Md. Snakeheads' Destiny Spawns Capitalist Spirit

By Anita Huslin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 19, 2002; Page B01

Stalks of television truck antennas pierced the sunrise as it crept over the horizon. Reporters stumbled through the dusky woods and positioned themselves behind the yellow police tape that encircled the water.

And as Maryland natural resource workers mixed a cocktail of poisons to administer to the Crofton pond where a family of invasive Chinese snakehead fish reside, Chris Ramsey and Erin Berkshire began setting up for another kind of job -- selling commemorative T-shirts.

Frankenfish -- Marching to a pond near you!

Crofton Snakehead -- Channa Argus Argus

No Snakeheads

When you're riding the hottest wave of the summer, the important thing is to strike quickly, while the cameras are still rolling. Yesterday's poisoning marked the beginning of a two-week process of killing the fish before they can spread beyond the pond, perhaps into the nearby Little Patuxent River, perhaps other tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay.

Not far from the pond, tucked between the psychic reader's house and the barbecue pit next door, the young women draped their freshly minted T-shirts on a clothesline. In front of it all was their sign, hand-drawn on a long swath of plastic, flapping in the breeze of vehicles whizzing by on Route 301. Designed more to attract traffic than look pretty, the sign got its point across boldly and simply:

WWW.SNAKEHEADSTUFF.COM!!!

"Anybody that has a desire to engage in an enterprising activity like that should be encouraged," said the women's father, William Berkshire, who owns the property next to the pond. He hired a videographer to record the poisoning.

"It's a very historic event," he said. "We wanted to make sure we remembered it properly."

This was the culmination, after all, of a freak fish tale that has provided endless fodder for the likes of Dennis Miller and David Letterman and catapulted anyone close to the story to dizzying, if fleeting, fame.

Weekend angler Joe Gillespie could not resist returning to the scene yesterday to watch state officials finish the job that he had started.

It was Gillespie, after all, who in June provided the first fugitive snakehead to state officials, who identified it as an alien species that could live out of water for up to three days and eat its way through the pond. Later, confirming their worst fears, they discovered dozens of babies.

Yesterday, a pesticide handler in an airboat used a joystick to maneuver across the pond in a grid pattern, spewing herbicides from a 100-gallon tank across the overgrowth of waterlilies, algae and underwater plants.

Biologists hope that within a week, the dieback of vegetation will give them a clear shot at killing whatever snakeheads remain with a toxin that will shut down the ability of the creatures -- and other fish -- to breathe.

Each day, workers will skim any dead fish from the water. Gillespie hopes another snakehead he saw, but couldn't catch, will be among them.

"There's a big one in there -- I saw him," he said. "I was just hoping to maybe see it . . . the one that got away."

He did a couple of television interviews, shook a few hands and walked over to watch as the airboat operator continued his passes across the pond and paused briefly to drive off a family of ducks.

Officials say the chemicals are generally not harmful to animals unless ingested in large quantities -- much more than the 12 gallons that were applied yesterday to the four-acre pond. Nevertheless, representatives of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals offered to assist the state Department of Natural Resources in removing turtles from the location.

Having been assured by state officials that they had such matters covered, the PETA members stayed home.

But as the sun rose higher, a conservationist arrived to take advantage of the convergence of media around the pond to publicize his agenda: the massive destruction of native species by alien ones, including the snakeheads, which were dumped there innocently by a man who had bought them in New York to make soup. But the potential for ecological disaster is inestimable, some said.

"The worst-case scenario is the snakehead gets out and spreads across the Chesapeake Bay to the Atlantic Coast and the rest of the country. It could create a wave of extinctions that would be irreversible and devastating," said Bob Bock, a past president of the North American Native Fishes Association, which has about 12 members in the area and 450 nationwide.

"I was just grateful to have been a part of the discussion of this today," said Bock, who brought his 13-year-old son, Eric, with him. "Fish are very important, you know."

In the end, the herbicide application ended by noon without a hitch, and the contingent of Natural Resources Police, emergency medical workers, biologists and journalists dissipated.

In the shopping center parking lot adjacent to the pond, however, business was brisk for another snakehead entrepreneur who was selling his own brand of T-shirts with his two sons.

"Two more shirts and I'll have the rent covered," said Steve Koorey, an unemployed investment banking manager who rented two parking spaces from Dunkin' Donuts for $50.

He set up card tables to display his T-shirts, which were emblazoned with a cartoon caricature of a smiling snakehead fish and the words "Crofton Maryland -- Home of the Snakeheads." Next week, he'll take them to the state fair in Timonium.

"There'll be 20- to 30,000 people there," Koorey said, exchanging a T-shirt for cash with a television cameraman. "It's a no-brainer. This is the hottest thing this summer."

2002 The Washington Post Company