Officials Hail Find of More Than 160 Snakeheads

More than 160 snakeheads were found near Mattawoman Creek; they were killed.
More than 160 snakeheads were found near Mattawoman Creek; they were killed. (By Michael Lutzky -- The Washington Post)
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By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 4, 2008

State officials said this week that the discovery of more than 160 snakeheads near Mattawoman Creek represents a major victory in the battle against the toothy predators known as Frankenfish.

The snakeheads were found last week by Gary Owen, a Charles County sheriff's corporal, who was leading a news crew to the spot where a homicide victim was found in 1980. He discovered the 167 fish -- a male, a pregnant female and 165 swimming babies -- alive in two puddles under a tree stump off Sharpersville Road.

The fish were killed by Maryland Department of Natural Resources officials and taken to a lab for examination.

The Asian-bred fish are some of the most dangerous predators of native species in the Potomac River and its tributaries, and they have been in the Potomac since at least 2002. But the discovery near the Mattawoman, which flows into the Potomac, was the largest in Maryland, state officials said.

"This was an important catch, especially since we got the babies before they could spawn," said Mary Groves, southern regional manager for the fisheries program of the state Department of Natural Resources. "They reproduce so quickly that they can go from a small population to a large population very quickly."

Snakeheads have become ingrained in the minds of many Washington area residents since they were first found in a Crofton pond about six years ago. The fish can grow to up to four feet long and 15 pounds and survive on dry land for up to four days, scientists say. Those who catch snakefish are required to kill them immediately. Groves said transporting the fish or releasing them into the water is illegal.

John Gill, a fisheries biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the Mattawoman find was a victory for scientists hoping to contain the snakeheads, which can produce up to 18,000 babies in a lifetime. The female fish was carrying a full load of eggs, which were also destroyed.

"Right now we're just trying to limit the expansion of the snakefish," Gill said.

Scott Sewell, who often fishes the Mattawoman for bass and is conservation director of the Maryland Bass Foundation, said that he had heard of someone catching a snakefish in the Mattawoman but that the scale of last week's discovery surprised him.

The Mattawoman is considered one of the best spots for bass fishing on the East Coast, raising concern among its fans about harm from the snakefish. The fish eat smaller bass and prey on the same fish as large-mouth bass, prompting worries that the bass population could be depleted by the nonnative predators.

"We feel that this is posing a threat to one of the best bass fisheries around, and it seems like the scientists have resigned themselves that the snakefish are here to stay," Sewell said. "We will kill every one that we see."

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