When a Chinese fish that walks on land was plucked out of a Maryland pond 4 weeks ago, it created a media frenzy. The nonnative fish, a voracious predator with the potential to wreak havoc on ecosystems, gave federal authorities an unusual opportunity to invoke a century-old law and ban the fish's import. While the blockade may be a little late--the snakehead is already found in seven states--scientists say the fish's notoriety may pave the way for more aggressive use of existing laws to prevent other destructive critters from invading the United States.
The northern snakehead is a multifaceted threat. It has an insatiable appetite, can use its fins to walk overland to conquer new territory, and is insensitive to cold. Icthyologists believe the fish, imported live for the dinner table, could accidentally gain a finhold anywhere from Florida to Canada. But in Maryland, wildlife officials are hoping they found the interlopers early enough to stop their spread. On Friday, a panel of experts commissioned by the state's Department of Natural Resources recommended poisoning the Crofton pond to eradicate the snakehead population.
The ripples created by the Maryland snakeheads, however, have spread far beyond the pond. Last week, the federal Department of Interior unveiled its proposal to list 28 related snakehead species as "injurious" under the Lacey Act of 1900--meaning their import would be barred. The move is important, notes environmental policy analyst Faith Campbell of the American Lands Alliance in Washington, D.C., because political pressure from the pet industry has obstructed many previous efforts to add potentially invasive organisms to the Lacey list. Indeed, the snakehead's listing capped a "fortuitous chain of events," says A. Gordon Brown, Department of Interior liaison to the National Invasive Species Council. A year ago, he notes, researchers began the required studies of whether the fish posed a serious invasion risk.
With the snakehead as a poster child for the invasive species threat, conservationists now hope more organisms might be added to the Lacey list. Jim Tate, the Secretary of the Interior's science adviser, says that if the fish helps raise public awareness of the threat, he and other officials may be able to give new life to old laws that can help prevent costly invasions.