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Exotic Species

7/15/2005
The appearance of northern snakehead fish in an urban fishery in Philadelphia this spring confirms the fears of many experts — that this exotic predator can withstand cold winter temperatures. 

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — Fishing action for the northern snakehead fish began early this year in the ponds of FDR Park. Through late April, at least six adult specimens of the exotic predator had been caught, according to state officials, with the largest measuring 24 inches and weighing nearly 5 pounds.

Last year, the first snakehead catch wasn't reported until July in this urban fishery that connects to the Schuylkill River and then on to the Delaware. By late fall last year, however, nine adults had been taken, along with a bucketful of juveniles. Despite strong evidence to the contrary, resource managers had hoped that this exotic invasion had been crushed. Now they know that is not the case, especially since a team from the Academy of Natural Sciences also shocked up a 4 1/2-inch specimen this spring. "What it means is that they overwintered and that they successfully reproduced," said Richard Horwitz, a biologist at the Academy.

The same scenario occurred on the Potomac, where Tom Woo caught one in April that weighed an estimated 7 pounds. Woo also caught three of the 20 snakeheads reported by anglers last year on this nationally renowned bass fishery.

"My feeling is they're here to stay," said John Odenkirk, a Virginia fisheries biologist.

He expects "an exponential increase" in the number caught this year.

"Easily 100," he ventured. "Maybe more."

On the one hand, he's certainly worried about the snakehead's impact on bass and other native species, just as officials in Pennsylvania are worried about what will happen in the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers.

"What do you consider a native anyway?" he asked rhetorically. "Over the past 50 years, man has made so many changes. We have a blend of native, naturalized and invasive exotics. You bring this thing in, and it's just another odd flavor thrown into the mix."

And on the silly side of the latest news regarding snakehead fish, as was previously reported in BASS Times, county commissioners from 12 Western states petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) earlier this year to protect the northern snakehead fish under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).

"I thought, 'Man that's something — a fish that can get out and move across dry land,'" said Alan Gardner of Washington County, Utah.

Actually, what the commissioners wanted was to draw attention to the problems caused by the ESA in the West, especially regarding land management.

"Living in the West, we seem to be inundated with cries from mostly people back in the East to list everything that is walking," said Roger Mancebo, a Pershing County commissioner from Lovelock, Nev. "This was just to send a message of how silly this stuff is."

But they are deadly serious about wanting the ESA to be revised and, as they see it, less invasive.

For example, Gardner's jurisdiction includes 60,000 acres protected since 1996 inside the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve because the threatened desert tortoise lives there. The commissioner said that the reserve has devalued private property, kept out subdivisions and golf courses, and generally trampled the economy.

"There's a lot of people in the West who consider any species that gets listed as the enemy, because the real threat is to the people," Gardener said.

The USFWS, meanwhile, is obliged by law to take every petition seriously. It will perform the standard scientific review to see if certain factors, such as loss of habitat, predation or disease warrant protecting the snakehead.

As of early this year, the USFWS was working on 32 active lawsuits involving 42 species, said spokesman Mitch Snow. But the strangest petition, he added, was not for the snakehead. In late 2004, Maxim magazine, fearing the demise of macho men in a "metrosexual" world, petitioned to put human males on the endangered species list.

"Unfortunately, I'm not making this up," Snow said.