Stop That Fish!
Snakeheads Walk All Over Crofton

By Ken Ringle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 3, 2002; Page C01

As if global warming, Islamic terrorism and Britney Spears's midriff weren't enough to worry about, we have received, wafting in from Crofton, reports of snakehead fish marching on Washington. They could be just another special-interest group seeking legislative preference, but it appears more may be at stake here: something like killer bees that swim.

As usual, we need more data.

The ambulatory fish in question (tentatively identified as Channa argus argus) appear to be based in a pond behind a shopping center in Anne Arundel County, where they presumably immigrated by unknown means from their native China. It is not known how long they have been in Crofton, but so far two have been caught, one 19 inches long and one 26 inches.

Since the snakehead fish is extremely aggressive, is indiscriminate in its dining habits and reportedly grows to 40 inches and 15 pounds, one might surmise that it has yet to exhaust its food supply in greater Crofton. If it had, instead of inhaling hooked minnows hung from the poles of 12-year-old bounty anglers, it would be hiking hungrily down Route 301 toward Bowie.

But little is certain in the world of walking fish.

Maryland, understandably, is taking no chances. State game officials, normally doe-eyed in defense of the oyster, the menhaden and the crab, have proclaimed death to the Chinese snakefish, memorably described by Department of Natural Resources biologist Bob Lunsford as "the baddest bunny in the bush."

Woeful portents are all around.

Take, for example, the walking catfish (Clarias batrachus). This bit of pedestrian ichthyology normally strolls around Sri Lanka, eastern India, Bangladesh, Burma and the Malay archipelago. But some albino juveniles imported to Florida from Bangkok in the 1960s walked away from a fish farm west of Deerfield Beach, and the rest is environmental history la Stephen King. Within 10 years, according to a University of Florida Web site, they had spread to 20 counties in South Florida, migrating overland during the rainy season like diminutive whiskered land sharks, gobbling every fish snack in sight.

In the years since, as much as 4,000 pounds per acre of walking catfish has been seined from small natural ponds in Florida, and one 1976 fish kill near Big Cypress Swamp in Collier County disclosed that 90 percent of the kill consisted of walking catfish. Walking catfish have been strolling around so boldly that tropical-fish farmers have had to build fences and walls to keep from having their guppies gobbled.

Could things in Maryland get that bad?

John Surrick, spokesman for the state's Department of Natural Resources, doesn't know. He says there are 25 species of snakehead fish, most of which couldn't survive in Maryland waters. The Crofton species is merely one. This would seem to be worrisome stuff.

Those inclined to paranoia will doubtless see something fishy in such a biological threat, maybe the fingerprints of al Qaeda. (Remember the beavers in the Tidal Basin?) But every problem is an opportunity in disguise. The appearance in Maryland of the Chinese snakehead raises the commercial possibility of a walking-fish face-off -- Maryland vs. Florida in a piscatorial Super Bowl.

Furthermore, there are gustatory possibilities. Pet store owners say the snakefish is not popular in the aquarium trade and appears unlikely to have been flushed down the toilet by a parent up to here with the weight of fish maintenance.

More likely, says Surrick, is a scenario that traces the Crofton snakefish to some Asian-oriented fish market, where snakeheads are often sold live. Since they can survive as long as four days out of water, they're much valued by cooks who prize freshness.

Now that snakeheads are on the march, however, it's obviously incumbent on all of us to eat the enemy.

Dee Buizer, owner-chef of Sweet Basil restaurant in Bethesda, has encountered snakeheads in her native Thailand and says two recipes spring immediately to mind.

One is from China, where the fish are stocked in the rice paddies of Guangdong to help keep pests down, and are usually cooked whole for 30 minutes in a bamboo steamer with soy sauce, scallions, onions, shiitake mushrooms and garlic.

But Buizer prefers to fork the flesh off after steaming, and make it into a light patty like a crab cake, deep-fry it to make it crunchy, then top it with a sauce made from green mangoes, lime juice, fish sauce and chilies.

She promises the mango treatment for any snakefish that walks into her restaurant.

2002 The Washington Post Company