Too many permanent aliens on one plate!

To the left of the headline about the elections in Iraq, the Philadelphia Inquirer's readers are treated to a scary headline -- "It's in the river: The dreaded snakehead" -- accompanied by a photo and an article about the latest alien invasion. (Yes, we're still allowed to use the word "alien" when speaking about non-human invaders.)

With so many snakeheads on the loose, officials have decided simply to educate the public about what havoc the fish can wreak.

One weekend last year, a Chicago museum displayed the carcass of that city's harbor specimen in a lab pan, and thousands of people went to gawk.

Here, the Academy of Natural Sciences on Logan Circle has expanded on the concept.

Two bathtub-size tanks have been installed in an upstairs hallway. In one is a living adult snakehead caught last spring in FDR Park. Next door is a tankful of younger specimens.

Titled "Aliens in Pennsylvania," the exhibit is a testament to the snakeheads' destructive potential. About once a week, Laura McRae approaches. She grabs a piece of smelt with tongs and wiggles it enticingly in the tank with the big snakehead.

Whap! The snakehead demonstrates its appetite.

The little snakeheads usually get live goldfish. McRae dumps in about 50, and a mini-melee ensues.

The academy staff was hesitant at first, envisioning busloads of schoolchildren horrified by cute, wiggly goldfish being devoured before their eyes. Instead, as a group of young visitors recently demonstrated, the kids are riveted.

"Look at it! In its mouth!"

"Look! He's not dead yet!"

Cute, wiggly goldfish?

Whatever happened to the good old days of fraternity goldfish-swallowing contests? Nowadays, even religious goldfish swallowing is frowned upon. What has happened to our culture of predatory ambition?

While I cannot share the Inquirer's snakehead picture because it's not online, I did find a better one more in keeping with the spirit of an alien invasion.



According to the experts, these fish, which have been found all over the country now, have been brought here for years for food and for the aquarium trade:

During routine sampling of Meadow Lake earlier this month, DEC staff found three snakehead fish. In response to the initial collection of these exotic fish, DEC conducted more intensive sampling and collected a fourth northern snakehead. The identification of the fish as northern snakeheads have been confirmed by fisheries scientists with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

Snakeheads are an exotic species. They are air-breathing freshwater fishes that are native to Asia, Malaysia, Indonesia and tropical Africa. Several species of snakeheads are highly valued as food within parts of their native range, while several species are sought by hobbyists through the aquarium trade. The northern snakehead in particular is a popular food fish and is cultured in China and Korea. This species has been exported to other nations, including Canada and the United States where it has been sold alive in certain ethnic markets and restaurants.

Because of their aggressive and indestructible nature, they've even been called "pit bulls with fins," while paleoclimatologists claim that that summer precipitation aids their migration:
“Killer fish,” “Frankenfish,” or “pit bull with fins” are terms that are given to snakehead fishes (Channidae) by the public, because of the predatory lifestyle and the high migration potential of this air-breeding fish. In summer 2002, snakeheads became a media superstar in the United States. Treated as an invasive, non-indigenous fish group in North America, it was feared that they seriously harm native ecosystems. An unexpected contribution to paleoclimatology gives the fossil record of snakeheads, reaching back to 50 Ma. The study shows that snakeheads are sensitive indicators of summer precipitation maxima in subtropical and temperate regions and occur regularly if the wettest month exceeds 150 mm precipitation and 20 °C mean temperature. The analysis of 515 fossil freshwater fish deposits of the past 50 m.y. from Africa and Eurasia shows two continental-scale migration events from the snakeheads’ center of origin in the south Himalayan region, which can be related to changes in the Northern Hemisphere circulation pattern. The first migration at ca. 17.5 Ma into western and central Eurasia may have been caused by a northward shift of the Intertropical Convergence Zone that brought western Eurasia under the influence of trade winds that produced a zonal and meridional precipitation gradient in Europe. During the second migration, between 8 and 4 Ma into Africa and East Asia, snakeheads reached their present-day distribution. This migration could have been related to the intensification of the Asian monsoon that brought summer precipitation to their migratory pathways in East Africa–Arabia and East Asia.

If the snakehead population spreads, maybe Global Warming can be blamed.

Meanwhile, I think we can expect to see more hard, um, hitting, law enforcement action like this:

Wildlife Inspector Michael Williams, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, inspected the shipment to find three open boxes containing fish he thought were “unusual looking.” When he asked the driver what they were, his reply was that they were snakeheads that had been pond raised in China and shipped without water to Canada, adding this was the first time his employer had made such a shipment. Upon examining one box, Williams noticed the fish moved and, on further investigation, found that most were alive and some “capable of vigorous movement.” Williams informed the driver that possession of live snakeheads was in violation of Washington State regulations. The driver was asked to kill the fish and began striking them with a board. Williams notified the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and, after returning to the truck, found that the fish were still alive despite the drivers attempt to kill them. He seized the 80 fish at noon and placed them in a freezer. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife authorities arrived about 12:30 and removed the fish from the freezer. Most were still alive. State authorities took possession of the fish to proceed with penalties against the companies involved (Mike Williams, personal commun., 2003). The shipping invoice listed the fish as “Fresh Snakehead Fish-Product of China.” The fish were subsequently identified as northern snakeheads.
Beating and freezing these poor fish? Where are the animal rights activists when we need them?

And why are we so much harder on piscine aliens than on the human variety? I mean, normally whiny environmentalist types are advocating brutal Gestapo tactics which would make those to the right of the Minutemen blush.

Is it because the fish can't be rounded up and deported? Or is it because they're unable to assimilate? According to the Inquirer, once they're established, the snakeheads' presence is permanent:

Absent the predators that keep the snakehead population in check in Asia, fisheries officials fear their numbers will blossom. The newcomers - which may be up to two feet long - could wolf down entire populations of indigenous fish, permanently changing streamlife.

For a hint of what's to come here, fisheries officials have only to look about 150 miles south to the Potomac River.

Snakeheads showed up there in 2004, when about 20 were caught by biologists, recreational anglers, and a passerby who saw a tiny specimen flop out of the weeds at a boat ramp.

This year, Washington-area anglers caught more than 300 - a clear sign that the snakeheads are thriving.

"That's quick growth," said Steve Minkkinen, a snakehead expert with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "If we're able to collect hundreds of fish, how many might be out there is anyone's guess."

I'd be a little hesitant to use the term "permanent," especially if we factor in things like geologic time. Usually, the word "permanent" doesn't mean permanent in the eternal sense -- it just means for the duration of the lives of the people using the word. Besides, by all accounts the fish are highly edible (they're even raised for food in fish farms), and I see no reason why that might not cause them to be overfished in the same way as any other fish population. As things stand, there's no limit or season on them, and as the Inquirer points out, recipes abound.

Nice fish here:


Gooood snakehead!

Much as I detest anthropomorphism, I had been planning some sort of analogy to the human invasions.

However, even though I hate double standards, I think I'm heading towards, um, bad taste with my analogy, so I'd better stop or I'll have to eat my words.

posted by Eric on 12.16.05 at 07:49 AM


I wonder if their hardy nature means they're somehow related to the catfish. Junior and I found out the hard way this summer that catfish are very difficult to kill.

Matt   ·  December 16, 2005 2:49 PM

Dammit, THis is serious!! Time to call in the professionals! That Bruce, he can sure kick Ichthyological fin!

mdmhvonpa   ·  December 16, 2005 3:05 PM

Nice movie poster!

Eric Scheie   ·  December 16, 2005 7:53 PM

They thought the kids would be scared to xee the goldfish massacre?

Dang, they sure don't know kids. I caught a garter snake for a group of third-graders who first asked if it were dangerous, then if they could touch it, then if they could kill it. Um... no.

B. Durbin   ·  December 17, 2005 1:31 AM

"They sure don't know kids." How true. Anti-military propaganda has been known to make kids want to join the military.

Eric Scheie   ·  December 17, 2005 11:13 PM

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