Burton on the Bay

 Vol. 10, No. 32

August 8-14, 2002

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Odd Bayfellows

I have given you land to hunt in,
I have given you streams to fish in,
I have given you bear and bison,
I have given you roe and reindeer,
I have given you brant and beaver,
Filled the marshes full of wild-fowl,
Filled the rivers full of fishes;
Why then are you not contented?
— “The Song of Hiawatha”: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1807-1882

This writer is not the first to quote those lines from one of Longfellow’s most renowned and lengthy verses. George Laycock went back to the New England poet in his The Alien Animals, The Story of Imported Wildlife published by Ballentine Books in 1966.

But what words can be more appropriate when we look around us today, 36 years after Laycock wrote his epic on the successes and failures of importing various creatures into this nation? The intent not only was to embellish hunting and fishing, but also to combat native and immigrant pests that were introduced to save crops, supply beasts of burden, or add aesthetics by stocking exotic birds at country estates.

In most instances, the results were disappointing, even catastrophic; relatively few turned out as hoped. Yet in this great and bountiful country of ours, some of the citizenry desire even more. It seems we’re never satisfied; we never learn.

In this a summer of oddities — the snakeheads in a Crofton pond; second thoughts about the use of nuclear worms and green crabs for bait; both red and black puppy drum in most unusual sectors of the upper Bay; and a pretty much confirmed sighting of a manatee in the Magothy — we’re witnessing creatures where they shouldn’t be.

But if we get right down to it, that’s been going on since the beginning of time. Sometimes, it’s the creatures themselves in concert with Mother Nature who do the transplanting. But too often, it’s via human whims — or at least human negligence in better protecting our environment from potentially dangerous immigrants.

One classic example is the carp, which muddy waters and consume more than their share of vital vegetation while making waters inhospitable for other species. A second is the house sparrow and starling, which drive away other birds. Both are big-time mistakes by well-meaning humans tinkering with wildlife. Another classic mistake was importation in the ’30s of the nutria that now ravage the marshes of the lower Eastern Shore.

Let’s not forget the pigeons that carry diseases and eat crops. There are the devastating zebra mussels that have gained a foothold in our waters because we let our guard down a decade ago. For a time, we had in the Southwest the aggressive camel, no longer needed once railroads carried the goods, competing with wild and domestic sheep, wild horses and other desert animals where food and water were scarce.

We almost had the mongoose, once considered a means of rat control, but thankfully it got no closer than Hawaii before humans learned that, once it cleaned out the rats, it dined on cats, puppies and anything else available.

There have been some success stories: the ringneck pheasant from the Orient, the brown trout from Europe and from Japan the sika deer, which is so popular in Dorchester County. But, overall, human creature-movers have done us a disservice.

More Trouble at Hand
Now, there are worries about the environmental consequences of the green crab, a species now used for bait along the ocean front, prompting fears it could get a foothold in our waters. Fishermen are advised to remove the top shell to ensure it won’t survive as an escapee.

And there’s the nuclear worm. The nuke, used hereabouts since 1996, grows from three to six feet and is almost as bloody as a bloodworm to attract fish when on the hook. It’s a bright pink and it needs no refrigeration like most other live and cut baits. It’s a great choice for hardheads, perch, spot and other bottom feeders (sometimes rockfish and sea trout) and can be less expensive to use than bloodworms. The angler buys it by weight and cuts off a short juicy piece for bait. So, it’s perfect, huh?

Maybe not. Scientists are taking a second look. They fear that bacteria from its homeland, Vietnam, could pose problems that the Bay is not equipped to cope with. A study is underway.

Then, of course, there are the pair of snakeheads of that Crofton pond, which made the New Yorker this week. They were released into the pond two years ago by a Marylander who purchased them in New York City, then placed them in his home aquarium. But they grew too big.

Of Chinese origin, they can grow to 15 pounds, some 40 inches in length and are aggressive predators, prompting fears that some would hike on their fins, as they’ve been known to do, to the Little Patuxent 75 feet away. Unfortunately, in that original pair one was a mama, the other a papa, and now there are hundreds of fledgling snakeheads.

An emergency panel of scientists has recommended the use of rotenone, a chemical, to kill off all aquatic life in the pond. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering banning importation of the species, which is considered a delight on the table though not in the water.

One thing I can’t fathom. If a fish is to be marketed for culinary purposes, why keep the name snakehead? Would you eat something with a moniker like that? To market blowfish, the name was changed to chicken of the sea, or sea squab; to sell dolphin (the fish, not the mammal), this tasty entree became the mahi mahi.

And Now, Maggie
As all of this goes on, and as I write, there is the hunt for the Maggie, the manatee of the Magothy. Humans played no role in this. It was the decision of the plant-eating aquatic mammal that hails from waters of the Gulf Coast, Florida and the West Indies.

Over the years, there has been a rare manatee in Maryland’s share of the Chesapeake, but this one strayed farther north than any of her predecessors. Twenty-five years ago, one was sighted in Miles River. But north of the Bay Bridge, never. Until the sighting on Saturday, July 27.

More than several fishermen, boaters and landlubbers got a look at her at Spriggs Pond, accessible from the Magothy via a cut just east of Mago Vista. Among those who confirmed her identity is my friend George DiPaula, a mate on a charterboat and familiar with manatees. George watched Maggie for more than an hour from a pier in back of his home on the pond.

Scientists would like to get a handle on Maggie’s meandering. If they know where she is, reports can be issued so boaters can be on the alert. In much of their normal range, manatees that grow to 10 feet are threatened, primarily because of losing collisions with boat hulls and props.

Department of Natural Resources’ sportsfishing guru Marty Gary said he has received several e-mails on the sightings. There is concern about Maggie’s welfare due to the heavy boat traffic in the Magothy, said Marty. Manatees stay on or near the surface — but they can’t always be seen in time by the skipper of a speeding boat.

Maggie has not been seen since July 27. A watch has been set up, and anyone seeing her is asked to call Natural Resources’ Kim Insley at 410/226-0078 at the department’s Oxford facility, or Mary Ratnaswamy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at 410/673-4541.

Who Knows?
It’s too early to begin worrying about Maggie’s vulnerability to late fall weather — manatees are susceptible to pneumonia and other cold water woes. The one seen in the Miles River long ago was believed to be the same one found dead in late fall that year near the mouth of the Rappahannock, as I recall. It didn’t head south soon enough. What did it know about winter?

What do any of us know of the consequence of our travels or imports?

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly