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Snakehead eradication begins in Crofton

Officials apply herbicides to pond in plan's 1st stage

By Candus Thomson

Sun Staff

August 19, 2002

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As T-shirt vendors hawked their wares and the curious made a detour from their Sunday morning coffee run, a small boat bobbed in Maryland's most famous pond, spraying the first batch of chemicals that scientists hope will kill the voracious northern snakehead.

State fisheries biologists gathered before dawn yesterday in Crofton, and spraying began just after 7 a.m. under the watchful eye of a media horde corralled along a wedge of shoreline by yellow police crime scene tape.

The airboat moved slowly back and forth across the homely, nameless pond, the driver directing a stream of two herbicides from a 100-gallon tank into the water. At a pair of smaller ponds nearby, a similar operation was being carried out.

State officials say the chemical cocktail of diquat dibromide and glyphosate will kill all the oxygen-producing vegetation and suffocate a large percentage of the fish, including snakeheads. But because snakeheads have a primitive lung that allows them to breathe out of water, biologists will return after about a week to apply the fish poison rotenone to ensure eradication.

Steve Early, the Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist in charge of logistics, said he was pleased with yesterday's three-hour operation.

"It pretty much came off as planned," he said.

The owner of the smaller ponds, who had initially blocked state access to his property, also said he was satisfied.

"We're happy that the state has taken these steps," said Crofton businessman William Berkshire, who watched the scene with his 8-year-old granddaughter. "This is what's best for the people of Maryland."

Given the fish's capability to breathe and slither short distances out of water, scientists worried that the snakeheads could wiggle 75 yards to the Little Patuxent River. But DNR fisheries chief Eric Schwaab said fish in laboratory tests didn't take a land-based escape route to avoid poisoning, and he doesn't think it's likely they'll make a break for it this time.

"We don't expect a mass exodus of fish from the pond," he said.

The No. 1 concern now, he said, is the possible stench from dying weeds and fish.

DNR employees will be skimming the pond daily and hauling off odorous material.

"We don't expect it to be overwhelming, but we're preparing for the worst," Schwaab said.

So marks the beginning of the end for the northern snakehead -- Channa argus -- the predatory pest from China that has become the most talked-about summer fish tale since Jaws.

Jay Leno made it the butt of jokes. Regis Philbin informed a television audience. And DNR employees became adept at live interviews with national and foreign reporters.

Surprisingly, no one capitalized on the snakehead's fame -- until yesterday.

Within 100 yards of each other along Route 3, three enterprising Crofton residents sold T-shirts.

Steve Koorey, an unemployed bank manager, peddled "Crofton, Maryland Home of the Snakehead" shirts emblazoned with the head of a toothy, nasty-looking cartoon fish.

"Today's the day," he said, smiling and sweating profusely in the baking sun. "I only have a small window of opportunity."

Koorey gave one of his shirts to Joe Gillespie, the Crofton angler who caught the snakehead that tipped DNR that there was more than one predatory fish in the pond.

"I thought this kind of fizzled out," said Gillespie of the hoopla. "But any little spark that happens, and it flares up again."

Down the road under a white tent, sisters Chris Ramsey and Erin Berkshire sold three varieties of snakehead shirts ("Frankenfish. Marching to a Pond Near You").

"It's just fun," Erin Berkshire said. "We're not trying to make any kind of statement. People in Crofton or people who have family in other places are getting a kick out of it."

The sisters have a Web site, www.snakeheadstuff.com, for folks who can't make it to Crofton.

It has been a headline-grabbing nine weeks since a federal biologist in Florida identified the snakehead from a photo e-mailed to him by DNR.

Paul DiMauro caught the 18-inch fish May 15, took some pictures and tossed it back, thinking he might have caught an endangered species.

The first news story appeared June 22. Nine days later, Gillespie caught his 26-inch fish and announced that in April he had hooked one "the size of a golf bag."

Meanwhile, a local man confessed to dumping into the pond two snakeheads that outgrew his aquarium. He wasn't charged because the statute of limitations had run out.

When Gillespie netted some baby snakeheads days later, the state convened a panel of 14 experts to draft the battle plan that was used yesterday.

Tomorrow, the experts will reconvene in Baltimore to discuss the bigger snakehead picture, and officials elsewhere are beginning to act.

On Thursday, Virginia will consider imposing a ban on importation and sales of snakeheads, and North Carolina will take up the issue Aug. 29.

Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton announced plans last month to ban all 28 species of snakehead, saying they were "like something from a bad horror movie."

But like a scary B-grade film, there's the possibility that the monster is already here, waiting to rear its head again.

According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Law Enforcement, 16,554 live snakeheads were imported into the United States between 1997 and 2000, with the number increasing each year.

Five of the 13 states that have banned the fish reported illegal snakehead activity in the past two years that led to confiscation, citations or investigations. Last year, live northern snakeheads being shipped to markets were intercepted and confiscated in Washington, Texas and Florida.

Last month, North Carolina officials announced that two northern snakeheads had been caught in a lake near Charlotte.