he was covered with weeds and hard to hold. He looked like a car tire," he said.

Julie Thompson, a federal biologist who studies invasive species, said the dumping of exotic animals such as snakeheads into Maryland waters is a growing concern.

"Everything has a consequence," she said. "People have to learn that they can't empty aquariums and bait buckets indiscriminately. After something is introduced, it's hard to put a stop to it."

Maryland is a terrific environment for the snakehead, said Walter Courtenay, one of the leading exotic fish experts who is studying the species for the U.S. Geological Survey.

"It can live under ice, so it can easily tolerate Maryland winters," he said. "It breeds in summer temperatures similar to Maryland's. And a full-grown female can lay as many as 100,000 eggs in a year."

Courtenay's study is the first step in establishing a federal ban on the importation of snakeheads. It is illegal to possess them in 13 states, but not in Maryland, Washington or Virginia.

End article

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Pond most likely has more than one snakehead

Exotic fish eludes experts, who turn to local anglers

By Candus Thomson, Baltimore Sun Staff

July 3, 2002

State and federal biologists staking out a Crofton pond for a voracious alien fish received a double dose of bad news yesterday: They are almost certainly dealing with more than one finned intruder, and the critters are playing hard to get.

A leading federal expert concluded that the 26-inch fish caught and killed Sunday was a northern snakehead, a toothy, torpedo-shaped native of China that preys on local fish and can use its fins to walk short distances on land.

"That is a big one, much bigger than market size, which is about 12 to 14 inches," said Walter Courtenay of the U.S. Geological Survey after looking at e-mailed photos of the fish. "So I'd have to say it's been in there for a while."

Northern snakeheads are sold in Asian specialty markets and are on the menus of some Chinese restaurants.

Department of Natural Resources officials took a more cautious approach, saying they wanted to talk to Courtenay before accepting his conclusion.

Courtenay, who is studying the fish as the first step in seeking a federal ban on importation, said there are 28 species of snakeheads, making identification difficult.

"But [the northern] is a totally different beast, to say the least," said the professor emeritus of zoology at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

Northern snakeheads grow to be 3 feet and can live up to three days out of water. They can survive below ice and breed prolifically in Maryland's heat.

If Courtenay's opinion holds, DNR will have documentation that at least two fish were dumped in the pond. An 18-inch snakehead was caught, photographed and released May 15.

Unverified is a Crofton angler's claim that before he caught the fish Sunday, he hooked and lost a snakehead in April "the size of a golf bag."

Local anglers are having better luck catching the fish than the scientists are.

More than a dozen traps baited with cat food and set Monday by DNR and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff were pulled up empty yesterday morning, save a single snapping turtle that was quickly set free.

Biologists with fishing rods who scooted around the weed-choked water in canoes and a flat-bottom boat also failed to land the big one, or any one for that matter.

"We're a bust," said DNR biologist Bob Lunsford. "We're pulling everything out for the Fourth of July weekend and letting the local experts - the guys who fish this regularly - take over. ... This is definitely going to be a lengthy process."

Soaring temperatures and rotting vegetation in the 9-acre pond off Route 3 lowered the oxygen in the water, triggering a reduction in fish activity, he said. Rain and lower temperatures forecast later this week should improve conditions.

DNR biologists also might seek help from the source: anglers who work the northern snakehead's home turf, the Yangtze River region.

"If these things are a popular fish to eat in China," said Lunsford, "someone knows how to catch them."

End article

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Freaky Fish Story Flourishes

Anglers Crowd Tiny Crofton Pond Seeking Elusive Prey

By Anita Huslin, Washington Post Staff Writer

July 3, 2002

A sheen of green scum obscures the water's edge, poison ivy lines its banks and the fish aren't biting in this abandoned gravel pit behind a suburban Maryland shopping center.

But in little more than a week, the no-name watering hole in Crofton, has become the most popular -- and famous -- fishing spot in the Washington region, not for its ambience but because of the strange and exotic prey that scientists believe lurks beneath its weed-choked surface.

This week, an angler brought state biologists a strange-looking fish with a toothy maw and powerful fins. Experts yesterday identified it as a northern snakehead, an alien species with a voracious appetite that can make short work of a pondful of sunfish, crappies and pickerel -- and then shimmy on to other ponds on its belly and fins. Native to southern China, the fish also can survive for days out of water if it stays wet.

Get rid of it, experts said. You don't want it.

It isn't every day that the government issues "WANTED" posters urging the public to bring in a fish dead -- not alive. The challenge of catching a trophy fish that also is an alien invader has proven irresistible to young and old, who have flocked to the pond with gaggles of media in their wake.

There's the couple who brought a bucket of goldfish to lure the beefy predator. The skateboard rats who tried to hook one with doughnuts, night crawlers and even a hot dog before getting bored and giving up. Biologists played around with rubber mice, minnows and cat food, then waited in the heat for something to bite.

And television cameras, boom-carrying mike-men and radio reporters recorded it all.

"You get a fish as weird as this in Maryland and it turns into a rodeo," said Mike Slattery, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who checked fishtraps yesterday that had been baited with 9 Lives kibble. Nothing.

The lack of hits did little to dim the public's enthusiasm for the strange fish, whose notoriety spread this week from coast to coast.

"Save the Fish!" broadcast one local rock music station yesterday morning. "Freakish Fish Festival!" the deejays exhorted, urging listeners to come to the pond behind a doughnut store off Route 3.

"There's no one down here but reporters!" complained Ryan McDonald, 18, who arrived with three buddies in hopes of joining the fray. "I'm down here at the Freaky Fish Festival and it's dead! Where's the barbecue? Where's the party?"

"If we had got here at 6:30 this morning like we planned . . . " said his friend Derek Boyer, 18, who actually seemed to be interested in fishing. "Last time I fished here a few years ago, I got a hit on every line I cast. Now there's nothing. These fish have seen every kind of lure there is this week, and they're not taking any of it."

It was probably the heat, not the lack of interest in lures, that was keeping the fish away, experts surmised. Although snakeheads can breathe in the open air and have no problem surviving in shallow ponds with little oxygen, all the small fish it preys on were probably lying low, just trying to breathe.

Biologists think there was more than one snakehead lurking beneath the lilies. In addition to the one caught Sunday by a Crofton man, state officials have a photo of another fish caught in May that was about eight inches smaller. Since there is no way the fish could have grown that fast, biologists suspect that there is another in the pond.

And there have been sightings of another fish with a girth as big as a golf bag -- not unheard of for snakeheads, but worrisome for those who want to keep the critter from hiking to other bodies of water.

Although snakeheads are illegal to own in 13 states, they are permitted in Virginia, Maryland and the District and are readily available at area fish markets, officials said. The fish are sought after as an Asian delicacy and are sometimes used as offerings by those who practice Eastern religions. Investigators are looking into whether the Crofton snakeheads may have been intentionally released into the pond.

The options for ridding the pond of the beasts are simple, though they may sound extreme: draining the pond, setting off a net of explosives or poisoning the pond to kill all the fish.

Biologists acknowledge having reservations about all of the options, and fish literature has several ugly chapters on pond poisonings gone bad.

Which makes it more likely that they may just opt to wait and see what the amateurs turn up. As long as there are hooks and bobbers in the water, there's a chance of smoking out the creature, Slattery said.

An Annapolis newspaper offered a $100 reward for whoever caught the first snakehead, but more bounties are unlikely. Because snakeheads are readily available for sale, state officials point out, anyone could go out and buy a couple and try to turn them in for rewards.

"From our perspective, we need to know what's coming out of that pond, and we don't want to be confused by things that people say are coming from the pond," Slattery said.

Which leaves die-hard thrill-seekers such as Mary Sinclair, and her 14-year-old nephew and his friend, sweating it out on the fringes of what locals now refer to as Snakehead Pond.

"This wasn't exactly what I had in mind when I told Michael I'd take him fishing this summer," she said, lugging coolers of cold drinks, bait and snacks to sustain them. "I was thinking of a nice lake with a pretty view and a breeze . . . not somewhere like this, where you have to douse yourself with bug spray and sweat all day."
 

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