Program aims to halt release of exotic
By Tom Henry
Published December 12th, 2004
Imagine the Great Lakes being overtaken by an exotic meat-eating
fish that can emerge from water and slither across land
for up to three days at a time - with the largest species
even capable of attacking humans.
Sound like some Grade B horror flick?
It's not. Snakeheads, which rival Asian carp as a potential
Great Lakes menace, were found in Lake Michigan near Chicago
in October. Asian carp, on the other hand, are in the
Mississippi River, with a temporary electrical barrier
in place to keep them out of the Great Lakes. The Army
Corps of Engineers recently got funding from Congress
to construct a permanent, more-fortified barrier.
Unlike so many other destructive and potentially horrifying
intruders, of which Zebra mussels may be the classic example,
snakeheads and Asian carp did not sneak into the lake
system via the ballast water of oceanic vessels.
Rather, snakeheads and Asian carp are viewed by fish
biologists as examples for the need to crack down on pet
owners, back-yard hobbyists, and aquarium operators who
release unwanted fish and aquatic plants into the wild.
Such releases may start out with good intentions. Often,
it is a case of people tiring of their pets or setting
them free after they have outgrown their aquarium or pond,
Snakeheads and Asian carp are high-profile species because
both have the potential of causing ecological chaos to
massive bodies of water, such as the Great Lakes, if they
are able to colonize them. The consequences go beyond
ecology: The Great Lakes has a commercial and recreational
fishing industry that provides 75,000 jobs and has a combined
value of $4.7 billion, officials said.
One of North America's earliest known snakehead releases
involved an Asian man from Maryland who bought a live
pair from a New York City fish market in 2000 with the
intent of using them in a homemade herbal medicine for
his ailing sister.
Enter "Habitattitude," a tongue-twister of
a national campaign in which consumers are being told
about the pitfalls of releasing non-native fish and plants
they have had in aquariums, back-yard ponds, and water
"It's another venue for the introduction of exotic
species," said Frank Lichtkoppler, Ohio Sea Grant
program specialist. "This is a worldwide problem."
Officials "are seeing an increasing frequency of
unwanted fish and aquatic plants in the environment,"
said Doug Jensen, a Minnesota Sea Grant specialist who
proposed the campaign.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has identified
invasive species as the No. 1 threat facing the Great
Lakes, ranking it even higher than pollution.
The degree to which unauthorized releases from aquariums,
back-yard ponds, and water gardens contribute to the overall
problem is hard to quantify, officials said.
"The bottom line is our biodiversity is being impacted
by this issue [of unauthorized releases]," said Joe
Starinchak, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Agency outreach coordinator
The campaign is a rare alliance between the pet industry
and government agencies that regulate it.
A $1.5 million marketing blitz involving more than 5,000
pet stores has begun, with $1.1 million of the funding
coming from the pet industry. The National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration's Sea Grant program is contributing
$300,000. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is providing
More than 20 million plastic bags with preprinted messages
are to be delivered nationally to Wal-Mart, PETCO, PetsMart,
and independent outlets soon. Advertisements will be placed
in hobby magazines. Stickers, fact sheets, and placards
will be distributed in stores and at trade shows, Mr.
Being a responsible pet owner means "you don't throw
your plants and animals out into the environment,"
said Marshall Meyers, executive vice president and general
counsel for the Washington-based Pet Industry Joint Advisory
Mike Klepinger, Michigan Sea Grant spokesman, said the
campaign will be "reaching out to people all the
way along the chain of commerce, from the breeder to the
dealer to the hobbyist."
More information can be obtained at www.habitattitude.net.
Nearly 150 species of exotic fish and plants have established
themselves in the Great Lakes since the 1830s. Their most
common mode of transportation has been in the ballast
water of oceanic vessels, often while still in their microscopic
Not so with the pair of snakehead released into a Crofton,
Md. pond in early 2000.
An unidentified Asian man who purchased a live pair from
a New York fish market ended up releasing them into the
pond after realizing his sister was recovering fine without
the herbal medicine he had planned to make.
The pair happened to be a male and a female. Two years
later, when the Maryland Department of Natural Resources
found those two snakeheads and about 100 of their offspring,
biologists became so alarmed they shocked the water with
electrical currents to get the fish out. Then, they chemically
treated it for good measure.
Mr. Starinchak said the case is noteworthy because it
is one of the few in which the perpetrator was caught.
Maryland DNR officials said the man expressed remorse
and confessed to them. He was not prosecuted because,
by the time he was identified, the two-year statue of
limitations had expired.
There are 28 species of snakeheads. Many have amphibianlike
qualities that allow them to breathe temporarily and move
across land in search of food. Their potential to wreak
havoc upon the environment is so scary that government
biologists and others have given them a dubious monsterlike
They eat almost anything in their paths. The largest
of 28 known species has even attacked humans, the U.S.
Fish & Wildlife Service has said.
Illinois is the first Great Lakes state where they have
been found. They have been found at least twice in Maryland,
as well as at least once in Virginia, California, Florida,
Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, the agency
What frightens biologists as much as the snakeheads'
sharp teeth and voracious appetites is the relative ease
such invasive species can be acquired in New York and
Boston fish markets, as well as on the Internet. Asian
carp, to this day, can still be imported to eat pond scum
and other purposes, although the U.S. Fish & Wildlife
Service is contemplating a ban through the federal Lacey
Act - a legal process which may take a couple of years.
While the high-profile fish such as snakeheads and Asian
carp grab headlines, numerous cases of unwanted releases
occur in local ponds and streams that ultimately impact
native fish, too.
At the University of Minnesota's Duluth campus last fall,
officials noticed something out of kilter at a pond that
used to have no fish: It suddenly was stocked by goldfish
and Japanese koi. The theory is that students and nearby
residents used the pond to get rid of pets.
"What it did was create a real problem," Mr.
Jensen said. Outflow from that pond threatened to imperil
a nearby trout stream. The cost to remove those fish was
$50,000, he said.