- The Washington Times - Monday, May 17, 2004

The northern snakehead fish likely is spreading beyond Virginia and Maryland waters to Pennsylvania and West Virginia, an expert on exotic fish said yesterday.

Three snakeheads caught this month in the Potomac River suggest an established population of the aggressive Asian predators swimming up and down U.S. waterways, said William F. Loftus, a U.S. Geological Survey fisheries biologist at Florida’s Everglades National Park.

“It’s bad news,” Mr. Loftus told The Washington Times. “If there is a large enough population of breeding adults in the Potomac, it’s likely the animals will be moving into other states.”

Mr. Loftus’ comments came after a fisherman on Saturday caught a 13-inch northern snakehead in Occoquan Bay near Woodbridge, the third time in nine days that the exotic Asian species has been found in the Potomac.

An angler reeled in a 12-inch snakehead May 7 near Mount Vernon, 5 miles south of Saturday’s catch, and another fisherman caught a 12-inch fish last Wednesday across the river at Marshall Hall.

Before these catches, area officials had detected the alien fish only in isolated ponds in Maryland.

The snakehead, which can wiggle short distances across land, has the potential to devour and outcompete native fish and animals for food. It is larger than many local species, making it especially likely to survive and breed.

Virginia and Maryland officials have been unable to confirm whether the snakeheads caught this month are isolated “aquarium fish” that had been released into the wild.

Steve Early, a fisheries biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said officials have not found any smaller fish or females ready to lay eggs.

“I haven’t seen reproduction,” Mr. Early said. “At this point, three fish is just way too little to speculate about.”

But Mr. Loftus said it means little that local biologists haven’t found anything yet.

He said officials in Florida — which has a climate more suited than the D.C. area for exotic fishes — have in the past failed to combat the introduction of South American, African and Asian species to local ecological systems.

“By the time we detect something, it’s already out there,” he said. “There’s nothing we can do.”

For instance, the Asian swamp eel has recently been preying on native shrimp, crawfish, earthworms and fish on the boundaries of Everglades National Park, Mr. Loftus said.

Because the Potomac River is too vast a body of water to effectively hunt for snakeheads, Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officials are relying on recreational anglers to determine if any more fish are in the river.

According to the agency’s Web site (www.dnr.state.md.us), the department has begun posting signs at marinas and fishing sites warning anglers to kill and report any snakeheads.

The agency is urging anyone who catches a snakehead to immediately chop its head off.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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