Fish's Fans Ask: What's Not to Love?
Snakehead Owners Irate Over Maryland's Proposal to Ban Possession
By Darragh Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 8, 2004; Page B01
For pet owners, it is the pit bull of fish -- a species known to gobble goldfish whole, jump out of its tank and even shatter an aquarium with its thrashing.
So when Maryland officials proposed a ban on possessing the snakehead, the fish's fans were, quite predictably, upset.
It's as if, they said, wild tabbies were killing Maryland's songbirds, and the state solved the problem by banning all orange cats -- period.
Or, continues Ruth Hanessian, president of the Maryland Association of Pet Industries, as if poodles became a nuisance, then "all of the sudden they're banning all dogs, and you had to turn in your pet. . . . How would you feel?"
As Maryland officials mull emptying the state entirely of 29 breeds of snakehead fish -- not just prohibiting the importing and selling of the region's piscatorial Public Enemy No. 1, but also the actual possession -- a couple of dozen lobbyists, pet owners and pet store owners protested last night in Annapolis.
Jim Karanikas, owner of Tropical Fish World in Gaithersburg, said he attended the hearing on behalf of his customers with snakeheads.
"One was going to come today, but he was afraid you were going to take it from him," he said during the hearing.
Federal law prohibits importing snakeheads into the country, carrying them across state lines and dumping them in local waters. Maryland is developing regulations on the fish, said Gina M. Hunt, director of policy and regulatory services for the state Department of Natural Resources Fishery Services. Virginia has banned possession of snakeheads. The District has no laws on snakehead possession, but it is governed by federal restrictions.
Protesters and speakers in Annapolis yesterday were asking that pet owners who have snakeheads "be grandfathered in, and that's one thing we will be looking at," said department spokeswoman Heather Lynch.
Tropical breeds of the snakehead that are most often sold to fish lovers typically could not survive the region's cold winter, but the northern snakehead has been found in two Maryland ponds and the Potomac River and its tributaries.
State officials believe the fish are finding their way into waterways because pet owners are tiring of the voracious predators and dumping them out. Once in the water, the snakehead could disrupt the ecosystem by eating other fish, officials fear.
Ponds in Wheaton and Crofton have been drained in hopes of eliminating the fish. But with the discovery of nine snakeheads in the Potomac's open waters in the past two months, officials acknowledge that there's no stopping the Asian import.
In many ways, what frightens naturalists about the fish is what delights some pet owners.
"They eat other fish -- that's the attraction," said Birgit Sexton, 55, who has worked for the past 14 years at Glen Burnie's House of Tropicals.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company