Government proposes importing ban on aggressive snakehead fish

Wednesday, July 24, 2002

CROFTON, Md. -- Interior Secretary Gail Norton is proposing a ban on the importation of 28 species of the toothy, torpedo-shaped fish known as the snakehead.

In as little as 60 days, the ban could effectively stop thousands of shipments of fish prized by the pet trade for their pugnacious nature, and favored by Asian fish markets for their delicate flesh and ability to live out of water for days.

Norton planned to invoke the Lacey Act on Tuesday to prohibit the importation and interstate transportation of the fish without a special permit, the Interior Department said Monday.

The native of the Yangtze River in China grows up to 3 feet long and was discovered in a suburban Maryland pond earlier this month. They devour smaller fish and other aquatic animals, and could wreak havoc on local ecosystems if they branch out from the pond. Maryland officials convened experts last week to figure out how to get rid of the invasive fish.

Federal officials said it appears the state has a good chance of stopping the spread of the fish if none of them has moved from the pond into the nearby Little Patuxent River.

"You're never sure whether they're going to become established and take hold. It's kind of an ecological roulette," said Sharon Gross, chief of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's invasive species branch.

On Friday, a 12-member panel of scientists agreed the state needs to take action against the snakehead. The group is considering poison.

"You're talking about a total rearrangement of the food chain when you introduce a top predator like this," said Walter Courtenay, an ichthyologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Florida who is considered one of the leading snakehead scholars in the United States.

There is no other known breeding population of northern snakehead in the United States, he said.

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On the Net:

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's invasive species site:

http://www.invasivespecies.gov/

Maryland Department of Natural Resources:

http://www.dnr.state.md.us/

Smithsonian Environmental Research Center:

http://www.serc.si.edu/

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