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Attack of the Killer Snakeheads

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More Than an Urban Legend
For decades people have leaned against the office water cooler and exchanged tales of piranhas turning up at the local fishing hole. Vicious man-eating piranhas that rivaled the great white shark in Jaws. Although exaggerated a bit, those stories weren't entirely the stuff of urban legends.

It became a serious enough problem that the toothy fish is banned in southern states where winter temps seldom drop low enough to kill off wayward piranha that have escaped into the great outdoors. Now a new fish is on the scene that makes the piranha look like a goldfish. In fact, this new fish has caused such a stir that even the U.S. Government has taken notice.

Unsuspecting Fisherman
The story began quietly enough on May 18, 2002 when an angler caught an 18 inch fish in a Crofton Maryland pond. He couldn't identify the fish so he sent photos to the Maryland DNR, who later identified the fish as Channa argus, the northern snakehead. Initially it was thought that the displaced species, a predatory fish from China, was a minor problem that could simply be contained in the small pond where it first appeared. Unfortunately, the Maryland DNR soon found this was no ordinary fish they were dealing with.

Most fish are content to live out their lives swimming in their own little pond. Not so for the northern snakehead, who is among a class of fish that possess the ability to breath air. They can literally hop out on dry land and take a hike for greener pastures - or bluer waters, as the case may be.

How Did They Got There?
How did this aggressive air breathing fish that is native to the Yangtze river in China end up in a small Maryland Pond? Because northern snakeheads are quite tasty and can live for up to three days out of water, they are often shipped live to fish markets. What better way to ensure fresh fish? Two years ago a New York seafood dealer sold a pair of live snakeheads to a fish enthusiast who originally intended to make them into soup. Instead of the soup kettle he put them in an aquarium.

That's when the rest of the trouble began. Before long the pair outgrew their aquarium, and ate their way through their owners pocketbook. Rather than mortgage his home to buy feeder goldfish, he elected to divest himself of the ravenous fish by dumping them in a pond behind the local strip mall.

The snakeheads found they had hit pay dirt. Their new home was teaming with tasty sunfish and bluegills. The carnivorous snakeheads, which can grow to three feet in length, have no natural enemies in Maryland - or any other state in the U.S.A. Easy living and bountiful food swelled the snakehead population into the hundreds.

The President Takes Notice
Within days of the discovery, the Bush administration announced a proposal to impose trade and import bans on 28 species of snakeheads. The ban is none too soon, as snakeheads have already been found in six other states: California, Florida, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.

A scientific panel has recommended that the Maryland DNR act quickly before the snakeheads decide to take a stroll over to the Little Patuxent River, just 75 yards from their pond. The recommendation is to kill all the vegetation in the pond with an herbicide, then apply the poison rotenone a week later to kill the fish. The DNR will make their decision by the end of July and begin the process of eradicating the fish early in August. As for the snakehead owner who dumped them in the pond in the first place, he's probably wishing he'd decided to make soup after all.

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