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Great Lakes Article:

Aquatic Aliens Attack

By Traci Watson, USA TODAY
07/24/2002

This is not the summer of the shark. That was last year. This is the summer of the northern snakehead, the Asian swamp eel, the lionfish and the Asian carp - foreign invaders that can poison divers, kill off native wildlife and shrink the catches of fishermen.

The northern snakehead seems to have stirred the most alarm. Since a fisherman hooked one in a pond in Maryland last month, state biologists have been trying to figure out how to deal with the invader, which has a bottomless appetite and the ability to wriggle across dry land to other bodies of water.

A man has admitted dumping two snakeheads in the pond in the town of Crofton. He had tired of feeding them, so he gave them their freedom.

Last week, experts decided that chlorine and nets would not be enough to get rid of the snakehead, and they recommended that the state poison the whole pond.

Today, Interior Secretary Gale Norton plans to propose a ban on the import and shipment of the northern snakehead and 27 other snakehead species, except by special permit. No federal rule bars their import now, though 13 states prohibit possessing them.

Despite efforts to tighten borders against waterborne creatures from abroad, such animals continue to sneak into the USA.

Among other monster fishes that have recently turned up or spread in U.S. waters:

  • The lionfish, native to the western Pacific Ocean. First reported earlier this year, this striped fish has been spotted off the East Coast from Florida to Long Island. It wields its long, poison-tipped spines to impale and paralyze small fish and crustaceans, but its venom is strong enough to be a danger to humans.

Fisheries experts worry that the lionfish will gobble the prey of native groupers and snappers.

  • The Asian swamp eel, native to tropical Asia. The eel has a collection of tricks to rival the snakehead's. It can breathe air if necessary, can shrug off poison and explosives and can slither across dry land. Its secret weapon: a coating of slime that allows it to evade capture.

Its voracious appetite would be catastrophic for native fish if it reaches Florida's Everglades National Park. A federal survey this month found it swimming along the park's eastern boundary.

  • The Asian carp, native to East Asia. It escaped from fish farms in the South and swam up the Mississippi River. Now it has been found only 25 miles from Lake Michigan. Two weeks ago, experts begged Congress for money to shore up barriers between the carp and the lake.

The fish can grow to 110 pounds and 4 feet in length. When startled, it can leap 8 to 10 feet into the air and can knock over or injure boaters by hitting them. It's so effective at sucking up plankton and vegetation that it could virtually eliminate other fish species from the Great Lakes by destroying their food supply.

Federal scientists calculate that from 1850 to 1900, several dozen foreign fish species flopped into the USA. From 1951 to 1996, it was several hundred.

"On a monthly basis, we get reports of new invasive species we haven't known about before," says Dianna Padilla of the State University of New York-Stony Brook. "Not all species will cause huge damage, but we can't really predict ahead of time which ones will."

Many of these invaders hitchhike into the USA in ballast water that ships take on in foreign ports for stabilization. Others escaped from American fish farms.

Some, such as the snakehead in Maryland, were released or spread by routine, seemingly harmless activities. A population of swamp eels in Georgia probably began when somebody dumped the contents of a home aquarium into a stream. The lionfish is also a suspected escapee from a fish tank.

State and federal officials are trying to erect defenses against these invaders. Earlier this year, for example, North Dakota banned bait imports, to cut the chance that an angler tossing leftover bait into a lake would introduce a monster fish.

"It's startling. The public can so easily introduce an invasion," says James Carlton, director of the maritime studies program at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. "A few of these things successfully reproduce and spread, and there's our nightmare."

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