By Anita Huslin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 12, 2002; Page A1
The mystery of how ravenous Chinese walking fish wound up in a Maryland pond has been solved, according to state investigators, who said it all began with a man's simple wish to make soup for his ailing sister.
Two years ago, a Crofton resident called an Asian fishmarket in New York and ordered a couple of live northern snakeheads, prized in his native Hong Kong for their flavor and curative properties. But by the time the fish arrived, the man's sister had recovered.
With no need to make soup, the man simply plopped the fish into an aquarium and fed them a couple of goldfish now and then, investigators with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources said.
The snakeheads began to grow, so he fed them more, as many as 12 goldfish a day. It didn't take long for the creatures to wear out their welcome.
The tree-bordered pond behind a Crofton shopping center seemed like an ideal new home, the man told investigators. And it was, from the snakeheads' point of view. They mated and had babies. Lots of them.
"We could very easily be talking about hundreds of, if not more, juveniles in the pond," said Eric Schwaab, head of Maryland fisheries, announcing the findings at a news conference in Annapolis yesterday.
The saw-toothed snakeheads are capable of clearing a pond of blue gills, large-mouthed bass, pickerels and other fish, then hoisting themselves onto land and limping along on their strong pectoral fins to new waters. In this case, there's another small pond nearby, as well as the Little Patuxent River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. If kept moist, the fish can survive for several days out of the water.
Natural Resources investigators solved the mystery after receiving a tip about the Crofton man. He acknowledged his actions in an interview with investigators, who said he did not realize that his actions were illegal or could have terrible consequences.
Natural Resources police said they could not charge the Crofton man with releasing a nonnative species into the environment because the two-year statute of limitations had run out. Even if they could, officials said, the penalty is simply a ticket and a $40 fine.
Natural Resources officials did not reveal the man's identity at the news conference yesterday, although a source close to the investigation confirmed it for The Washington Post. Contacted at his business, the man denied any involvement.
The conundrum of what to do about the fish remains.
An angler netted a half-dozen baby snakeheads Monday after spotting them flipping onto lily pads and sucking down insects. And state biologists brought up six more later in the week. Two adults had been caught by anglers in recent months, alerting the state to the problem.
"I guess they'd eat just about anything," Schwaab said. "It's not a good situation."
So far, the options include detonating cords throughout the pond, applying electroshock to it, or poisoning the pond and collecting all the fish.
Though the snakeheads have been in the pond for more than two years and have reproduced, there are no indications that they have spread to any other waterways, officials said. A panel of policymakers and biologists will be meeting in the next several weeks to discuss how to handle the situation.
While other nonnative species have invaded the Chesapeake region over the years -- kudzu vine, oyster diseases and green crabs from Asia -- none has the personality and mystique of the snakehead. The fish, which is considered a delicacy in many parts of Asia, began arriving at Asian food markets in the United States about 30 years ago.
There are 25 kinds of snakehead fish, and all are illegal to possess in 13 states, but not in Virginia, Maryland or the District. Walter Courteney, the country's leading expert on snakeheads and now a member of the Maryland panel, said he knew the Crofton fish were a northern snakeheads as soon as he saw photos sent by Maryland officials.
Other kinds of snakeheads, such as cobra and red snakeheads, are sold in aquarium stores to customers who appreciate their pugnacious qualities. But the northern snakehead -- a long, black formidable creature with spiked teeth -- is not as attractive as others and less valuable to collectors.
At his laboratory in Florida, Courteney keeps two northern snakeheads in an isolated tank, feeding them golden shiners -- more than a half-dozen a day. In eight months, they grew five inches and put on a good amount of weight -- Courteney is not sure how much because "I don't think anybody's been dumb enough to stick their fingers" in the tank, he said. "They're terrific predators with lots of teeth. This is not something you really want to see outside the laboratory."
Courteney expects to visit the Crofton pond this month to do just that.