- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 25, 2005

A Virginia fisheries biologist said yesterday that snakehead fish appear to have made a permanent home in the Potomac River, raising questions about how the predatory species will affect the ecosystem of the area’s largest waterway.

“I don’t think many would dispute that we have a reproducing population that is fairly well established,” said John Odenkirk of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Twenty snakeheads were found last year on the Virginia side of the Potomac, and 13 have been found so far this year.

Biologists are concerned that if the snakehead has established roots in the Potomac, the invasive species will compete for food and habitat with native fish such as largemouth bass.

“It’s kind of like musical chairs,” said Steve Early, a fisheries biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “There’s only enough chairs for a certain number of players, and you cannot add players without taking up a certain number of chairs.”

Another concern is snakeheads’ ability to breathe air. They can survive in poor conditions and might carry parasites or diseases.

Mr. Early disputed claims that the fish can use their fins as legs to move from one water source to another.

“Many fish are able to move through muddy or wet areas, and it’s possible that snakeheads would be able to make some movement like that,” he said. “But it’s not a situation where this fish is going to jump out of the water and make its way to another pond.”

Mr. Odenkirk said it’s too early to tell how the snakeheads will affect the Potomac waters.

The fish have razor-sharp teeth, can grow up to 40 inches and weigh up to 15 pounds.

“This isn’t the first time we’ve had an exotic species or predatory fish introduced,” he said. “I don’t see a catastrophe happening, I really don’t.”

The origin of snakeheads in the United States is not clear. Some say the fish, which are native to China and the Korea Peninsula where they are considered a cultural delicacy, may have been brought in as exotic pets and abandoned in the wild.

In 2002, a man admitted dropping two of the fish into a small Crofton pond after buying them in a New York market. More than 1,000 juveniles and six adults were recovered when state officials poisoned the pond and two others nearby.

The northern snakehead is one of 29 snakehead species, Mr. Early said. It is the only snakehead species that can survive in the region’s temperate climate. The other species are tropical.

Most of the Potomac snakeheads have been found in a 14-mile stretch of the river south of Washington. Ten of the 13 found on the Virginia side this year have come from Dogue Creek.

Earlier this year, genetic tests performed by biologists at the Smithsonian Institution showed the snakeheads found last year in the Potomac were not related to those found in other waters in the region, suggesting the fish did not spread on its own.

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