- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 9, 2002

The 26-inch northern snakehead fish pulled from an Anne Arundel County pond on June 30 apparently wasn't alone: Joe Gillespie, the Crofton engineer who caught the original "Frankenfish," has since hauled in eight small fish he thinks are baby snakeheads.

Maryland wildlife officials are concerned the non-native fish a sharp-toothed, ravenous predator that can live outside water and travel short distances over land on its fins could be a calamity for fresh-water ecosystems in the state.

Mr. Gillespie told The Washington Times he caught seven of the snakeheads last night after trapping one other a day earlier.

"They look just like the big one," said the 42-year-old Mr. Gillespie of the fish. "They jump out of the water to eat moss. It's not like other small fish that all look the same."

Mr. Gillespie has become the center of media attention after becoming the first person to catch one of the invaders.

After reports in May that the species was inhabiting the Crofton pond, news crews descended on the murky waters in hopes of catching a glimpse of the fish, a native of the Yangtze River region in China.

Although the Maryland Department of Natural Resources has not yet confirmed whether Mr. Gillespie's original catch is indeed a northern snakehead, the agency does admit concerns that the predatorial species with long dorsal fins and the ability to grow up to 15 pounds and 40 inches long could reproduce and thrive in Maryland's freshwater ecosystems. It can live on land for up to three days.

"It's certainly something that's been a possibility and a concern all along," said John Surrick, a department spokesman. "There's no reason to believe it's becoming more widespread, but we think it's probably doing OK in the lake."

Officials are not concerned about the immediate danger the species presents to the ecosystem, but they say they are worried about long-term effects.

"We're concerned about the potential impacts it could have," Mr. Surrick said. "We believe it could survive through the winter. We certainly would not like to see it introduced into other areas."

Mr. Gillespie said he went back out in search of the notorious fish on Sunday at the urging of his 11-year-old son, Mark, and Mark's 12-year-old friend Jake Harkey. At first, the heavy weeds and vegetation had the anglers second-guessing their decision.

"I was kind of like, 'ughh,' but it was kind of fun and exciting," Mr. Gillespie said. "We were a little apprehensive at first; some of the gusto went out of it."

After chasing a group of suspicious small fish to the edge of the pond, the anglers cornered the one they thought was a snakehead at a peninsula. Mr. Gillespie cut the piece of land with his paddle, pushing the island into the clean part of pond. From there, the baby snakehead took about 30 minutes to catch, he said.

Officials don't know how the species got into the pond, but the fish is often imported as an Asian food delicacy, and possession of it is not illegal in Maryland.

Officials don't think the freshwater fish could survive the brackish waters of the southern Patuxent River or the Chesapeake Bay, but snakeheads could upset the food chains in fresh water ponds and rivers by displacing other top-level predators, such as large-mouth or striped bass.

"Some of it is more alarming than it should be," Mr. Surrick said. "It hasn't caused a significant problem at this point."

Mr. Gillespie, who named the 2-inch fish he caught on Sunday "Frank Jr.," said he is not worried about the potential danger of keeping the fish. In fact, he's keeping "Frank Jr." named after the original "Frankenfish" as a pet.

"They seem more like a puppy," Mr. Gillespie said. "They seem to have a lot of personality. Plus, it's a souvenir. If they poison the pond, at least I got a snakehead out of it."

Poisoning the lake and using electro-shock methods to stun the fish and float them to the top are both possibilities for removing the undetermined number of snakeheads from the pond. But the thick vegetation growing in the pond will prevent such measures until winter.

Mr. Surrick said the media attention has made the fish more of an issue than it actually is.

"Some people have called it 'Frankenfish,' but that's certainly not applicable. It certainly sells more newspapers," he said.

For now, Mr. Gillespie is enjoying his newfound fame.

"It's like winning the lottery and hooking 'Jaws' all at once. It feels like a dream," said Mr. Gillespie, who has fished the pond for more than 20 years.

He said he went fishing for snakeheads again last night on behalf of family members.

"Everyone wants one," he said.


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