Freakish Fish Causes Fear in Md.
Carnivore Moves on Land, Can Survive 4 Days Without Water

By Anita Huslin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 27, 2002; Page B03

At first, reports of the strange-looking creature with the head of a snake and a gaping saw-toothed maw were dismissed as just another fish tale. A bowfin, most likely. Or some other kind of exotic fish that outgrew its tank and was tossed into the pond by its owner.

But two weeks after an unidentified angler caught the thing in a drainage pond behind a Crofton shopping center, state officials solved the mystery. An exotic fish expert in Florida identified the creature from a photo as a northern snakehead, prized as a delicacy in China and Korea where it originates, but a nasty Frankenfish, as far as U.S. officials are concerned.

It grows to nearly three feet, eats whatever it wants -- mostly other fish -- can live through icy winters and survives even in oxygen-deprived waters.

But there's more: It can crawl out of the water and wiggle across land, surviving up to four days.

Dreaded by fish biologists, it is capable of clearing out a pond of all living creatures and then wriggling on to new hunting grounds on its belly and fins.

Even worse, the fisherman -- perhaps thinking it was a rare native species -- released it.

Biologists from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service mobilized, setting out to sandbag the pond, which sits in the floodplain of the Little Patuxent River.

"The fear is: This thing could hop from the pond, across the floodplain and into the river, and then all bets are off," said Bob Lunsford, a biologist with the department. "It's the baddest bunny in the bush. It has no known predators in this environment, can grow to 15 pounds, and it can get up and walk. What more do you need?"

So they tried trapping it, baiting some giant minnow traps with frozen herring, and casting lines over the side of a canoe. Nothing.

They tried shocking it out of the water. Still nothing.

They could pump out the pond, but the only place to dump the water would be the nearby Patuxent River, where lots of native fish would become fodder for the voracious snakehead or snakeheads, however many there may be.

The team could get rid of the fish by doing away with the vegetation where they hide and try to catch them, or by dousing the pond with rotenone, a suffocating poison.

But both options could give the fish enough time to escape across land.

Frustrated, Lunsford plans to go out to the pond again later this week with more traps and bait.

The best option may be to simply wait it out, suggested Walter Courtenay Jr., the exotic fish biologist Lunsford consulted.

"I don't know of anything admirable about these fish," said Courtenay, professor emeritus of zoology at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. "The only recourse they've got is to either get rid of the vegetation or wait until winter when it dies back, and kill all the fish in the pond."

Snakeheads began arriving in this country 30 years ago as a delicacy for Asian food markets, Courtenay said. Because they can survive for days out of water, they easily ship and arrive to the markets alive, he said.

State officials suspect the fish in the Crofton pond was bought at an area fish market. Investigators are looking into reports that it may have been released as a religious offering, a practice by some eastern religions.

There are 25 kinds of snakehead fish, and all are illegal to possess in 13 states, but not in Virginia, Maryland or the District, said Courtenay. He is studying the threat, and expects to issue a report to Fish & Wildlife later this year that recommends banning its importation altogether.

Meanwhile, wildlife managers say they will continue to consider their options.

"If you catch it, kill it," said Lunsford. "It's not a dead or alive thing, we want it dead."

2002 The Washington Post Company