Tougher laws on alien fish urged

Sun Staff

As lily pads began to die yesterday on the poisoned, snakehead-infested pond in Crofton, a man on the Eastern Shore was advertising in a local newspaper to sell an "aquarium sized" snakehead for $5.

It's perfectly legal, despite the nationwide furor caused this summer by a pair of pet northern snakeheads turned loose in the wild by a Maryland man.

Yesterday, the experts who authored the plan to exterminate the Crofton snakeheads urged Maryland to toughen its laws so other aquatic aliens can't terrorize state waters.

The task force of scientists met yesterday in downtown Baltimore to begin drafting recommendations for regulating what fish can be imported and sold here. A preliminary report is expected Friday and the final version is due Sept. 1.

However, the number of legal loopholes that need closing could make the panel's job more daunting than it seems. For example:

  • Maryland prohibits the release of exotic fish in fresh water, but does not extend that protection to tidal waters. The penalty is just $100.
  • State law doesn't define fish as wildlife, so the authority given to the Department of Natural Resources to deal with animal problems does not extend to aquatic life.
  • Finally, lawmakers in Maryland - unlike in other states - have been stingy in giving the secretary of DNR the power to deal with emergencies. In the case of the northern snakehead, that resulted in protracted negotiations with the owners of the three Crofton ponds to gain access for the poisoning operation. "If we had had to go to court, it's hard to say what our legal argument would have been," said Assistant Attorney General Stuart Buppert, who called the state's laws "deficient." The state is powerless to stop the buying and selling of live snakeheads, such as the one being shopped around by Jimmy Vickerson. The 49-year-old Cambridge man bought the ad after realizing he couldn't take his snakehead to his new apartment. His cousin had given it to him for a pet, but "it got too big." "People called right off," he said yesterday. "I got 100 calls." With Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton expected to ban the importation and interstate sale of all 25 species of snakeheads before the month is out, that invasion appears headed toward containment. But officials fear other alien species are waiting on the doorstep, and as one of 22 ports of entry in the United States for fish, the Baltimore area could become a welcome mat. DNR Secretary J. Charles Fox said trying to compile a list of undesirable species in time for next year's legislative session would be an almost impossible task for his handful of fisheries biologists. While the Crofton snakehead story has raised awareness about invasive species, Fox was reluctant to say that it will translate into successful legislation in Maryland. "I'm going to wait for the results of the panel and have discussions with the governor's office and legislative leadership," he said. Meanwhile, state and federal biologists inspected the ponds yesterday for early signs that the herbicides sprayed Sunday morning were working. Some lily pads showed brown spots but others looked healthy. There were no signs of dead fish. John Galvez of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said that because the ponds had low oxygen levels before the poisoning, fish may have adapted to those conditions and it may take almost total defoliation to remove sufficient oxygen to kill the fish.
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