Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton will propose today that 28 species of snakehead fish be added to the country's list of injurious species, a move that coincides with the discovery this month that northern snakehead fish have been rapidly multiplying in a Crofton pond and feeding on native species.
Inclusion on the list would prohibit the importation of the fish anywhere in the United States and would make it illegal to transport the fish across state lines, according to officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The measure could take effect within 60 days.
"If you bring this fish to any port of entry in the United States, you will be told that the fish will have to be destroyed at your expense, or they'll have to go back from whence they came," said Ken Burton, a spokesman with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The exotic fish - a sharp-toothed native of China that breathes air, can walk on its extended fins and survive on land for several days- has been grabbing headlines for the past month since state officials learned that an angler had caught an adult northern snakehead in a Crofton pond.
"If it [the fish] gets into major open waterways, like rivers and lakes, it can decimate an entire ecosystem," Burton said. "These fish would take out everything that's living there."
Burton said that Norton's proposal would be subject to public comment for 30 days. Interior Department officials will evaluate the comments and then draft a final ruling.
Although Norton's proposal would ban the importation of snakeheads to the United States, it would not make it illegal to own one in a state where they're currently allowed. Laws in 13 states prohibit snakeheads, Burton said.
"Possession of these fish is still an option that's up to state legislatures," he said.
If the measure were enacted, a misdemeanor violation would carry a $100,000 fine for individuals and a $200,000 fine for an organization.
A felony violation would impose a $250,000 individual fine and a $500,000 fine for an organization.
State environment officials traced the origin of the Crofton invasion to a local man who dumped two adult snakeheads in the pond two years ago when they became too big for his home aquarium. Scientists have caught a hundred of the young fish in the pond and worry that other offspring could escape to the Little Patuxent River, 75 yards away.
A panel of fisheries experts convened last week to advise the Maryland Department of Natural Resources on how to destroy the fish in the infested Crofton pond.
The group has decided to use the plant-based substance rotenone. DNR could apply the poison by next month if it follows the panel's recommendations.
Burton said the effort to place the snakehead fish on the injurious species list has been in the works for a year and was nearing completion when the Crofton snakehead fish surfaced.
The snakehead fish has been found in seven states. "What it takes to gather all of the science on 28 species to draft a document to justify this is no small task," Burton said. "It requires a lot of research and has to be good science."
Typically, he said, the imported snakeheads have gone to ethnic restaurants, and a smaller number are kept in aquariums.