Md., Va. Weigh Snakehead Bans
Regulations Would Prohibit Possession and Sale of Alien Fish

By Anita Huslin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 21, 2002; Page B04

Maryland officials are considering new regulations that would ban the possession or sale of the voracious snakehead fish in the state and give natural resource officials the authority to act quickly when any alien species turns up.

With toxins stewing nicely in a Crofton pond and the northern snakehead problem there now presumably under control, a panel of experts turned yesterday to the matter of shielding the state from future alien invasions.

Virginia also is considering new protections against the air-breathing, amphibious fish: Wildlife officials there will propose tomorrow that the state Board of Game and Inland Fisheries ban the import, possession, cultivation and sale of the fish without a special permit. Sixteen other states have such laws on the books.

Experts said that in addition to blocking the release of the fish, Maryland should be even more aggressive in moving against such threats.

"All the laws in the world are not going to stop the release of these fish," said Catherine Martin, a member of the expert panel convened by Maryland Natural Resources Secretary J. Charles Fox. "The secretary should have some emergency powers to deal with such situations."

The group suggested giving the state authority to temporarily take over a property infested with a nonnative species so it can take steps to resolve the problem.

"So a situation like the snakeheads could have been taken care of in a week or two," said Paul Shafland, director of the nonnative fish research laboratory of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Early Sunday, state wildlife managers began administering poisons to the four-acre pond in Crofton, the first step toward eliminating the family of northern snakehead fish found there this summer. Two days later, the waterlilies were shriveling beneath a brown skim of algae, and sour-smelling gases burbled from the banks of the pond.

Only after protracted negotiations with the owners of the pond property and an adjacent parcel with two smaller ponds did the department finally obtain permission to eradicate the invasive fish.

During that time, biologists watched weather forecasts anxiously, fearing that rain and flooding could unleash the rapacious snakeheads on native fish in the nearby Little Patuxent River.

Snakeheads can adapt to periods of drought and flooding in their native China and are capable of living for days out of water.

Those unique characteristics horrified Maryland biologists and fascinated the nation over much of the summer after a weekend angler found one, then biologists caught dozens of babies in an obscure pond behind a suburban shopping center.

The fish had been released by a man who bought them from an Asian fish market in New York and planned to make soup from them. Biologists estimate that in the 2 1/2 years since the original pair were dumped, they spawned hundreds of babies, if not more.

"It's time to take actions to curtail the problem," said Don Boesch, chairman of the state panel and president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences. "We'll need some legislation, because Maryland law right now does not reduce the risk of this happening again."

Ultimately, the General Assembly would have to approve any new measures to ban possession or sale of snakeheads and the use of non-indigenous species for bait and impose penalties for those who introduce alien species into the environment.

The group also suggested that Maryland use the snakehead experience to educate the public about the dangerous of releasing fish into streams, ponds or the Chesapeake Bay and encourage the proper disposal of unwanted nonnative fish.

"I don't think anyone had planned on spending their summer the way they have" in responding to snakeheads, Fox said. "But I think it's been a learning experience all around."

2002 The Washington Post Company