Volume 12, Issue 22 ~ May 27- June 2, 2004
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Snakehead II: A Fine Kettle of Fish This Time
We have to admit the temptation to snicker at those Virginians coping with the region’s newest invasion of northern snakeheads.

After all, we’ve been through all this right here in Anne Arundel County: The breathless news accounts with toothsome details of this air-breathing fish. The fearful uncertainties of these sci-fi creatures rising up to devour puppies and who knows what more as it spreads out across the countryside.

From Virginia comes the story of the fisherman with the swollen hand who claims to have been chomped by a hungry snakehead. And how about the Washington radio correspondent dispatched with a fishing poll and orders to really bring home a snakehead story. (She settled for catfish.)

As Yogi Berra would say, it’s déjà vu all over again.

But let us resist the urge to be flippant, given the reality we may be dealing with.

The discovery of at least four snakeheads in Potomac River waters strongly suggests that these unwanted invaders are established much more widely than we want to believe.

Anson ‘Tuck’ Hines, who studies estuarine ecology and invasive species at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, told us that he regarded the new outbreak as worrisome indeed. Like any good scientist, Hines said that we can’t know what snakeheads will do when they have to compete with other organisms for food in a new environment.

Nonetheless, Hines sees the potential for “enormous impact” for Chesapeake Bay in fresher tributaries. It’s unlikely that these invaders could thrive in the salinity of the Bay itself. But keep in mind that rockfish and other creatures spawn in the rivers that feed the Bay.

Like the proverbial cat, once snakeheads are loose, “It’s virtually impossible to put the cat back in the bag,” Hines observed.

We should keep that advice in mind in this era of globalization and disappearing borders. Here in Maryland, we can also look at mute swans and nutria to understand the consequences of invasive species.

We can only hope that zebra mussels don’t make their way here from the Great Lakes. We have yet to measure the potential changes to our ecosystem from the introduction of crops genetically engineered with life forms that have never before existed in nature.

It’s become vogue to decry federal regulations, particularly in this administration. But our federal system is the best means of protecting ourselves when we are dealing with invaders that know no borders.

That is certainly true with snakeheads. Even though states can pass laws against their ownership, they have no authority to ban their importation.

And while legislation pending in Congress would better regulate exotic fish, there seems no hurry to put this new law on the books.

We’re hoping, at the least, for a heightened awareness among elected officials of the need to be vigilant about what threatens us.

That’s the only bright spot we can find in this latest invasion, except for this: Tuck Hines says snakeheads are good to eat.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.