- The Washington Times - Monday, February 24, 2003

ANNAPOLIS The lessons most Marylanders learned in the summer from northern snakeheads breeding in an Anne Arundel County pond could almost be categorized as evolutionary minutia some fish can move on land and breathe air.
But the well-publicized battle of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to eradicate the predatory Chinese fish exposed weaknesses in the state's authority to control exotic species that show up in its waterways.
"When the snakehead crisis arose, I think everybody realized that the DNR didn't have the right tools," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, Montgomery County Democrat and a leading environmentalist in the state legislature.
After biologists decided on a course to eliminate the snakeheads a combination of fish poison and herbicide to cut back the thick vegetation in the pond the process was delayed for several weeks. The owners of the pond property behind a Crofton strip mall wanted assurances that they would be protected legally from any damage that might occur as a result of the poisoning.
The delay worried the DNR because the chemicals work best in warm temperatures, and the calendar was pushing into September. Plus, as hurricane season arrived, there was a risk that floods could wash the multiplying snakeheads into other waterways and out of control.
"There was a period under which it was best to act and we did get concerned that we were getting to the back end of that period at some point," said Eric Schwaab, the DNR's Fisheries Service director.
Mr. Frosh has sponsored legislation in the General Assembly to help state environmentalists respond faster and more effectively to future alien invasions. His bill would allow the DNR to ban targeted species, enter private property to get rid of them and charge responsible property owners for the costs.
The bill would authorize the natural resources secretary to adopt regulations to prohibit the importation, possession or introduction of problematic nonnative aquatic organisms into state waters.
The state legislature currently determines which alien species are prohibited. Lawmakers are ill-suited to that task, Mr. Frosh said, because nobody could have envisioned the snakehead saga the year before or whatever other species may pop up next.
"That shouldn't be our job. We're not scientists," Mr. Frosh said. "We're not in the business of anticipating these problems."
The legislation also would authorize the DNR to enter and inspect private properties to determine whether a "state of nuisance" exists, and then figure out a way to abate it. A "state of nuisance" means a condition in which an introduced animal or plant could threaten or alter the ecosystem.
Scientists say the snakeheads, a top-of-the-food-chain predator in Asia, would have posed a serious threat to native Maryland fish if they had managed to get loose from the Crofton pond and reproduce successfully. Already, the adult snakeheads in the pond were breeding, producing hundreds of young fish, and voraciously consuming native species, such as sunfish sometimes swallowing them whole.
"The snakehead brought this to light, but there are a number of other invasive species that have been brought here or that could be brought here that could be just as troublesome or more so," Mr. Schwaab said, specifically mentioning the Vietnamese nuclear worm, a species that can reach up to 5 feet in length, that has been imported for anglers.
Under the legislation, landowners found responsible for dumping the alien species on their property could be charged for the DNR's eradication measures. The DNR says the snakehead effort cost the state $110,000, mostly in overtime. The costs would have been much higher for a larger body of water.
The DNR, however, says the Crofton landowner is not the same person who dropped a male and female snakehead into the pond 2 years ago so this provision would not have applied.
This part of the bill presented potential problems to Sen. Andrew P. Harris, Baltimore County Republican, who said some people may be unaware that a species they introduce on their property is prohibited.
"If they don't knowingly and recklessly do it, I don't think they should bear the cost for the state coming in and doing the abatement," he said.
Mr. Frosh said he was open to amendments addressing this issue.
His bill also would prohibit a person from interfering with measures the DNR takes to abate the nuisance species, or refusing entry onto their property for that purpose. A person who violates the provisions could face up to 30 days in prison or a $2,500 fine.
Under current law, Maryland does not generally prohibit the release of a nonnative fish species, although a prohibition is found in regulation.
The release of the two snakeheads in Crofton was a violation of this provision, but the two-year statute of limitations had passed before the fish were found.


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