Maryland pet store operators and at least one admitted snakehead owner criticized a state-proposed ban on possessing the invasive fish yesterday, saying the regulation is too broad and would force responsible people to part with pets they've raised and nurtured.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources is seeking to ban possession of 29 kinds of snakeheads, most of them tropical fish that are unlikely to survive in Maryland waterways. The most troublesome of the species has been the northern snakehead, a fish that can breathe air, survive on land for about three days and thrive in cooler climates.
The northern snakehead was first discovered in a Crofton pond in 2002, then surfaced this spring in a Wheaton pond. In the past few weeks, anglers have caught nine reported northern snakeheads in the Potomac River, with identification pending on two more suspect fish.
Unlike the tropical species, which include bright colors and spots, the northern snakehead is rather drab, making it unpopular in tropical fish markets and far more common in the live-food trade. For that reason, pet store owners said, the tropical trade shouldn't be punished.
"It's kind of a stupid thing they're passing," said Mark Hresko, co-owner with his brother of the House of Tropicals pet store in Glen Burnie. "They passed a law that we can't bring them in, but I can't see them going after people who have them. It's a pet. It's like having a dog or a cat."
Eric Lisica, a Glen Burnie High School senior who works at Hresko's shop, has 10 large snakeheads at home, none of them northerns. He said he would be heartbroken to lose them.
"They're beautiful fish. They have their own personality," he said. "I would never want to give them up, honestly."
State officials listened to the concerns last night at the only public hearing planned on the snakehead ban. The proposed rule will be published in the Maryland Register tomorrow, and the public comment period lasts until Aug. 9. The new regulation would probably take effect Sept. 13, though the state is looking to set a grace period for snakehead owners to discourage them from dumping the fish once possession becomes illegal.
Steve Early, an assistant director with the DNR's fisheries service, said the northern species is the most problematic of the snakeheads. But he said the department thought it best not to take chances, so listed all species.
"Snakeheads, as juveniles at least, all look very similar. It's a matter of keeping it simple," he said. "They're all considered highly aggressive and highly predatory."
The state's snakehead trade has diminished since 2002, when a man dumped two northern snakeheads - a male and a female - into a pond behind Route 3. The prolific fish spawned, and when state biologists poisoned and drained the pond, they found hundreds of dead juvenile snakeheads.
State law had made it illegal to dump invasive fish in Maryland waterways. The Crofton discovery prompted a federal law banning transportation of the fish across state lines. So, stores such as House of Tropicals were allowed to sell snakeheads, but couldn't import them for sale. Consequently, the brothers stopped selling the fish.
Early said the northern snakehead got to the Potomac the same way it got to Crofton: Someone put it there. The population is still relatively small and concentrated in a 14-mile stretch of the river, he said.