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Hobbyist freed snakeheads in Md. pond

State investigators revealed yesterday the origin of the ferocious northern snakehead fish that have turned a muddy Crofton pond into a site of alien infestation: They came from New York.

A Maryland man brought two of the sharp-toothed, torpedo-shaped snakeheads home from New York to keep as pets. That he did, until the exotic predators outgrew his home aquarium and he dumped them into the Crofton pond, officials said.

He thought it would be safe for them there. He didn't realize that nothing else would be safe from them. Those two fish have probably spawned hundreds of babies, because biologists caught 99 juvenile snakeheads in the pond yesterday using electroshock gear.

"This person did something they thought was an innocent act," said Capt. Mark Sanders of the Maryland Natural Resources Police at a news conference where a 2-inch-long baby snakehead swam in a white basin under the glare of nine TV cameras.

"The individual had no idea it would create the situation we have today," Sanders said.

State officials expect to find many more of the fish, a native of China that can grow to 3 feet, survive for three days out of water and walk on land using its extended fins. It's scary in the water, too, devouring almost everything it meets.

Drastic measures will probably be needed to wipe out the snakeheads and protect nearby waterways, officials warn. The Little Patuxent River is 75 yards from the pond.

The state is assembling an expert panel that by the end of this month will recommend a plan while the DNR tries out various trapping methods.

"We could very easily be talking about hundreds, if not more, juvenile fish in the pond," said Eric C. Schwaab, DNR fisheries service director. But he added, "We have no reason to believe the fish have gone beyond the pond."

Authorities became aware of the fish in May, when a local angler caught an 18-inch snakehead and threw it back but took a photo to the DNR. Now department police have set up round-the-clock surveillance of the pond.

"We don't want the fish to go anywhere," said a determined Darrell Ford, a police officer guarding the pond yesterday. He had turned away more than 50 volunteer fish-hunters by midafternoon.

Officials would not release the name of the man who dumped the fish. Natural Resources Secretary J. Charles Fox said he wanted to spare the man from news media attention and perhaps physical harm. He could have faced a misdemeanor charge of releasing a nonindigenous species into the wild, but he will not be charged because the two-year statute of limitations has expired.

Police found the man last week after an investigation that began in late June and involved speaking with pond regulars and people who live and work nearby.

"We did receive tips that led us to a general area," Sanders said. "We were able to speak with an individual who openly admitted [releasing the fish] and expressed remorse."

He said the man is a Maryland resident who is familiar with the pond. The man had the fish for about two years before he decided to release them, Sanders said. They were 12 to 14 inches long at that time.

"They became unwanted pests to the individual, and [he] felt a need to dispose of them in a safe place," he said.

While that investigation has concluded, the state is just beginning to figure out what to do about the menacing fish. A 10-member expert panel will be headed by Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences. The panel will recommend a course of action by the end of the month.

Options include poisoning the pond, draining it, treating it with chlorine, trapping and netting the snakeheads, or electroshocking the water and stunning the fish so they float to the surface.

"The good news is that if this is isolated to this one pond, there are a number of viable options that would be effective and not injurious to other resources in the long run," Boesch said.

Walter R. Courtenay, a Florida expert on invasive fish who has agreed to join the panel, said he probably will recommend applying herbicides to the Crofton pond to kill its dense plant growth so the fish have no place to hide, and then using rotenone, a poison derived from tree roots.

Rotenone works by suffocating the fish and forcing them to the surface, Courtenay said. It dissipates quickly and does no long-term harm.

"Of course, it's going to kill every fish in there," Courtenay said. "It can be restocked."

The recent finding that the fish have produced offspring in the pond "says that we've got a more serious problem than we thought, because we've got more snakeheads than we thought," Courtenay said.

The DNR announcement yesterday about the origin of the snakeheads didn't put an end to the rumors that have been flying in Crofton, a town of 20,000 in western Anne Arundel County.

Some still believe the snakeheads came from a local fish store or restaurant. Others thought the man who dumped them should be punished.

Jaime Snyder, 17, was enjoying an ice cream cone by the pond yesterday afternoon. She works at two pet stores and called the snakeheads "really mean fish."

"What this person did to the snakehead - putting them in the pond - to me it's pretty much like putting your cat in the woods and saying, 'Have a nice day,'" Snyder said. "It could be considered animal abuse."

Perhaps for the other fish in the pond. DNR officials had been concerned that the snakeheads had devoured their neighbors in the weed-choked pond. But yesterday they were pleased to find blue gills, eels and pickerel still among the living.

Asked what the man who dumped the fish should have done with them, Sanders had a quick answer: "Kill them."

Sun staff writers Heather Dewar and Rona Kobell contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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