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The beauty of the snakehead

Illustration by Alison Elizabeth Taylor

Lay off the Frankenfish. First of all, the “Frankenfish” tag itself: Drop it. “Franken-” suggests that we engineered this fish, the northern snakehead, that we built it ourselves in a lab.

We wish. The Hand of Man brought Channa argus argus over here, sure enough, and loosed it on Crofton. But the snakehead is not a man-made fish. Man-made fish are transgenic salmon: modified to grow at three times the normal rate, tweaked to withstand infection when their bloated bodies crowd each other in fish-farm pens.

The snakehead is nature’s fish. Slashing jaws and amphibious breathing organs don’t serve our purposes. They serve the aims of the snakehead.

It doesn’t get more natural than that. No, the whole “Frankenfish” thing is a ruse, an excuse for the mobs to come storming the snakehead’s weedy, aquatic castle, waving minicams and fishing poles. If the integrity of nature really meant that much to everyone, we’d spend our weekends burning beds of invasive Phragmites reeds and scraping up clots of zebra mussels.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) worries about those things. After a catch-and-release angler encountered a 19-inch northern snakehead in Crofton on May 15 and sent its picture to the DNR, the agency put out a wanted poster urging anyone else who caught it to “please KILL this fish by cutting/bleeding.” An all-out assault on the pond snagged a different adult snakehead, a 26-incher, then turned up dozens of babies. With the original fish and possibly hundreds of youngsters at large, the DNR is monitoring the pond and weighing its options for killing all the fish off.

The DNR sees the snakehead and frets about a new top-level predator getting loose and disrupting the web of life in the Little Patuxent River, competing with the native largemouth bass and pike.

The general public is not losing sleep over the fate of the largemouth bass. The general public is caught up in the bigger danger: This alien fish can scour a pond clean of life! It can spawn uncontrollably! When it’s done, it can crawl up the bank and march off to conquer new territory!

Could we be more transparent? We’re talking about us. We’re mad at the snakehead because the snakehead is playing our game.

Humans are supposed to be ruling the ecosystem ourselves. Ask the giant beavers about it. Oh, right—you can’t. The giant beavers of North America went extinct, shortly after humans marched across the land bridge over the Bering Strait. The giant beaver sleeps with the ground sloth, the great auk, and the Steller’s sea cow, in the graveyard of species that couldn’t raise their performance when the circumstances got tougher.

The snakehead, now—the snakehead’s a different story. For sheer guts and initiative, it’s hard to top a fish that climbs up out of the water. That was the Big Step, way back when; it’s the move our own ancestors pulled. We’ve been coasting on that accomplishment for millions of years, like trust-fund babies.

The snakehead’s calling us out on our complacency. It’s got the underwater thing down pat: powerful swimming stroke, aggressive attitude, tolerance for cold water to get it through the winters. But while we paddle around Crofton after the intruder, poking haplessly at the green depths of the pond, it’s taking an aggressive position on land futures, too.

These fish are halfway around the world from home, stuck in a tiny, isolated piece of habitat. Tom Hanks gets stranded on a Pacific island, he grows a beard, starts talking to a volleyball, and stares forlornly at the ocean for a few years. The displaced snakeheads hunker down, start making baby snakeheads, and cast an eye at that muddy path toward the nearest river.

We can’t stand that kind of moxie from the lower orders. That’s why we love the pandas so much. Pandas up and evolved an enlarged radial sesamoid bone that works like an opposable thumb. An opposable thumb! That’s the killer app of bioengineering, the thing you need for the secret handshake in the Top of the Food Chain Club. But does the panda use it to rub sticks together, or to cock back the hammer on a Colt Peacemaker? No. It uses it to grab and hold bamboo, while it placidly munches away. Aww, say the crowds at the zoo. It’s just like a human. Only harmless.

Let an animal start really acting human and humans turn into world-class interspecies playa-haters. The snakehead is too self-confident to know its place. It’s Netscape, and we’re Microsoft. It’s Allen Iverson, and we’re a whole squad of Philly cops. We’ve got to take it down, even if it means poisoning every other fish in the pond.

The countermeasures will do more killing, in truth, than the snakeheads are liable to. For all the reports about their ability to slaughter whatever is in their way, the snakeheads fall short of being ravening destroyers of everything that swims. They’ve been in Crofton for two years, and the other fish are still hanging in there. The prey have apparently stepped up their self-defense efforts and learned to take shelter in the weeds. “We don’t have any expectation that these fish would kill every fish in the pond,” says DNR spokesperson John Surrick.

Nor are the snakeheads going to rampage through all the waters of Maryland, exterminating the rockfish and blue crabs as they go. They are strictly freshwater fish, so the brackish waters of the Chesapeake Bay are safe from them. If we want to drive the crabs to extinction, we’ll just have to finish that job ourselves.

The DNR points out, quite sensibly, that though the risk of wholesale fish slaughter by the snakehead is overblown, there are plenty of related dangers that are being underblown: foreign parasites the snakeheads might be harboring, exotic piscatory plagues. The fatal shellfish disease MSX, which has been ravaging local oyster populations since the late ’80s, likely appeared in the Chesapeake via a batch of introduced Asian oysters, Surrick says. The worst consequences are the unpredictable ones.

That’s scarcely the snakehead’s fault, though. The real enemy is not the hardworking, air-breathing, globe-trotting fish but some fungus or protozoan that might be hitching a ride with it—something blind, mindless, and microscopic, trying to cash in on the snakehead’s efforts.

The snakehead is the victim here. There’s no glory in running it down and electroshocking it into submission. The snakehead wins on pluck, only to lose on hygiene. But being the ecosystem’s mop-up crew doesn’t make us the better species, or the more noble. The nature cops will do what the nature cops need to do. The rest of you, get off its back. CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Alison Elizabeth Taylor.