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Snakeheads, other invaders cost billions
Kathleen Koch

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- It was billed as a menacing monster from faraway China. Two northern snakeheads were tossed by their owner into a Maryland pond, where they reproduced with abandon.

The problem is the air-breathing, land-walking predators also ate with abandon, endangering native fish when they invaded nearby waterways.

"The snakehead has the potential to preside over mass extinctions throughout the East Coast if it gets out from this pond," said Bob Bock of the North American Native Fishes Association, soon after the fish was detected.

The U.S. Interior Department proposed a nationwide import ban on live snakeheads. And Maryland wildlife officials insisted they had no choice earlier this month but to pump gallons of poison into the nine-acre pond where they were discovered.

"We're not happy about it. We're going to see a lot of dead fish," said Eric Schwaab of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources before the eradication effort on September 3.

Thousands of fish died, including the voracious snakeheads. The state will re-stock the pond with native fish in the spring.

"We think at this point we have now captured the original breeding pair," Schwaab said.

But killing all the snakeheads in one pond and slapping a federal ban on importing the fish does not guarantee the threat is over.

The day after the pond poisoning, one turned up in the Baltimore harbor. Officials think it was purposely released in the harbor.

And snakeheads have been spotted in six states besides Maryland.

At least 17,000 snakeheads have been imported live by Asian fish markets and pet stores since 1997.

"They are one of the ones that gets large. They're known to get 100 centimeters plus, which amounts to over three feet," said Patrick Donston, owner of Absolutely Fish in Clifton, New Jersey.

The proposed penalties for importing live snakeheads or their eggs include six months in prison and up to $10,000 in fines. But federal inspectors can't check every crate in every port, so some snakeheads will likely slip through.

Controlling and repairing the damage from invasive species, including the snakehead and other aquatic pests like mitten crabs and zebra mussels, which arrive in ballast of ships, costs the United States an estimated $10 billion a year.

Still, federal officials admit as the invaders become established, they cannot always afford to stop them.

"There are people who question whether we should even be concerned about trying to prevent or control them and just embrace them," said Joe Starinchak, an invasive species specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Therefore, "embracing the snakehead," is one the strategies being considered "because we don't have the manpower," he said.

On the Crofton pond in Maryland, ground zero for the snakehead invasion, a "no fishing" sign and poison program are a costly, but some say inevitable, compromise.

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