- The Washington Times - Friday, July 12, 2002

The mysterious "Frankenfish" discovered in a Crofton pond might have lived there for more than two years, Maryland Department of Natural Resources officials announced yesterday.

The department received a tip about a week after the May 15 discovery of an 18-inch northern snakehead native to the Yangtze River region in China in the Crofton pond. An individual reportedly let two 12-inch snakeheads into the water.

After a weeklong investigation, the individual acknowledged releasing the two fish purchased in New York into the pond behind the Route 3 Shopping Center, the department said.

DNR officials hesitated about reporting the origin of the fish until it determined its options and the legality of releasing information about the offender, said spokeswoman Renee Samuels.

The person will not be charged with releasing a non-native species into the ecosystem a misdemeanor because the two-year statute of limitations has passed. Department police declined to release any information about the individual.

Miss Samuels would not comment about a motive for the illegal release, saying only that the two fish had outgrown the owner's aquarium.

"They showed great remorse," said Miss Samuels. "They truly did not understand the consequences."

Officials fear the predatory species with sharp teeth, fins that allow movement on land and the ability to live out of water for up to three days could have a drastic effect on the ecosystem. The fish, which can reach up to 40 inches long and weigh up to 15 pounds, have voracious appetites. If they invade the nearby Patuxent River, it could have a devastating effect on the local fishery.

"Our concern has now moved onto containing the birth of new fish and containing the other two adjacent ponds," Miss Samuels said.

Biologists have not dismissed the likelihood that the invasive species has spread into the Patuxent River, some 75 yards away from the nine-acre pond. But dry weather has decreased the chances of the pond overflowing and spilling into the Patuxent.

"I don't think we can rule anything out at this point," Miss Samuels said.

"We have absolutely no evidence it has gone farther than the pond. It's too early to tell."

Eric C. Schwaab, director of fisheries for DNR, said recent attention on the snakeheads illustrates the danger in introducing exotic fish into an ecosystem.

"This situation again points out the responsibility we all share to refrain from purposeful release of fish to our waterways and to take great care to prevent even accidental introductions of non-native bait, plants or other species when we go fishing, boating, or otherwise venture into the natural environment," Mr. Schwaab said.

Miss Samuels said it is difficult to attribute a decrease in fish catches along the Patuxent to the snakeheads. The stifling heat and low oxygen levels in the river may be a more likely reason, she said.

Officials caught half a dozen additional baby snakeheads yesterday after the using prods and sending electrical current through the pond, causing fish to float to the top where they could be scooped up.

Joe Gillespie, a Crofton engineer, found eight small fish earlier this week. On Wednesday, the fish were confirmed to be juvenile northern snakeheads. Officials have no immediate plans to shock the adjacent ponds.

A scientific panel is devising strategies to deal with the non-native species, and recommendations are expected in the next few weeks.

Although the fish that were let into the pond two years ago were of unknown sex, the discovery of juvenile snakeheads provided evidence they were reproducing.

Officials maintain humans have little to fear from an invasion of snakeheads.

Miss Samuels said, "People should not be concerned about their safety."


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