Something From The X-Files

They're calling the Asian snakehead "the Frankenfish"

Last Tuesday Maryland's snakehead task force huddled with scientists from across the country at the American Fisheries Society convention in Baltimore to come up with a proposal for tightening state regulations to avoid a repeat of the snakehead near-catastrophe in Crofton. That came just two days after state wildlife specialists began dumping a toxic cocktail in the pond, a mix of the chemicals diquat dibromide and glyphosate, to poison the pond's population of snakeheads -- along with everything else in the water.

But it turns out a snakehead population had been thriving in Tamarac for at least eighteen months before the first one reportedly snapped on an angler's hook in Maryland. Bob Newland of Sunrise snagged a two-footer in a residential pond on October 5, 2000. He mistook it for a native bowfin until he noticed a distinctive dark round spot rimmed in bright orange by the tail. Shafland identified it as a bullseye snakehead, a tropical relative of the northern snakehead that later caused the Maryland uproar.

It's an important difference because of the much greater natural range of the northern snakehead. That one can reportedly survive winter cold throughout most of the United States, even under the ice of frozen lakes and ponds. The bullseye's dependence on warmer water temperatures limits its range largely to the southern half of Florida. But that territorial restriction would not keep it from being included with the rest of the snakehead family on the "injurious species" list and subject to the proposed ban. In fact the Tamarac discovery was what pushed the federal government to begin the study and data collection that would form the basis for the ban, announced after the Crofton fish became a celebrity in July.

Actually it was already banned in Florida. Possession of live snakeheads is prohibited, and punishable by up to a $500 fine and 60 days in jail. It hardly matters; freshwater aquarium enthusiasts can buy live juvenile snakeheads over the Internet, and do. They arrive brightly colored and just a few inches long. But then, after the fish start devouring everything else in their tanks and growing like Jack's beanstalk on steroids, the owners start looking for ways to get rid of them. Instead of killing them, they turn them loose. That's what happened in Crofton, and that's what Shafland figures happened in Tamarac. Either that or someone looking to establish a stock of food fish released them.

"The way this fish moves is more associated with two legs, and not their own," he says. "I'm talking about man. The fish didn't swim here. We know it was people."

Four months after the first ones turned up in Tamarac, Florida Fish and Wildlife inspectors John West and Pat Reynolds found northern snakeheads alive and for sale at two Oriental food markets. They seized six at the P.K. Oriental Market in Pembroke Pines and eight in the Chung Hing Oriental Market in North Dade, charging both shops with possession of a prohibited freshwater fish. But these were different from the bullseye found in Tamarac, which meant those came from a different source.

Shafland tracked the fish through some culverts into local ponds on a golf course, then out into a major canal just east of the Everglades. In just a couple weeks of electrofishing -- coursing electric current into the water to stun the fish -- researchers pulled close to a hundred snakeheads from the canal. Since then they've found hundreds more.

Finding it there meant the fish was established, reproducing, and on the loose, free to move almost anywhere in South Florida through the maze of interconnected manmade waterways. And there is virtually no way of stopping it.

"Down here, everything is wide open and connected," says ecologist Loftus. "So that by the time a fish gets into the canal system, or by the time it penetrates from the canal system into the Everglades, it's pretty much a done deal. There's nothing you can do about it."

Which, at least so far, seems to be okay with almost everyone. The snakehead is merely one of the 32 nonnative freshwater fish crowding the South Florida ecosystem. Even the canals they call home are manmade intrusions on the natural environment. Basically there's an abundance of exotic immigrants battling among themselves in an artificial arena. Not a big deal. At least, not yet.

The real worry is over the Asian swamp eel, another air-breathing predator able to move across wet ground like the snakehead that's inching into Everglades National Park. Unlike the other exotic fish that may make incursions into the shallow water of the swamp but either die or retreat into the deeper, warmer water of the canals when cold comes, the eels could take up permanent residence in the 'Glades.

"These eels, because they can burrow into the substrate and survive cold and drought underground, they may, once they get into the 'Glades, they may be there year-round. So they have the potential to invade a much larger area and get into the interior area a lot more than some of these other invasive species or nonnatives," says Leo Nico, the U.S. Geological Survey research biologist who was the first to discover the swamp eels in Florida, outside Tampa, in 1997. By the time he stumbled upon them, that population already extended through about 30 kilometers of canals there. About the same time, students caught some baby eels in a North Miami canal for the first time, only to find that the colony stretched through some 50 kilometers of waterway. In December of 1999, Nico says, the third known eel population turned up near Homestead and the entrance to Everglades National Park. Nico suspects all three may have been thriving for a decade before anyone noticed.

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