- The Washington Times - Friday, February 28, 2003

The owner of a Virginia pet store, whose manager is charged with trying to sell an outlawed snakehead fish, yesterday said the shop was only holding the fish not attempting to sell it after someone returned it.
Howard Konwinski, the owner of the three Pet Club stores in Richmond, said the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries never notified the store when the notorious fish had been added to a list that prohibits possession, cultivation or sale of predatory or undesirable animals without a special permit issued by the agency. The fish was added to the list Jan. 1.
The manager, Christopher Backus, also faces a second charge for trying to sell 10 albino clawed frogs, which were prohibited at the same time as the snakehead fish. The department charged Mr. Backus on Jan. 3, and each count carries a maximum $1,000 fine but no possibility of jail time.
"It was in a tank, and it was in the store," Mr. Konwinski said of the fish. "It's very seldom that we won't take a fish someone returns."
Mr. Konwinski said he is backing Mr. Backus, whose court date is set for March 27. He said the game department didn't let him and other pet store owners know that owning the species had become illegal.
The game department said the fish in Mr. Backus' shop had been sold before January and returned when it grew too big for its tank. But Julia Dixon Smith, the department's media relations coordinator, said the shop put it back up for sale.
She said the heavy amount of press that the fish, which has no known predators, received in Maryland and its addition to the list of banned exotic animals made it clear that possession was illegal.
"When the regulation was first proposed, we had a great deal of coverage on this," she said.
This incident is the only case of illegal possession of the fish the department knows of, said Maj. Mike Bise of the department's law enforcement unit. The department is encouraging people who possess snakehead fish to call in and let the state make sure the fish doesn't enter the area ecosystem.
The particulars of cases an owner's intent and circumstances surrounding ownership would determine if legal action is taken, Maj. Bise said.
"We do want to work with them," he said.
The fish, which is native to Asian and African waters, caused a national uproar last summer when a fisherman caught one in a 4-acre pond in Crofton. The predator can travel over land by slithering on its fins and can breathe air. Officials feared it would reach a nearby river and cause imbalance in the ecosystem.
After finding a second of the species in that pond, state crews poisoned the entire pond to rid it of the snakeheads, which had reproduced dozens of young. The species has been found in at least seven U.S. states, often after being bought live for food or as exotic pets.
In the case of Mr. Backus, the game department received a tip from someone in the public that the store had the illegal fish and the frogs.
Mr. Konwinski said the store also wasn't aware that the frogs were illegal.
"[The frogs] have been popular for years and years and years, and we've carried them," Mr. Konwinski said.


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