Feds Announce Regs to Ban 'Frankenfish' Imports

The federal government will ban the import of live northern snakeheads beginning Friday, waiving the normal 30-day waiting period for such regulations, Interior Department officials said Wednesday.

It is the first time the waiting period has been waived for rules banning a harmful invasive species, said Interior science adviser James Tate Jr. after a hearing before a House Agriculture subcommittee.

The quick action follows U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that live snakehead imports were increasing dramatically. While 6,397 fish were imported from July 2001 to July 2002, there were more than 2,000 fish imported from July 1 to Aug. 6 of this year.

It also follows a lightning strike by state officials this summer against the so-called "Frankenfish" after it was discovered in a Crofton, Md. pond.

The state poisoned the pond, killing the snakeheads and everything with it.

The voracious fish can "take out all the top-level predators" in an ecosystem, said Kari Duncan, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It also breeds quickly and has the ability to live out of the water briefly, increasing its ability to spread between bodies of water.

A Maryland Department of Natural Resources official estimated that it took about $20,000 and 2,400 man-hours to get rid of "frankenfish." But that is just one of the nonnative species the state battles regularly, said Jill T. Stevenson, deputy director of fishery services for Maryland's DNR.

The department has spent years battling species including piranhas, green crabs, nutria and nuclear worms, Stevenson told a House Agriculture subcommittee on Wednesday.

"Any money we have spent combating these things (invasive species) is dwarfed by the massive cost of these things," said Jonathan McKnight, DNR's assistant director for habitat conservation.

Six weeks ago, the state also made McKnight its invasive species coordinator.

"There's an immense amount to be done," he said.

Stevenson said Maryland's invasive species are manageable, but that they could become increasingly difficult.

Although congressmen at the subcommittee meeting said the responsibility to eradicate invasive species should not rest on the states, Stevenson said state officials would rather handle it themselves.

From their bout with snakeheads, she said, state officials realize the need to expand Maryland statutes so they can act quickly when harmful species move in. Officials should be allowed to enter private land to eradicate nonnative species and have the ability to ban or restrict them, she said.

"These things are ecological ebola and we need to react to them with the same level of concern," McKnight said.