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Snakeheads Build a Family, Big-Time
Sheriff's Corporal Discovers Nest During Outing Near Mattawoman Creek

By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 3, 2008

More than 150 snakeheads, the toothy predators known as "Frankenfish," were found last week by a Charles County sheriff's corporal who recognized the fish from a television show.

Northern snakeheads, which have preyed on other Potomac River dwellers in recent years, are multiplying in the river's tributaries, state officials say. And by any measure, last week's discovery was a huge haul: two adult snakeheads and 165 babies were captured in a puddle near Mattawoman Creek, and later killed by freezing.

Snakeheads are among the top targets for officials governing the health of the Potomac. They eat almost anything, making them both predators and competitors for native fish, including bass. Mattawoman Creek, which flows into the Potomac, is considered one of the best bass fishing sites in the state, fueling a $25 million fishing industry in Charles.

The Frankenfish -- with its carnivorous nature, ability to survive for up to four days on land and hideous appearance -- was discovered by the corporal leading a documentary television news crew on a tour of a wooded area where a homicide victim was found 28 years ago.

On a break from riding his all-terrain vehicle back from the site, Cpl. Gary Owen stopped to check out an unusual tree stump. He noticed the fish in a small pool of water underneath the stump and recognized them immediately.

"I'm like, 'no way,' Owen said. "I had just seen the program about snakeheads the night before, and now I'm seeing a ton of them."

Owen called the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which sent Mary Groves, the department's southern region manager for inland fisheries management, to clear the area of snakeheads.

"We've only ever picked up one or two snakeheads at a time," said Groves, adding that Owen happened on the largest snakehead discovery in state history. "It's so rare to find a nest like that."

Snakeheads, which are native to East Asia, have been multiplying in the Potomac and its tributaries since at least 2002. Scientists believe a male and female were released into Fairfax's Dogue Creek and began to mate. Because snakeheads can produce 6,000 to 18,000 young in a lifetime, it does not take long for the family tree to grow.

"They're an ambush predator with a high reproductive rate, so there is no way to eradicate them in a large freshwater tidal system," said John Gill, a fisheries biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Tests on Frankenfish in Dogue Creek found that they were not related to snakeheads found in a small pond in Crofton, also in 2002. A Hong Kong native seeking to cure his sister's illness had ordered two of the fish -- prized in Asia for their flavor and healing properties -- from a market in New York to make soup. When his sister recovered before the fish could be liquefied, he dropped them into a pond, not knowing that the fish would threaten other species. The saga eventually was chronicled in a book and two horror movies.

Since then, catching snakeheads has become a popular pursuit among fishermen, who are legally required to kill any of the fish they catch. Scientists from the federal government and every state along the Eastern Seaboard are involved in studies to determine the dietary habits and migration patterns of the fish.

"Right now, we're just trying to keep it from expanding its range," Gill said. "We tried to keep it out of the Potomac, and obviously that didn't work, but we don't want it to spread any farther."

Staff writer Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.

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