No Bad News Is Good News On Snakehead
Many Agencies and Hours Fail to Yield a Second Fish
By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 1, 2004; Page B01
On day two of the Great Northern Snakehead Campaign, multiple agencies from the state of Maryland and Montgomery County continued the time-consuming drain of the small body of water in Wheaton Regional Park that they are trying to save from an evil intruder.
Yet no closer were they yesterday, despite the thousands of gallons already removed, to the campaign's central question: Was the intruder alone when she infiltrated the park?
All involved hope the 19-inch northern snakehead fish was dumped solo in Pine Lake, though that would make their effort a futile expenditure of time and money. But in the absence of someone stepping forward to confess and provide details, park and environmental officials felt they had no choice but to proceed.
The fish hooked by happenstance Monday was, after all, a mature female with developed, albeit unfertilized, eggs. If this was not her first spring in the lake, then it's likely she was similarly productive a year ago. And if she had a male companion, there already could be lots of little ones swimming around.
Because this species takes no prisoners -- it eats anything it can get into its mouth, including fellow snakeheads -- a burgeoning population would have dire consequences for the lake's regular denizens of large-mouth bass, redear sunfish, blue gill, carp and koi.
"We've got to find out," said natural resources specialist Douglas C. Redmond of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. "I'm really hoping it's a waste of time."
The green, sharp-toothed specimen at the center of it all remained quite dead yesterday in a bucket of water in a park police evidence locker. The scene of its capture, however, continued as a 24-hour operation of relentlessly droning pumps and variously colored hoses and workers in chest-high waders.
One white-and-orange hose, thousands of feet long, diverted an unnamed tributary that feeds the lake into a drain on the opposite end, which sent it on as usual to the Northwest Branch. Other hoses with filtered ends led directly out of the five-acre lake to the same point.
The water level had dropped more than 18 inches since Thursday, and the receding muddy shoreline revealed some human trash and numerous tree stumps but nothing truly interesting or surprising. The bottom may not be visible until tomorrow.
Officials have seen no trace of a second snakehead, much less of a snakehead's nest, a floating ball of vegetation that parents construct for their offsprings' first days and weeks. "If there's one in there, I'm confident we'll get it," said Steve Early, the state's assistant director of fisheries service.
Spectators and passersby alternately took pictures and asked questions.
"You find any more?" one woman asked.
"No more. Not yet," a park employee answered.
"That's good," she said.
Had the discovery been a tropical snakehead, it would have provoked little concern. The tropical type cannot live through winter in these parts, Early said. But its temperate cousin is hardy enough to endure the cold of Moscow in January, which was why, two years ago, officials launched a full-scale assault on a pond in Crofton when that fish was found there.
The northern snakehead is a culinary specialty in some Asian cultures. A local Asian resident who had purchased some for cooking eventually acknowledged his role in Crofton's snakehead situation, and officials suspect a similar story is behind Wheaton's worries.
As they did in 2002 in Anne Arundel County, they will do in Wheaton if any additional snakehead surfaces: They'll cover the lake bed with a poison called rotenone to make sure none survives. Ultimately they will restock Pine Lake with the many fish they pulled from it this week.
In the meantime, the only happy creatures may be the osprey and blue heron that feast there. The lower the water gets, the easier their mealtimes become.
"When it gets down to the middle, we'll have to fight the birds for the fish," laughed Joe Davis, another park natural resources specialist. "It'll be like setting out a grand buffet for them."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company