Spawn of Snakehead?
Suspicious Baby Fish Heighten Fears Among Md. Officials, Scientists

By Anita Huslin and Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 10, 2002; Page B01

Beneath the murky water that bubbles and smells like a cauldron of menace, where the blue dragonflies hover and the bottom tugs at unsuspecting feet, the monster fish may be multiplying.

So went the murmurings yesterday on the banks of Crofton Pond in Anne Arundel County, where a throng of TV crews and eager teenage anglers gathered to hear word that the voracious northern snakehead seems to have spawned six baby fish.

The news that a fisherman had netted the tiny creatures has further alarmed state officials, who were already mulling what to do about the weird, toothy, Asian walking fish, capable of consuming a pondful of fish and then limping along on its strong pectoral fins and belly to other waters. The species can also breathe air and survive for days on land if it stays wet.

"Eradication was our goal before. Now it's even more so," said Eric Schwaab, head of fisheries for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which announced yesterday the formation of a task force to weigh options including poison, explosives or electric shock to eliminate the fish.

An angler caught an adult and threw it back in May, but not before showing state environmentalists a photo of the fish, later identified as a northern snakehead, native to China and prized as a delicacy there and in other Asian countries. State officials had hoped it was just a fluke -- perhaps dumped from an outgrown aquarium or purchased from a market and released as part of an offering practiced by some Eastern religions.

Then last week, Crofton resident Joe Gillespie hooked another big one. And on Monday, he said, he spotted the babies leaping like fat worms onto lily pads to grab insects, then slithering back into the water.

Alarmed experts said one of the babies, presented yesterday in a water-filled plastic bag, has the same lean lines, jutting lower jaw and frilly fins along its back and stomach as the adult fish.

Further testing will be done to make certain of the babies' species.

The discovery prompted state wildlife experts to accelerate plans to deal with the potential hazard.

If the babies were caught in the pond, as the fisherman reports, and prove to be snakeheads, that means that there were at least two adult snakeheads and that they, or others, have already spawned, officials said.

"This would seem to indicate that reproduction has occurred and that we could be dealing with hundreds of young fish here," the DNR's Schwaab said.

Officials fear that if the highly predatory snakehead, which eats its young and can grow to be several feet in length, got into the state's rivers and other bodies of water, it could decimate native fish species.

"It does not have characteristics of other fish in Maryland," DNR fish biologist Steve Early said yesterday as he held up the bag containing the two-inch-long fry. "It's a combination of the fin shape, size and the body coloration, and general appearance of it."

"All of the characteristics, and especially the coloration, are just real consistent with the literature on snakeheads," he said of the baby.

The snakehead, Schwaab said, also has "a lot more personality than many of the other creatures we deal with."

The fish is illegal to possess in 13 states, but not in Maryland, Virginia or the District.

When the adult fish was caught last week, state officials were concerned but limited their response to setting a few traps. At the time, they said they would probably wait until fall, when the vegetation would die back from the weed-covered pond, to try to net any fish. With the discovery of the babies, however, more immediate action may be necessary.

The most likely options are to use electroshock in the lake, set off a net of explosive cord or poison the pond with retenone, a pesticide, officials said.

Fish history is rife with cautionary tales of species introductions that have had devastating impacts on the environment.

California has spent millions in its war against the pike, a nonnative fish that was smuggled into Lake Davis in the 1990s and that threatens to wipe out a $1 billion trout industry.

Five years ago, state game officials drained most of the lake and dumped in several tons of poison in an effort to kill the fish.

The pike returned within a year, and the state ended up paying nearly $10 million in damages to a nearby town whose water supply was contaminated.

Yesterday, any snakeheads in Crofton Pond were lying low, sparing themselves more immediate fates.

One person in pursuit of them was Chad Williams, 17. Shirtless and swathed in a blue head scarf like some teenage tribesman, Williams offered the fugitive fish a grim choice: the net or the multipronged spear he was carrying.

There were also five members of the football team from Archbishop Spalding High School in Severn. Bent, they said, on fame and cash, they bore nets and waders and promised the underwater threat an awful fate on eBay.

Then came Les Glick, 53, who was thinking about bringing his spearfishing gear, until he saw Crofton Pond.

It is a muddy, malodorous body of water with low oxygen levels; clots of duckweed and lily pads; shoreline oil slicks; bleached, floating beer cans; and squadrons of hovering dragonflies. There are also snakes, and the bottom consists of "a good several feet worth of decaying organic stuff," one official said.

Glick brought two fishing rods instead.

Others were undaunted.

The Spalding guys, who will be juniors in the fall, took turns slogging into the muck in their waders, sifting the water with long-handled nets and getting on television.

Matt Voltz, 15; Mike Rutland, 16, and his twin brother, Steve; Vince Grey, 16; and Mitch Malone, 15, said their motives were "profit," "recognition" and maybe a little public service. "We're not really in it for the fish," said one.

"If the DNR's not going to take care of business, we'll get 'em out," Voltz joked.

Said Grey: "We'll conquer the snakehead. It doesn't matter how big it is, how tough it thinks it is. We'll destroy that snakehead."

But lethal endings seemed to be the last thing on the minds of a small group of biologists who fussed over the captive baby suspect yesterday afternoon at DNR headquarters in Annapolis.

They put the anchovy-size critter in its own aquarium complete with a green plastic alligator, blue octopus and colorful pebbles on the bottom.

When the fish's lips started turning pink, a sign of stress, one of the biologists brought out a little aerator to make its tank more comfortable.

"I want . . . a mouse pad with a picture of that little guy on it!" one biologist said as another photographed the creature in its tank.

Biologists expect that by today, the fish will be pickled or iced and en route to an expert in Florida for positive identification.

2002 The Washington Post Company