Alien invaders and red tape

As if chronic wasting disease and West Niles virus weren't bad enough, in late September a 2-foot-long exotic Chinese snakehead fish was discovered in Wisconsin's Rock River.

Snakeheads have the head of a Northern pike and the body of a dogfish, can breathe air, live out of water for an extended time and wiggle across land to move from pond to pond.

And, they have an appetite like a flesh-eating vacuum cleaner.

There are 28 varieties of snakehead, ranging from minnow-size specimens that are prized for aquarium fish tanks to giants that reach three feet in length.

In Asia, especially China, Thailand and Japan, the large snakeheads are considered a delicacy and a game fish with tasty flesh that some believe has healing values.

Nonetheless, Chinese gangs are called "snakeheads," suggesting the personality of the fish.

Snakeheads wiggled into the national headlines last year.

"On a warm and muggy day in May 2002, two men went fishing at a small and totally unremarkable pond in Crofton, Md.," according to Eric Jay Dolin, in his new 266-page hardback, "Snakehead: A Fish Out of Water" (Smithsonian Institution; $24.95).

"One of them caught a fish that looked like nothing that he'd ever seen … later identified as a northern snakehead."

In late June and early July of last year, two more northern snakeheads (Channa argus) were caught in the same pond. The Maryland Department became concerned the snakeheads were multiplying and might "walk" to the nearby Patuxent River, taking over the aquatic ecosystem and consuming its inhabitants.

Dolin writes how the media picked up on the story and "with astonishing speed, the northern snakehead, variously labeled a 'Frankenfish,' 'killer fish,' 'pit bull with fins,' 'Chinese thug fish,' 'X-Files fish' and 'the fish from hell' became an indisputable media superstar."

Dolin's book is a blend of fascinating scientific reporting, mixed with detailed accounts of the many human angles of resource management and sprinkled with snakehead comic routines.

Along the way we meet scientists who specialize in invasive species, entrepreneurs trying to capitalize on the snakehead stardom with T-shirts and "Frankenfish nuggets," many species of media personalities and even the man who released the snakehead into the pond.

The Maryland snakeheads were traced to a Chinese man originally bought them from a fish market to cook for his ailing sister, as Chinese traditional medicine calls for snakeheads to healing wounds. She got well before he could cook them.

The snakeheads were gobbling up more goldfish than he could afford to feed them, so he let them go in the pond. The rest is history.

Ultimately, in November 2002, after applications of herbicide and rotenone, Maryland declared victory over the snakeheads in the Crofton Pond.

Aside from being a well-written and entertaining case study of modern resource management, what springs out is how the modern resource manager cannot, and should not, try to avoid dealing with the media.

Dolin notes that snakeheads have been found in the wild in six other states, but none have received anywhere near the degree the publicity of the "Frankenfish of Crofton."

Media relations are a part of modern resource management, like it or not. Public opinion can make or destroy a resource management program.

Modern resource management can't avoid dealing with people, and as this book points out, the better skilled resource managers are with managing human elements of the resources, the more successful they will be.

For the record, more than 17,000 snakeheads have been imported live by Asian fish markets and pet stores since 1997. It stands to reason that some will get out, which is why the US Fish and Wildlife Service has taken steps toward banning them.

Dolin describes the process of making such policy and includes some of the more interesting public commentary letters, including those pleading, "Save the poor snakeheads!"

Snakeheads bring up the larger problem of exotic invasive species. According to a federal interagency for invasive species, "An invasive species' is defined as a species that is 1) non-native (or alien) to the ecosystem under consideration and 2) whose introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health."

Some, like sea lampreys and zebra mussels, sneak in, but many, many other exotic alien invaders initially arrive as pets or by the efforts of well-intentioned, but ecologically naive people.

Introductions of ringneck pheasants, chukar partridge, and Hungarian partridge have worked out well, bringing us greater biodiversity and more opportunities for fishing and hunting. They seem to be an exception to the rule that when foreign species of plants and animals set up shop in North America, they become nightmares.

The list of foreign species of plants and animals that have established themselves on U.S. soil includes carp, starlings, nutria, kudzu, English sparrows, zebra mussels, mitten crabs, mongoose, purple loosestrife and glassy-winged sharpshooter.

With man's help or by accident, they have disrupted the ecology and economy of North America. Indeed, the is long and growing longer.

A study done by researchers at Cornell University concludes that invasive species do more than $138 billion of damage a year; and the problem is getting worse.

The Cornell study reports there are approximately 50,000 foreign species and the number is increasing. About 42 percent of the species on the threatened or endangered species lists are at-risk primarily because of non-indigenous species.

Florida officials report 32 species of non-native fish have become established there, including the bullseye snakehead, which has become established as a minor game fish.

Has anyone heard about the Asian carp introduced to Missouri waters that leaps out the water when it hears a loud noise? Anglers in speeding boats, beware!

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click here to purchase a copy.

To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.