BASS Times: Rejection for snakehead sympathizers

WASHINGTON— If you believe the ill-tempered, gluttonous northern snakehead is truly a fish only a mother could love, then you are in for a shock.

 Three years ago 16 county commissioners from 13 Western states petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to have this invasive predator declared an endangered species, teetering on the brink of extinction. After an inexplicable three-year delay, federal officials got around to denying the petition. But it remains a mystery why the petition was originally filed.

 Alan D. Gardner, a commissioner of Washington County in Utah, together with 15 other county commissioners based in the West, formally asked the FWS to designate the northern snakehead fish as an endangered species under the federal Endangered Species Act in January 2005.

 Additionally, the petitioners argued that the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed, which includes parts of 10 states along the East Coast, should be protected as a critical habitat for the northern snakehead. Further, the county commissioners requested that the populations be monitored for several years, in order to determine if the fish would "assimilate in time and become part of a viable aquatic ecosystem."

 The aspiring snakehead protectors were undeniably sincere, even poetic, in their affection for the universally reviled exotic fish.

"If the snakehead fish lived in the West," the petition stated, "no expense or no expanse of land would be too great to protect a fish of this caliber if it were threatened by extinction."

The petitioners fretted over what they described as the "extremely low numbers" of snakeheads living in the Potomac River watershed where the fish made its first U.S. appearance (outside of a home aquarium) in 2002.

 Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries biologist John Odenkirk was one of the first fisheries management experts to recognize the nationwide threat that the fish posed to other native fish species.

 Odenkirk, who once caught 60 snakeheads in the space of one hour from a small Potomac River tributary, could not understand where anyone would get the impression that there are "extremely low numbers" of snakeheads living in the Potomac River watershed.

In August, the FWS summarily dismissed the snakehead protection request.

 Moreover, the federal agency declared the northern snakehead fish as an "injurious wildlife species" that "does not naturally occur in the Chesapeake Bay or anywhere in the U.S.," and is a threat to native species because it "appears to have no natural predators in the U.S."

Gardner did not respond to a request from BASS Times to comment on the snakehead protection request he made three years ago or the FWS rejection.

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