Walking 'Frankenfish' strikes terror in the US

The marauding invader, with its voracious appetite and seemingly supernatural powers, aroused fears from the moment its presence in the United States first became the subject of news headlines and local television broadcasts.

The creature causing the uproar is not the invention of a Hollywood B-movie scriptwriter but the spawn of southern China waterways.

Practically overnight the northern snakehead fish has come to be seen as one of the dangerous interlopers to threaten any US ecosystem.

The torpedo-shaped snakehead has been dubbed a “Frankenfish” for its unsettling ability to survive on land for several days at a time, its proclivity toward rapid growth and its insatiable appetite.

More unsettling still, the fish can “walk” on extended fins, raising fears that it could amble out of the public pond in Maryland where it was first spotted and into local waterways, where it would be much more difficult, if not impossible, to contain.

To make matter worse, the snakehead has no known natural predators in US waters.

For the past few weeks, local fishing and environmental authorities have been frantically trying to retrieve snakehead specimens released two years ago or so into the pond in Crofton, Maryland, east of Washington DC.

The fish, however, appear to have spawned and hundreds are now believed to reside in the 10-acre (four-hectare) body of water.

“We could easily be talking about hundreds, if not more, juveniles in the pond,” Eric Schwaab, head of fisheries for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, told the Washington Post newspaper recently.

“Ecologically, it’s a significant threat,” said Tom Muir, a biologist with the US Geological Survey, who called the snakehead “a very aggressive predator” which could decimate native fish populations.

According to the Encyclopedia of Tropical Fishes, snakehead young “grow with amazing rapidity. And the only problem encountered is that of keeping their terrific appetite satisfied.”

As if to offer proof of that reputation, some young snakehead offspring have been spotted leaping onto lily pads to grab insects before jumping back into the water. If the babies elicit awe, adults spark full-blown terror.

Tadpoles and frogs are favourite snakehead fare but the fish dines quite happily on minnows, sunfish or just about anything else that swims by.

Mature snakefish can grow up to one metre long.
A specimen was caught in the Maryland lake by a local fisherman in May was described as “a 19-inch (half-metre) bruiser”. Since then, no other mature fish has been captured, as have several baby snakeheads.

Possessing a snakehead fish is illegal in 13 US states but not in the city of Washington, nor in neighbouring Virginia or Maryland, where the original snakehead fish sparked the current crisis.

The northern snakehead’s near-legendary curative and culinary status in Asia explains how the fish wound up in the Maryland pond in the first place.

The fish, prized for its powerful medicinal benefits, is often served up as a delicacy in Asian dishes from watercress soup to duck giblets.

According to news reports, a local resident who originally hailed from Hong Kong, ordered live specimens of the fish to be sent to his home to make soup for his ill sister.

By the time the fish arrived the woman had recovered, so the man discarded the fish in the pond near his home, where they apparently not only survived, but thrived, to the continuing dismay of US fishing authorities. - Sapa-AFP

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