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Published: Sunday, 12/12/2004

Program aims to halt release of exotic fish

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Imagine the Great Lakes being overtaken by an exotic meat-eating fish that can emerge from water and slither across land for up to three days at a time - with the largest species even capable of attacking humans.

Sound like some Grade B horror flick?

It's not. Snakeheads, which rival Asian carp as a potential Great Lakes menace, were found in Lake Michigan near Chicago in October. Asian carp, on the other hand, are in the Mississippi River, with a temporary electrical barrier in place to keep them out of the Great Lakes. The Army Corps of Engineers recently got funding from Congress to construct a permanent, more-fortified barrier.

Unlike so many other destructive and potentially horrifying intruders, of which Zebra mussels may be the classic example, snakeheads and Asian carp did not sneak into the lake system via the ballast water of oceanic vessels.

Rather, snakeheads and Asian carp are viewed by fish biologists as examples for the need to crack down on pet owners, back-yard hobbyists, and aquarium operators who release unwanted fish and aquatic plants into the wild.

Such releases may start out with good intentions. Often, it is a case of people tiring of their pets or setting them free after they have outgrown their aquarium or pond, officials said.

Snakeheads and Asian carp are high-profile species because both have the potential of causing ecological chaos to massive bodies of water, such as the Great Lakes, if they are able to colonize them. The consequences go beyond ecology: The Great Lakes has a commercial and recreational fishing industry that provides 75,000 jobs and has a combined value of $4.7 billion, officials said.

One of North America's earliest known snakehead releases involved an Asian man from Maryland who bought a live pair from a New York City fish market in 2000 with the intent of using them in a homemade herbal medicine for his ailing sister.

Enter "Habitattitude," a tongue-twister of a national campaign in which consumers are being told about the pitfalls of releasing non-native fish and plants they have had in aquariums, back-yard ponds, and water gardens.

"It's another venue for the introduction of exotic species," said Frank Lichtkoppler, Ohio Sea Grant program specialist. "This is a worldwide problem."

Officials "are seeing an increasing frequency of unwanted fish and aquatic plants in the environment," said Doug Jensen, a Minnesota Sea Grant specialist who proposed the campaign.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has identified invasive species as the No. 1 threat facing the Great Lakes, ranking it even higher than pollution.

The degree to which unauthorized releases from aquariums, back-yard ponds, and water gardens contribute to the overall problem is hard to quantify, officials said.

"The bottom line is our biodiversity is being impacted by this issue [of unauthorized releases]," said Joe Starinchak, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Agency outreach coordinator in Washington.

The campaign is a rare alliance between the pet industry and government agencies that regulate it.

A $1.5 million marketing blitz involving more than 5,000 pet stores has begun, with $1.1 million of the funding coming from the pet industry. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Sea Grant program is contributing $300,000. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is providing $150,000.

More than 20 million plastic bags with preprinted messages are to be delivered nationally to Wal-Mart, PETCO, PetsMart, and independent outlets soon. Advertisements will be placed in hobby magazines. Stickers, fact sheets, and placards will be distributed in stores and at trade shows, Mr. Starinchak said.

Being a responsible pet owner means "you don't throw your plants and animals out into the environment," said Marshall Meyers, executive vice president and general counsel for the Washington-based Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council.

Mike Klepinger, Michigan Sea Grant spokesman, said the campaign will be "reaching out to people all the way along the chain of commerce, from the breeder to the dealer to the hobbyist."

More information can be obtained at www.habitattitude.net.

Nearly 150 species of exotic fish and plants have established themselves in the Great Lakes since the 1830s. Their most common mode of transportation has been in the ballast water of oceanic vessels, often while still in their microscopic larval stages.

Not so with the pair of snakehead released into a Crofton, Md. pond in early 2000.

An unidentified Asian man who purchased a live pair from a New York fish market ended up releasing them into the pond after realizing his sister was recovering fine without the herbal medicine he had planned to make.

The pair happened to be a male and a female. Two years later, when the Maryland Department of Natural Resources found those two snakeheads and about 100 of their offspring, biologists became so alarmed they shocked the water with electrical currents to get the fish out. Then, they chemically treated it for good measure.

Mr. Starinchak said the case is noteworthy because it is one of the few in which the perpetrator was caught.

Maryland DNR officials said the man expressed remorse and confessed to them. He was not prosecuted because, by the time he was identified, the two-year statue of limitations had expired.

There are 28 species of snakeheads. Many have amphibianlike qualities that allow them to breathe temporarily and move across land in search of food. Their potential to wreak havoc upon the environment is so scary that government biologists and others have given them a dubious monsterlike nickname: Frankenfish.

They eat almost anything in their paths. The largest of 28 known species has even attacked humans, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has said.

Illinois is the first Great Lakes state where they have been found. They have been found at least twice in Maryland, as well as at least once in Virginia, California, Florida, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, the agency said.

What frightens biologists as much as the snakeheads' sharp teeth and voracious appetites is the relative ease such invasive species can be acquired in New York and Boston fish markets, as well as on the Internet. Asian carp, to this day, can still be imported to eat pond scum and other purposes, although the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is contemplating a ban through the federal Lacey Act - a legal process which may take a couple of years.

While the high-profile fish such as snakeheads and Asian carp grab headlines, numerous cases of unwanted releases occur in local ponds and streams that ultimately impact native fish, too.

At the University of Minnesota's Duluth campus last fall, officials noticed something out of kilter at a pond that used to have no fish: It suddenly was stocked by goldfish and Japanese koi. The theory is that students and nearby residents used the pond to get rid of pets.

"What it did was create a real problem," Mr. Jensen said. Outflow from that pond threatened to imperil a nearby trout stream. The cost to remove those fish was $50,000, he said.

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.



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