Snakehead: A Fish out of Water, by Eric Jay Dolin. Smithsonian Books. 240 pages. $24.95.
Pity the nation's editors and broadcast executives. They've had to struggle through the dog days of summer 2003 without a snakehead. Last year, they filled hundreds of inches and countless airtime minutes with updates on the discovery and fate of the aquatic invader in a Crofton pond.
From June until September 2002, the snakehead saga played out in screaming headlines, hundreds of news stories, film footage, Letterman lists and a couple of forgettable songs. Unfortunately, Eric Jay Dolin's book, Snakehead: A Fish out of Water, seems little more than another attempt to cash in on the public's fascination with what quickly was dubbed "Frankenfish."
In case you've forgotten (after all, media stars come and go overnight), in May 2002, two local anglers landed an odd-looking fish that turned out to be a northern snakehead, native to Southeast Asia, with formidable teeth, unlimited growth potential and the capacity to create havoc among native aquatic species. Other attributes accorded to the fish (rightly or wrongly) included its ability to walk distances overland and to survive out of the water for days. Snakeheads are prolific breeders, and some experts feared they might eventually leave Crofton and hike right over to the Chesapeake.
As soon as experts at Maryland's Department of Natural Resources confirmed the identity of the fish, they knew they had a problem. Little did they know how big.
Enter The Sun's talented outdoor writer, Candus Thomson, quite familiar with the subject of invasive species and the problems they cause in the bay and elsewhere. Learning about the snakehead discovery, Thomson did some homework and promptly informed her readers what lurked beneath the quiet waters in Crofton.
The media floodgates swung open. The Washington Post dubbed it a "nasty Frankenfish ... capable of clearing out a pond of all living creatures and then wriggling on to new hunting grounds on its belly and fins." Who's going to bury that on Page 30D? The story had legs, even if the fish didn't, writes Dolin.
Overnight, the snakehead became the big story in newspapers around the globe. (The Bangkok Post helpfully offered snakehead recipes.) Dolin concedes in his bibliography that he relied heavily on the media coverage to tell his tale in this quick-turnaround book. At times, his recitation of news stories becomes tiresome (except for some slam-dunks by headline writers, and a few good talk-show puns). While we hear of rivalry among snakehead T-shirt vendors, we don't hear nearly enough about issues of substance. And, certainly, this is an issue of substance, however lightly many in the media treated it.
Introduced species, such as the snakehead, have wreaked enormous - and costly - damage to the environment. By one estimate, there are 30,000 invasive species in the U.S., many of which threaten native wildlife and plants. Almost half the endangered species in the U.S. are threatened because of invasive species. Dolin tells us this, but fails to use the snakehead saga to drive home the seriousness of the larger environmental problem. He misses a golden opportunity.
On the other hand, a book about a fish described by one expert as "the baddest bunny in the bush" may sell. Certainly, the summer of 2003 produced nothing close.
Susan Q. Stranahan is a freelance writer in Wynnewood, Pa. A former staff writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer, she is the author of Susquehanna: River of Dreams, published by the Johns Hopkins University Press in 1993.