In Foreign Parts: Lurking under the lilypads, the mystery of Ole' Snakey is finally solved

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The Independent US

The pond is unexceptional. No more than a hundred metres square, it is hemmed by trees whose boughs shade anglers at its edge and break up the afternoon sunlight, throwing patterns on the water.

The pond is unexceptional. No more than a hundred metres square, it is hemmed by trees whose boughs shade anglers at its edge and break up the afternoon sunlight, throwing patterns on the water.

Much of the surface is covered with lilypads. A duck and her two ducklings meander lazily through the greenery. It is hot and humid, and mud and stagnant water give off a stench.

But this pond tucked behind an anonymous shopping mall is home to a foreign killer – a predator so deadly that concerns are rising that it could upset the entire food-chain. Reports say it can breathe out of water, that it can walk on land, that it has magical powers and that ancient peoples worship it. The monster has a name – Channa argus, the northern snakehead fish.

The hysteria gripping this pocket of suburban Maryland where the monster has been discovered started a month ago after a local angler hooked a fish he did not recognise. Before throwing it back, he took a photograph which he sent to the state's Department of Natural Resources.

The experts were stumped. It was not native to Maryland and they had never seen anything like it. Eventually it was identified as a northern snakehead – native to India, China and Africa. And although the snakehead has slightly toughened fins that may allow it a minimal amount of movement on land, it clearly hadn't walked here. Someone had thrown Ole' Snakey into the pond.

Things really took off last week when another angler, Joe Gillespie, hooked a second snakehead. Not only did he take a picture, but he bashed the fish on the head and sent it to the taxidermist for mounting.

And then a few days ago Mr Gillespie returned and netted half-a-dozen baby snakeheads. Horror: Ole' Snakey was breeding. Almost overnight a series of "Wanted" posters were placed around the pond asking anglers not to throw back any snakeheads they caught.

"For all we know there could be hundreds of thousands of baby fish out there," said John Surrick, a spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources, as he stood by the pond, surrounded by television crews and excited locals.

There are 25 or so species of snakehead, occurring across Asia and tropical Africa. Most have a rudimentary lung enabling them to survive out of water for days but, despite reports, they are unable to move on land, unlike the African catfish. Ole' Snakey is unlikely to seize a toddler from a pram.

But officials in Maryland are desperately worried the snakeheads could disrupt the foodchain and wipe out native species. They are now considering extreme measures to get rid of the interloper and a panel has been asked for a plan. They are considering draining the lake, electrocution, poison and dynamite.

"Well, it has been used elsewhere," said Steve Early, one of the department's biologists, who apparently saw nothing odd about throwing sticks of dynamite into a suburban pond, situated just a few yards from a Dunkin' Donuts shop.

Locals are doing their best to catch the snakeheads before the panel of experts blow them out of the water. "I thought I'd come down here and catch me a snakehead," said Don Squires, 55, who was fishing with a short spinning rod and a bait of squid.

Yesterday the mystery of the snakeheads' arrival was solved. A Hong Kong-born local resident revealed he had bought two live snakeheads from a New York market to make soup for his ailing sister. But by the time they arrived his sister was better, so after briefly keeping the snakeheads in an aquarium, he dropped them into the pond.

What a waste. Not only are the fish held in awe by some cultures – the Karen people of Burma, for instance – they are also considered something of a delicacy. "I have eaten quite a few snakeheads since we started our research and can attest to their excellent taste," said Paul Shafland, of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Anyone really intrigued could consult which recommends a soup of snakehead, watercress, pork ribs, candied dates and duck gizzard. It advises: "Simmer for three hours. Season with salt and serve."