may be coming to water near you
The Toledo Blade
Published June 20, 2004
Up 40 inches long, 15 pounds, and with a mouth full of
big teeth and an appetite to match.
No, not a trophy northern pike or an up-and-coming muskellunge.
Meet "Frankenfish." It may be living in an aquarium
near you, or God forbid, in a local stream or in Lake
It too easily could become the Next Big Thing to invade
our precious Great Lakes environs if we - the collective,
societal "we" - are careless or uncaring.
"Think of the implications of these things getting
established in our Lake Erie tributaries, if not the lake
itself," said Roger Knight, coordinator of Lake Erie
programs for the Ohio Division of Wildlife.
These things are northern snakeheads, a top-level predator
fish native to China with the potential to wreak as much
havoc as gobies, zebra and quagga mussels, sea lampreys,
or the litany of other invader pests that increasingly
are plaguing the Great Lakes. Or more.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources, reacting
to a snakehead infestation in a pond two years ago, said
in part: ". . . the real threat is in its ability
to live for days out of water and potentially wallow its
way to other water bodies, or be spread by human intervention
Maryland authorities fear that the damnable pest may
be trying to establish itself in the beloved Potomac River,
which flows right through Washington D.C. and the political
heart of America. A bass fishing competitor pulled a 13-incher
from the river in May, the third such found in the stream
in nine days.
Lest a panic erupt among Erie anglers, know that snakeheads
in size and body-shape generally resemble two native species,
the bowfin, or dogfish, and the burbot, or lawyer. Both
are OK, if not deirable.
All three species have the same long, primitive "snaky"
look, with long dorsal fins set well back. But the snakehead,
unlike the bowfin, also has a long anal fin compared to
the bowfin's short anal fin. The bowfin also has a rounded
tail. The burbot has whiskers, or barbels on its lower
jaw, a split dorsal fin, and a distended stomach. Too,
the snakehead has dark, irregular blotches on its light-colored
A critical, as-yet-unanswered question is whether snakeheads
are reproducing in the Potomac - or any other native waterways
in the country, for that matter. Snakeheads eat small
fish, some frogs, and insect larvae and have the potential
to displace large numbers of gamefish - which would be
walleye, smallmouth bass, steelhead trout, and yellow
perch in Lake Erie, for example. That alone makes it an
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, reacting to concerns
over the snakehead time-bomb, says this:
"All species of snakeheads have recently been assigned
injurious wildlife status under the Federal Lacey Act
which prohibits the importation and interstate transportation
of wildlife deemed by the Secretary of the Interior to
be 'injurious' to humans, agriculture, or other wildlife
resources. This includes both live snakeheads as well
as viable eggs."
That said, know that there still are snakeheads around,
brought here before the ban or slipped in through the
black market trade. They are considered a food fish by
some Asian cultures and a biggest-baddest-meanest pit
bull of fish pets.
Just this spring an officer of the Ohio Division of Wildlife,
acting on tip from a customer at a pet store in Lake County,
east of Cleveland, discovered four 19-inch snakeheads
swimming in an aquarium in said shop.
The 'heads were seized and presently were pickled, so
to say, never to threaten Ohio again. The pet store proprietors
were charged with illegal possession and offering for
sale of live snakeheads, which also are banned by the
state. The case is pending.
Why people do this is up for grabs, swirling around somewhere
in the curious chemistry of the human mind.
"Same reason people have piranhas," said Kevin
Kahle, supervisor of the state's Fairport Fisheries Research
Station at Fairport Harbor. Or cougars, or black bears,
or alligators, and such - none of which belongs anywhere
but in its native wilds or in a zoo.
Dan Schneider, executive administrstrator of law enforcement
for the wildlife division, said that the state has adopted
a contact and cooperate policy regarding snakeheads. In
short, if you have a live snakehead and want to get rid
of it, do not dump it in a pond or stream or Lake Erie.
Contact the state wildlife division, cooperate in turning
it over, and you'll be thanked, not ticketed.
"But if someone's trying to sell one, they're in
a whale of trouble," added the division's Knight.
"The discouraging part for me is there are private
owners and pet store owners that have these things, and
it's important for the public to know it's illegal. The
best strategy is to prevent them from being established
in the first place."