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Freed Pet Fish Take Over Pond, Look Beyond

Environment: The voracious snakehead, discarded by an owner, can clear a body of water, then cross land to new hunting grounds.

July 12, 2002|From Times Wire Services

BALTIMORE — A colony of alien killer fish that have turned up in a Maryland pond between Baltimore and Washington are the offspring of two discarded specimens that were raised as pets, state officials said Thursday.

The mystery of the ravenous Chinese walking fish all began with a man's simple wish to make soup for his ailing sister, according to state investigators.

Two years ago, a Crofton, Md., resident called an Asian fish market in New York and ordered a couple of live northern snakeheads, prized in his native Hong Kong for their flavorful 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 fish began to grow, so he fed them more, as many as 12 goldfish a day. It didn't take long for the snakeheads to wear out their welcome.

The tree-bordered pond behind the 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, if not more, juveniles in the pond," said Eric Schwaab, head of Maryland fisheries, announcing the findings at a news conference in Annapolis on Thursday.

The saw-toothed snakeheads are capable of clearing a pond of bluegill, large-mouthed bass, pickerel and other fish, then hoisting themselves on to 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.

Investigators solved the mystery after receiving a tip about the Crofton man, who acknowledged planting the fish. He said he did not realize that his actions were illegal or could have terrible consequences.

Police with the resources agency said they could not charge the Crofton man with releasing a non-native 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.

Department officials did not reveal the man's identity at the news conference Thursday.

The conundrum of what to do about the fish remains.

An angler netted half a dozen baby snakeheads Monday after spotting them flipping onto lily pads and sucking down insects. And state biologists brought up six more. 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 setting off detonating cords throughout the pond, applying electroshock to it, or poisoning the pond and collecting all the fish.

Though the fish 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.

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