Biologists on Mission to Kill
Team Moves to Rid Crofton Pond of Predatory Snakehead

By Anita Huslin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 18, 2002; Page C03

The aim is simple: kill the voracious northern snakehead fish lurking in a Crofton pond. But the logistics for this morning's assault are a bit more complex.

There's the airboat that will be used by the poison handlers, two johnboats to carry biologists and their gear, a four-wheel-drive mule for running supplies around, an ambulance, a water tank in case of poison spills and a truck with refreshments for the workers, who will be coming from across the state.

Steve Early, the state biologist in charge of synchronizing the moving parts, found himself missing one crucial detail just hours before his team was to assemble behind an Anne Arundel shopping center:

How to get all the gear to the pond, which is harboring the invasive Chinese predator. The mission would go forward, one way or another. But it would go a lot more smoothly if an adjacent property's owner allowed Early's team to set up the operation on his land.

Then they could back their boat trailers directly into the water, use a bigger chemical tank on the pond and have emergency and support workers much closer by.

Without that access, they'd have to lug smaller boats down a steep dirt path to the water, use smaller chemical applicators to get the job done and backup assistance would be farther away.

"If you don't have a plan, you've got chaos," said Early, smiling thinly as he fielded another call from a member of his team, looking for direction. Sit tight, he told the worker. Details to come.

"I'd hoped this would've been something that we could have had nailed down by now," he said. "But you have to be prepared for the unexpected.

"Little details are important in this world."

Northern snakehead. Native to China. Capable of breathing air and slithering on land. Officials fear that the highly predatory fish, which can grow to be several feet long, could get into the nearby Patuxent River or other bodies of water and decimate native species.

Good luck, other experts told Early. You need to get busy fast.

It isn't often that such a creature is found in a no-name suburban fishing hole. It's even less common that wildlife managers have an opportunity to stop an alien threat in its tracks.

It's expected to be a straightforward operation, a matter of applying a couple of garden-variety chemicals to kill the growth of water lilies, algae and other plants that clot the water, then pumping in a fish poison about 10 days later to snuff the snakeheads.

And with them, the yellow perch, bluegill sunfish, largemouth bass, cut-lip minnows, channel catfish, American eels. Pumpkinseeds, spottail shiners, Eastern silvery minnows and glassy darters -- 28 native species in all -- will become collateral damage in the state's campaign.

It's unfortunate but unavoidable, officials say. When a nonnative species overruns a body of water or an aquatic ecosystem, the generally accepted response is to kill all the fish and restock those you want.

To do the job, Early has called on two certified pesticide handlers, plus a squadron of fish biologists, security police and technicians to bring in the equipment and give them room to do their work.

It's been nearly 30 years since Early used a respirator, during his days in the Army. And he's handled the fish poison rotenone only once, when he was in college.

A fish-population biologist by training, Early would otherwise be doing trout surveys, monitoring fishing tournaments and overseeing habitat restorations projects for the state Department of Natural Resources -- were it not for the snakeheads.

Soft-spoken but direct, he's alternately bemused and vexed by the worldwide attention the snakehead problem has brought to his operations. In the midst of Maryland's decision to shut down rockfish fishing a decade ago, he weathered the crush of media and sport-fish demands with aplomb.

Now, he just wants the television crews, the reporters, the curious onlookers to stand back and let his people do their jobs.

"I don't have to know how to apply the chemicals, but I have to be able to tell them when it's time to go," he said, heading to a meeting where he hopes the attorneys will have an answer for him. "This pond isn't anybody's idea of where you want to be working. We'd just like to get it done."

It took days of negotiations, but last week, the owner of the pond signed a lease with the state that allows the department to proceed with its plans to poison the pond. But the owner of the adjacent property balked, citing concerns over the state's plans to apply chemicals on his property, which has small ponds within feet of the snakehead pond.

A flurry of phone calls ensued between the lawyers for the state and the adjacent property's owner.

Then, late Friday, Early got the word. Permission had been granted. He picked up the phone and began dialing his team members.

"We're in," he said.

It was time to put the plan in motion.

2002 The Washington Post Company