- The Washington Times - Friday, June 4, 2004

Fisheries officials say it is too early to tell whether the rash of northern snakeheads caught recently in the Potomac River will upset the balance of the ecosystem.

The sixth snakehead found in the area since April was caught Thursday in the Potomac River by Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) biologists who were analyzing the Virginia side of the river near Fort Belvoir.

Bob Lunsford, a biologist with the DNR, said it cannot be determined whether or how the fish will alter the river’s ecosystem. Any effects on the population of other species have not been visible thus far, Mr. Lunsford said.

“[The effects] could range from the fish dominating the Tidal Basin to someone finding one or two of them a year,” Mr. Lunsford said. “But there’s no way of knowing yet if there’s an established population of the fish. We would have to find a number of specimens from a number of year classes.”

The five snakeheads found in the Potomac were 2 years old and 12 to 14 inches long, said Julia Dixon, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF). She said a 3-year-old snakehead caught in a Wheaton Regional Park lake on April 26 measured 19 inches.

The DNR, the VDGIF and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are collaborating to determine whether a population of snakeheads has been established in the river.

Miss Dixon said genetic testing being conducted at the Smithsonian Institution on the specimens will help determine whether there is an established population.

“If they’re there, they’re there,” Miss Dixon said. “They’re going to have an impact. They’re resilient, voracious and aggressive in protecting their young. To what extent their impact will be if they’re there, though, I can’t say.”

Indigenous to China, the snakehead has no known predators and grows to more than 3 feet long. The fish can walk on land and breathe air for short periods.

Officials will try to control the population in the river by identifying the fish’s distinctive nest sites, removing the eggs and attempting to capture the adults, Miss Dixon said.

“There’s still some hope that someone just dumped the fish out there,” Mr. Lunsford said. “Since all of the specimens we have found are all from the same year class, it is indicative that that may have been the case.”

Mr. Lunsford said the snakeheads might have been dumped for religious ceremonies. In an east Asian practice called “prayer animal release” or “ceremonial animal release,” people free captive animals into the wild, believing that one gains merit with the gods by doing so.

Prayer animals mainly are supplied by pet stores, which obtain them from dealers or trappers.

“Since the import of the fish was outlawed, the availability of them has been reduced,” Mr. Lunsford said.

The snakehead, a freshwater fish, poses little threat to the Chesapeake Bay, which is salt water, Mr. Lunsford said. But anadromous fish in the Bay that travel up freshwater rivers and streams to spawn, such as the hickory chad, might be affected by a burgeoning snakehead population.

Authorities said anglers who think they have caught a northern snakehead should not release it, but humanely kill it with a blow to the head. The fish then should be packed in ice and reported to authorities.

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