One Fast Fish

One Fast Fish

One Fast Fish

About the invasive Northern Snakehead

To the list of dream matchups devised around campfires and pitchers of beer—Wilt vs. Shaq, Mac vs. Venus, grizzly vs. crocodile—add one more: turtle vs. snakehead. It would be some race, a turtle and a fish. The early line in Chinatown is that the outcome would depend on the surface. "On the carpet, the turtle would win," a fishmonger there said last week. "But in the mud? Definitely the snakehead."

By now, surely, you have heard of the snakehead—the northern snakehead, also known as Frankenfish or the Fish from Hell. It is a hardy and voracious species from China that gobbles up native fish and quickly takes over whatever lake, pond, or river it finds itself in. It can grow to more than three feet in length and has been known to eat rats. (Its cousin the giant snakehead will occasionally form packs and attack people.) The northern snakehead's most impressive characteristic, however, is its ability to traverse dry land. It can "walk," propelling itself with its pectoral fins from one body of water to another, and it can survive out of water for up to three days. "This is the most potentially damaging fish introduction the United States has ever faced," Walter Courtenay, a Florida ichthyologist, said last week.

The day before, the Bush Administration, responding to news of a snakehead invasion of a Maryland pond, had proposed a nationwide ban. After all, the snakehead's main conveyance, pecs notwithstanding, is man. "These things don't have legs, but people do," Courtenay, who is known as Dr. Snakehead, said. In Asia, snakeheads, freshly killed and cooked, are said to have extraordinary healing powers; for this reason, they are transported, while still alive, by boat, plane, truck, and bicycle, to fish markets in Asian neighborhoods on the East Coast, despite the fact that they are illegal in thirteen states (though not in New York). This is how they reached Maryland: a man purchased a pair in Chinatown, smuggled them south, nourished them well, then, alarmed by their burgeoning appetite and size, dumped them into a pond behind a Dunkin' Donuts. Now, to prevent the fish from strolling the seventy-five yards over dry land to a nearby river and from there to habitats far, far away, authorities are considering poisoning the pond.