By Eric Jay Dolin
(Smithsonian Books, 266 pp., 58 illus., ISBN: 1588341542 , $24.95 )
The story of the dreaded snakehead fish is a case study for invasive species. This is the story of an invasive species that went from obscurity to fame, becoming front-page news and the topic of David Letterman's Top Ten list. Snakeheads, a species native to Asia, were released into a suburban pond in Maryland sometime around the year 2000. They reproduced, and a few years later a local angler caught and photographed one of the adults. Natural resources officials from the state and federal government responded with swat teams, and a media frenzy soon followed. Could the ferocious beast — capable of walking on land and breathing air — enter Chesapeake Bay and destroy native stocks? Much of the excitement was exaggeration, but the frenzy continued. Wildlife officers could not catch the beasts, even as local anglers captured more. The pond was sealed off, armies with toxins brought in, and over the course of months it looked like the beast was slain. But we learned that snakeheads are loose elsewhere in America, as are thousands of other introduced species. Was the snakehead story all hype, or was this the right response? Dolin tells the amazing story of the "snakehead summer" while delving into the larger questions about invasive species in America.
"Fascinating scientific reporting . . . well-written and entertaining case study of modern resource management."
"It's the best book on non-native species since The Coming of the Pond Fishes . . . an absolute page turner!"
"A wonderful, intriguing and fascinatingly complete documentation of a social and ecological phenomenon."
"Dolin doesn't skimp on details . . . Or get bogged down in an overly scientific discussion of his subject . . . a lively book."
"a good read . . . Briskly written, good story . . . useful for providing biologists with insights into how the media works."
"Entertaining and well-written."
"Eric Jay Dolin has written an excellent, detailed, and thoroughly enjoyable account of the snakehead phenomenon that captured headlines in the summer of 2002. This is not a book about a fish, but rather of how so many peoples lives were affected so suddenly and dramatically by the discovery of snakeheads in Maryland and how those people reacted. Dolins overview of the damaging impacts of introduced animals and plants is outstanding, and it should greatly raise public awareness of this serious environmental problem."
Often the most unusual tales have humble beginnings. On a warm and muggy day in May 2002, two men went fishing at a small totally unremarkable pond in Crofton, Maryland, just a short drive from the nations capital. One of them caught a fish that looked like nothing hed ever seen. Before throwing it back, he snapped a few pictures and later shared them with state fisheries biologists. They too were puzzled, but after some sleuthing they identified the fish as a northern snakehead. It didnt belong in the wild in Crofton, or Maryland, or the United States for that matter. It was an alien, a potentially invasive species from Asia with sharp teeth, a predilection for dining ravenously on other fishes, a primitive lung, and apparently and most amazingly the ability to walk over land to a new body of water whenever the mood struck it. Should snakeheads establish themselves in Maryland, officials feared they could wreak havoc on the local ecosystem. In late June and early July, more northern snakeheads were caught in the pond. Their presence became a major event, covered internationally in newspapers and magazines, and on radio and television. With astonishing speed, the northern snakehead, variously labeled a Frankenfish, killer fish, pit bull with fins, Chinese thug fish, x-files fish, and the fish from hell, became an indisputable media superstar. But the snakeheads days were numbered; come September they were gone, done in with poison administered by the state of Maryland. Coverage of the snakehead story ranged from serious and thoughtful to silly and sensational. At its base lay the persistently troubling issue of invasive species and their ability to harm the environment and the economy. But that story line alone, while perhaps good for an article or two could not sustain the media frenzy that ensued. No, this fish story had everythingshadowy origins, illegal activity, misinformation, exaggerations, epic battles between man and fish, the specter of ecological doom, earnest bureaucrats, wanted posters, bounties, late night talk show hosts, early morning talk show hosts, a blue ribbon panel, poison, hilarious satire, snakehead entrepreneurs, purported links to terrorism, theme songs, culinary concoctions, medicinal connections, and most importantly a fish that pound for pound surely ranks as one of most vilified creatures on earth. Just as the summer of 2001 was called the summer of the shark, the summer of 2002 became the summer of the snakehead. This is the story of that fascinating fish and how it captured our imagination and took us all on a wild ride.