'Frankenfish' and the hunt for invasive species

A thriving newcomer may threaten Potomac's beloved bass, sparking a search-and-destroy mission.

Tearing across the Potomac in his bass boat, Maryland's top snakehead hunter is on a mission: to bolster his reputation.

Cliff Magnus caught the nastiest keeper of his life this summer, up in the tight tidal channel of Little Hunting Creek, along a row of Washington cottages with their gardens and sea walls. It was a US-record-setting northern snakehead - an invasive species colloquially known as the Frankenfish, or The Fish That Ate Maryland - weighing almost 6 pounds and measuring 25 inches long, nearly 10 inches longer than the escaped fish that stirred America's gothic imagination two years ago.

Since then, snakeheads have slithered not just into the national consciousness, but into Washington's waterways: At least 17 have been caught this summer along a 14-mile stretch of the Potomac, as well as in a Philadelphia pond.

The hunt for Frankenfish has spawned "wanted" posters, a fishing tournament, and small-scale fame for those who've caught them, like Mr. Magnus, a former lumberjack and race-car driver turned professional fisherman, and Tom "Snakehead Slayer" Woo, who's caught three. But beyond the tide of local interest, snakeheads are drawing attention to the proliferation of invasive species mucking up American fauna nationwide.

The problem, say critics, is that not every invader is an enemy, and the fallback pattern of all-out war can muddy the waters still further.

Today, the US spends some $137 billion annually to combat nonnative species from fairy-tale creatures to John Carpenter monsters - including filter-clogging zebra mussels, South American fur rats, and the beautiful but destructive mute swan, which has devastated sea-grass beds on the Chesapeake while bullying native birds. At present, the snakehead is low on this ecological totem-pole, with no real proof of overwhelming damage.

"We're dealing with this never-ending onslaught of new invasive species that accompany the globalization of trade, commerce, and travel," says Jonathan McKnight, an associate director at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "Right now, the snakehead has become the poster fish, but we need people to make the connection between all invasive species and the real ecological damage that they do."

To be sure, the arrival of foreign species isn't always catastrophic. But biologists are increasingly realizing that some newcomers overwhelm an area's natural balance, devastating natives and transforming ecosystems.

Despite the nation's zero-tolerance alert for invasive species, public perception varies widely, to the consternation of wildlife managers. The homely snakehead has few friends. But animal-rights groups have come to the defense of the mute swan, which 4 out or 5 Marylanders are in favor of forcibly culling, and it may take an act of Congress to change the Migratory Species Act so that wildlife managers can reduce the flocks.

"The snakehead is a science-fiction monster and the mute swan is a fairy-tale creature - you see my dilemma," says Mr. McKnight.

But Magnus, for one, isn't backing down in his mission to do battle with the snakeheads. "No, they're not going to eat every bass in the river and then attack your children at the bus stop," he admits. "But the Potomac River is today one of the most popular bass fisheries in the nation" - and 10 years from now, he says, a proliferation of snakeheads could make for a very different waterway.

Not everyone shares Magnus's approach, and critics say that although the annihilation of invasive species may seem like an easy solution, it's hardly realistic. In fact, some say the state's refusal to consider more pragmatic solutions may ultimately stymie efforts to control invaders: A plan to force people to kill their pet snakeheads, for instance, may lead to more releases.

When Ruth Hanessian of the Maryland Invasive Species Council suggested that officials hand out snakehead recipes to promote the catching and eating of the fish, she was rebuffed. Ms. Hanessian is also sensitive to what she sees as the state's hypocrisy. After all, she says, when Maryland drained Pine Lake to capture one snakehead, officials made no provisions for saving other lake inhabitants. Hanessian transferred several koi from the lake to a backyard bathtub.

"Many of the species in question are in fact purposely introduced, frequently by state and federal agencies," she says. Autumn olives, she points out, were obtained from the state for wildlife planting. "But we have now gone 180 degrees, so that anything not native is now dreadful. To stop an invasive exotic species is admirable, but is it possible?"

Still, the snakehead may not be quite the monster it appears. Officials doubt that the fish actually "walks," though it can live out of water for several hours and may be able to slither from waterway to waterway. Many Asian cultures rather enjoy the snakehead, salted and grilled, and some cultures even release it as part of religious rituals.

Indeed, though the Potomac snakeheads may be hemmed in by the salty Chesapeake Bay, they're already showing signs of leaving the state, which can happen when eggs stick to boats and "goose bottoms," says Magnus. Several females caught this summer have been pregnant, and a Smithsonian research team is investigating whether the fish caught in a south Philly pond two weeks ago are related to the Potomac crew.

Meanwhile, the chase is on, with teams of Virginia wildlife biologists tucking electric contraptions and rubber worms among the lily pads.

When Magnus brought his record snakehead home to his shop-worn suburb in Waldorf, Md., half the neighborhood showed up along with bigwigs from Maryland DNR. Though the fish had been out of the water and in a cooler for four hours, it still had plenty of life and onlookers oohed and aahed.

Today, he's at it again, flipping a glittery worm up against the weed beds and under the floating docks, chronicling strange stories and misadventures, usually starring himself.

Still, the record-sanctioning International Game Fish Association won't be adding a snakehead category any time soon. The state of Maryland, however, has not yet ruled out what may at this point be the most pragmatic reaction: Handing Magnus the line-class state record for the northern snakehead, America's most wanted game fish.

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