Md. War On Fish Just Might Get Ugly
Killing Snakeheads To Make Big Mess
By Anita Huslin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 27, 2002; Page B01
It all sounds so neat and simple in the cool, dispassionate recommendations of the expert report: Kill all the weeds in the water, then douse the fish with a couple of boatloads of poison.
But a messy reality lurks within the two-step snakehead eradication process recommended yesterday by a panel of experts. "Burning" a pond with chemicals can create a rotting, stinking mess for several weeks while the vegetation dies and the fish float to the surface.
And then, of course, somebody has to clean it up.
"I know all the tricks -- rubbing lemon juice, lava soap, just to get the smell off your hands," said Bob Lunsford, a state biologist who expects to deal with the aftermath. "My guess is I won't have many friends for a while."
If approved next week by state Natural Resources Secretary J. Charles Fox, the first intentional poisoning of a pond in Maryland in decades could happen as early as next month. The report did not include a cost estimate.
The panel of experts recommended using the chemical rotenone to kill the snakeheads. Although it is not uncommon for fisheries managers to sterilize hatcheries with rotenone between batches, it has not been applied to a significant body of water for 30 years.
The experts said the process is justified by the threat posed by the snakehead, a voracious fish that has the ability to breath on land. The species, which is native to China, was discovered last month in a four-acre Crofton pond.
However, the panel of biologists, hydrologists and toxicologists sounded skeptical about whether the northern snakehead -- one of 28 species worldwide -- possesses the ambition and brawn to perambulate along land, as widely reported.
E-mails from scientists in Hawaii, where snakeheads were introduced more than 200 years ago, indicate that the fish there -- albeit different types of snakeheads -- are not particularly fleet of fin.
"If you take it out and put on the ground it'll flop around," Don Boesch, chairman of the snakehead task force, said summarizing the e-mails. "That's about it."
Nevertheless, the panel recommends that the state move quickly to kill the Crofton pond, which is on the property of a strip mall, and two smaller watering holes nearby. In advance of Fox's decision, workers have sandbagged low-lying areas around the pond, installed silt fences around the perimeter, and posted "No Trespassing" signs.
Yesterday, they briefed the property owner about the suggested course of action.
"Use your imagination," Lunsford said. "How bad do you think it could be and then double it."
The strip mall owner did not return a telephone call for comment. "He realizes this is a necessary thing," Lunsford said, "though he's a little worried about his tenants, who are going to have this reeking pond in their back yard."
In recent weeks, the suburban strip mall just north of Route 50 has been inundated by media from near and far, including Canada and Japan. Soon, state workers clad in white Tyvek suits may come to execute a fish that the U.S. interior secretary this week called "something from a bad horror movie."
Experts recommended this process: Spray glyphosate (also known as Rodeo and Roundup) on the water to kill floating vegetation. Pump diquat dibromide (Reglone or Reward) or 2,4-D (a widely used herbicide) into the water to kill underwater plants.
Then wait. Within several days, the plants will start to turn brown. Within a week or two, the vegetation will die and sink to the bottom of the pond. Native fish will begin dying as well, as the oxygen drains from the pond.
Within two weeks, crews ought to be ready to douse the pond with rotenone, working their way in boats from from the edges of the pond toward the middle, giving the fish no avenue of escape.
Lunsford said the fish would be netted as they rise to the surface to die and brought to shore. Any snakeheads would be culled, and the rest would be trucked to a dump. Officials said the poisons should dissipate within days and have no effect on humans. No local water supply is in the immediate area.
"I don't think there'll be many fish left, if any, when it's all over," Lunsford said.
Just in case, the panel said, officials might consider a second application.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company