Something From The X-Files

The "Frankenfish" is here. The invasion has begun. Nothing can stop it.

So what?

When it comes to alien invaders threatening to wipe out a native species or two, overrun the Everglades, and undermine our fragile subtropical ecosystem, South Florida has bigger fish to fry. Literally. (Like the swamp eel.)

On the other hand, while this latest transplant may not single-handedly decimate local fish stocks and bring on ecological disaster, some fear that the cumulative impact of adding yet another foreign intruder -- especially one as ravenous and rapidly reproducing as the Asian snakehead -- could be more than the environment can handle.

It's "the house-of-cards hypothesis, that you put that one last card on there and you may have some sort of collapse take place," says Bill Loftus, a U.S. Geological Survey research ecologist at the Everglades Field Station outside Homestead.

Then again, maybe not. Paul Shafland, director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Non-Native Fish Laboratory in Boca Raton, says hype is fueling a rush to judgment.

"If you look at the walking catfish, twenty years ago, they said that was going to be catastrophic. It wasn't. I'm not trying to minimize the effect, but not all exotics are inherently deleterious. And I think that's the presumption, that they are deleterious."

The snakehead, an air-breathing predator able to crawl from the depths and move across land, with a mouth full of teeth and a voracious taste for everything from tadpoles to small ducks, captured the salivating media's attention in July after it turned up in a four-acre Crofton, Maryland pond. Resident Joe Gillespie told the Baltimore Sun he caught "one the size of a golf bag," but it broke free from his light fishing tackle. "It was like something from The X-Files," he said.

In the absence of a repeat of the "Summer of the Shark," the TV cameras and news photographers gathered for a freshwater fish frenzy, the ideal antidote for a slow news day. Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water ...

Soon enough, the snakehead, emblazoned with the new moniker "Frankenfish" by headline writers at no less than the Washington Times, catapulted to star in its own Top Ten List on David Letterman: "... Number seven: They love kids!"

And the snakehead seemed perfect for the part. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service offered information on its Website titled "Frankenfish: The Facts," which included specifics such as, "Parent snakeheads guard their young vigorously. One species (C. micropeltes) reportedly attacked, and in some instances killed, humans who approached the mass of young."

Details are hard to come by. Walt Courtenay, one of the two government scientists who spent nearly a year collecting information, mostly from Asian sources, for the proposed nationwide ban on all snakeheads, says he still has not been able to confirm the reports of human deaths. Shafland, in Boca Raton, snickers skeptically. Even though the snakeheads sport an impressive set of sharp, canine-shaped teeth, he can't picture the fish killing a person. In fact in most of Asia, it's the other way around. The snakehead is considered an excellent fish for eating, delicious in watercress soup, grilled with ginger, or fried up with rice noodles.

Killer or not, the fish is definitely aggressive. Fish-farm workers in Singapore must wear helmets and protective gear while harvesting the snakeheads, and Courtenay says an ecologist in Asia told him of an incident where a snakehead nearly castrated a man.

"I do know they have attacked people, but whether or not they have killed people is another story," Courtenay says. He adds, however, "if a giant snakehead killed somebody, I can guarantee you it was more than one. And usually, at least the young of that group, and I'm talking about fish that are up to maybe two feet in length, frequently feed in packs. And they are also known, in nature, to kill more fish than they will eat. It's the only record that I know of anywhere of any fish doing that kind of thing ..." He denied that the fish had bigger brains, and professed to be baffled at their behavior.

Nonetheless, while it may not be the monster some make it out to be, it's definitely the stuff of nightmares -- at least for some government scientists and ecologists contemplating the potential environmental havoc it could cause as it multiplies and eats its way across the country.

To them, it's hell on fins.

"The snakehead is a particularly voracious fish," says Ken Burton, spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington, D.C. "Once it's in a body of water it can, and it will, and it does eat virtually anything else that's in that water. It will eat all the other fish. It will eat small amphibians. It will eat small mammals, if it can get them, like ducklings. And over a period of time, you wind up with a waterway that is exclusively home to the snakehead."

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Carlos Harrison

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