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Those who cherish snakehead fish (“Fish or Foul?” 7/9) got good news recently. No, not another specimen pulled from the Potomac and adjacent waters. (Though that continues to happen—the count is now up to 19.) On Sept. 1, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) withdrew a proposed regulation that would have made it illegal for anyone in the state to own a snakehead. Had the proposed regulation gone into effect, snakehead owners would have been required to turn in their pets to be euthanized starting Sept. 13.
Nick, a 22-year-old Maryland resident and snakehead owner, says that the DNR’s decision is “about the best you can ask for. I’m impressed that they took the scientific information into account.” Nick is in the process of altering the 400-gallon tank that serves as the home of Jake, his 28-inch cobra snakehead. Until this month, Nick had hoped to find Jake a home in a university display case, which would have saved him from euthanasia.
Last spring, after the DNR announced its intention to ban all snakeheads, Maryland snakehead owners began sending letters. They argued that their pets aren’t northern snakeheads, the invasive species turning up in local waters. Rather, they own representatives of the many species of tropical snakeheads—fish that couldn’t survive a winter in the wild this far north and therefore would have a negligible impact on local ecology should they be set loose.
The public campaign, spearheaded by Ruth Hanessian, president of the Maryland Association of Pet Industries, paid off. According to Gina Hunt, director of policy and regulations for the DNR’s Fisheries Service, comments received from the public contributed to the DNR’s decision to withdraw the proposed ban. Hunt said that the DNR will soon propose a revised version of the regulation “aimed at letting people keep their pet fish while discouraging the introduction of snakeheads into Maryland.”
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Maryland’s changed approach to snakehead regulation “puts D.C. in an interesting position,” says Sean, a snakehead owner who lives in Northwest D.C. “On one side you’ve got Maryland allowing them as pets, and on the other you’ve got Virginia, where they’re completely outlawed.” D.C. currently doesn’t have any laws addressing snakeheads specifically, but that may change if the fish begin appearing in the District’s part of the Potomac.
Virginia’s snakehead ban has been described as cruel and inflexible by some residents of the Old Dominion, including Tracy Blaeuer, manager and co-owner of Super Pets in Annandale, whose 14-inch red snakehead, Seymore, was beheaded by the state. While pleased that Maryland snakeheads won’t follow Seymore to a Taliban-style execution, Blaeuer says she’s “shocked someone actually listened—the number of snakehead owners is so small.”
And indeed, that number will shrink even under Maryland’s revised regulation. Although both the Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun reported that the revised regulation will affect only the northern variety, Hunt says it will probably prohibit the breeding and sale of all snakeheads. Because federal law already prohibits the importation of all snakehead species, it’s reasonable to assume that the number of tropical snakeheads in Maryland will decrease over time as the pet fish reach the ends of their natural life spans. As Hunt says, “attrition is the goal.”
Hunt also says that the revised regulation will probably include separate possession restrictions for northern snakeheads, making it illegal to own living specimens as pets or for food. The same would go for the blotched snakehead, another species that might be able to establish itself in local waters (though none have yet been found in the wild here).
Of course, the revised proposed regulation will be subject to public comment and scrutiny, same as the original proposed regulation. It’s possible that the DNR’s announcement will energize anti-snakehead forces. “We had plenty of people write in support of the [original proposed] regulation,” says Hunt. “They said, ‘Please protect our ecosystems!’”
The possibility of another reversal means that snakehead owners aren’t relaxing yet. In Virginia, Seymore got the chop because his owners slipped up and revealed his whereabouts to the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
Nick is determined not to make the same mistake. To prevent authorities from finding him and Jake, he declined to have his last name appear in print until the new regulation is a done deal. (Sean in D.C. takes the same precaution.) “I don’t really trust the government,” Nick says.CP