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A crusade to stop the voracious fish

Montgomery County's top official told residents to turn in their snakeheads yesterday, three days after a northern snakehead was hooked at a lake in a Wheaton park.

County Executive Douglas M. Duncan said he will make it illegal to possess the dreaded fish and announced plans to send inspectors to pet stores to ensure they are not selling snakeheads.

The county executive made the announcement at Wheaton Regional Park, where a fisherman plucked a 19-inch snakehead out of Pine Lake on Monday.

Duncan said he is imposing a ban on possessing the fish because of the threat it poses, and hopes state officials will soon ban it throughout Maryland.

"It's like a creature out of science fiction," he said.

Crews yesterday began clearing the lake of all fish -- electroshocking them and scooping them into nets -- and draining the 5-acre waterway. The fish were put in a water-filled tank on a truck and taken to other ponds and lakes in state parks.

Meanwhile, the angler who caught the fish, Terry Wintermoyer, 23, returned to the lake yesterday and disclosed that he was called by David Letterman's staff Wednesday and is weighing their offer to appear on the show.

"You just might see me on there," he said.

The snakehead returns

A pair of snakeheads made national news in 2002 -- and became comedy fodder for late-night television -- when they took over three Crofton ponds and multiplied until state officials poisoned the lake.

The northern snakehead is an Asian predator known for being able to walk on land with its fins, multiply quickly and devour other fish.

Wintermoyer said the fish he caught showed its aggressive side by biting into the boot of a passer-by.

State officials say that based on surveys, there's no apparent threat to downstream waterways. The pond feeds into the Northwest Branch, a tributary of the Anacostia and the Potomac rivers, state wildlife officials said.

State officials said yesterday that the captured snakehead is female but that there is no way of knowing if it had spawned any eggs in the lake.

In-depth search

Steve Early, the state Department of Natural Resources' assistant director of fisheries, said that when the lake is drained, crews will survey the mucky bottom to see if there are any snakehead nests, which females create out of underwater vegetation before they lay eggs.

Electrofishing by two DNR boats yesterday turned up dozens of fish, most of them bass and sunfish, some trout, but little evidence that the snakehead had a mate.

"No snakeheads yet," said Don Cosden, a DNR regional coordinator for freshwater fisheries.

After the electrofishing ended, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission turned on pumps to send water from the lake through hoses, over the man-made dam and into large mesh bags, where the water was filtered for fish and fish eggs.

"That should catch any snakeheads or eggs," said Doug Redmond, a natural resources specialist for the commission.

It will take about two days and cost about $10,000 to drain the lake and -- if rainfall doesn't speed up the process -- about two weeks to refill it, officials said.

The work attracted small crowds throughout the afternoon, including Jan Bachman, a fisherman who lives five minutes by car from the park in Wheaton.

Bachman said that the lake has become a source of trout for him in the past two years and that it angers him that someone dumped a snakehead in it. He said the snakeheads' ability to gobble up other fish and destroy fisheries is widely known.

"I think somebody's trying to create a fishery for snakeheads," Bachman said.

Federal officials banned the importation and interstate sale of snakeheads in 2002. But people continue to sell them privately on the Internet and in pet shops.

Emergency ban

Duncan's emergency ban on selling or possessing snakeheads is expected to go into effect when he signs the measure next week. It will expire in 90 days unless approved by the County Council, according to a county spokeswoman.

The measure will subject anyone who owns a northern snakehead to a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail. County snakehead owners are asked to turn in their fish by calling 301-650-2890.

"You can't have one on a leash either," Duncan told reporters.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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