- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 24, 2002

Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton yesterday announced a federal proposal that would ban the interstate importation and transportation of northern snakeheads and 27 other species of live snakehead fish.

Mrs. Norton said current regulations are not enough to contain the impact the non-native predators could have on the ecosystem.

"The potential threat for the release of these fish extends far beyond the local area," Mrs. Norton said. "We simply must do everything we can to prevent them from entering our waters, either accidentally or intentionally."

If the proposal is adopted, individual violators would face fines of up to $100,000 for misdemeanor violations and $250,000 for felony violations. Organizations could be penalized up to $500,000.

Under the Lacey Act, the Interior Department can place a species on the "injurious wildlife" list, thereby allowing federal regulation of animals deemed harmful to agriculture, forestry, horticulture, humans or other wildlife.

The discovery of an adult northern snakehead, or "Frankenfish," in a Crofton, Md., pond in May brought the threat of an invading predatory species to the forefront.

The voracious northern snakehead, which can grow to 40 inches and 15 pounds, can use its long dorsal fins to move on land, and it can survive out of water for several days.

The non-native fish, which has no known predators, could deplete local fisheries and have substantial ecological effects if it makes its way to the Little Patuxent River, about 75 yards from the pond.

"Unfortunately, we are seeing continuing activity even where the fish are illegal," said Mrs. Norton, who called the northern snakehead "something from a bad horror movie."

Maryland isn't the only state that has reported a presence of snakeheads. At least six others have confirmed sightings, prompting concern from officials. But only 13 states have banned the alien fish.

Eric Schwaab, fisheries director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said the proactive approach taken by state and federal government will help prevent another incident like the one in Crofton.

"Prohibiting the importation and transportation of this species across state lines is an important step for this species," Mr. Schwaab said.

The proposal would have an adverse effect on those who serve the fish as a delicacy or keep it as an aquarium pet.

About 17,000 snakeheads, worth $86,000 total, were imported into the United States between 1997 and 2000.

Yesterday's announcement came on the heels of the media frenzy surrounding reports of the fish in the nine-acre drainage pond behind the Route 3 Shopping Center in Crofton, where snakeheads have spawned.

The northern snakehead can survive in any climate in the country; other snakehead variations can live only in tropical climates.

In Florida, an established bull's-eye snakehead population was found in Broward County. The bull's-eye species is a tropical species and can grow up to 4 feet in length. In Hawaii, the presence of chevron snakeheads has been recorded.

A scientific panel is studying strategies to eradicate the northern snakeheads in Crofton.

At the Oxford Laboratory in Oxford, Md., biologists began testing rotenone poison proposed by scientists last weekend on juvenile snakeheads.

The panel is expected to deliver its final recommendations later this week.

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