GLEN BURNIE – Eric Lisica, 17, remembers his introduction to snakeheads fondly: feeding time a few years ago at the House of Tropicals pet store in Glen Burnie.
“The guy there threw the (feeder) fish in the (tank), and he tore ’em up right away. I was amazed by it,” said Lisica. Captivated by the fish since, today he keeps four red snakeheads in his Glen Burnie basement in a 315-gallon aquarium.
Lisica and other snakehead enthusiasts, though an anomaly in a climate of snakehead phobia, have been given a reprieve since Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources decided against banning ownership of all snakehead varieties. The measure, which would have taken effect Sept. 13, will now likely ban only one or two of the most threatening species after summer protests prompted a redrafting.
“This just really takes into account the human element of snakeheads,” said Gina Hunt, director of policy and regulations for the DNR’s fisheries service.
“We heard some great support for the proposal. People were concerned about the eco-effect,” she said. But in the end, “people didn’t want to have to dispose of their pet.”
The fish furor started after northern snakeheads invaded a Crofton pond in 2002, and later a Wheaton lake and the Potomac River. Naturalists, fearing the voracious alien would decimate the native fish population, moved to ban all species of snakehead.
Although most snakehead owners now are free to keep their pets, they still may only have limited time left with their toothy companions.
“You can’t get them anymore,” said Lisica. Because a 2002 federal ban blocked importation of the fish, and because the redrafted DNR regulation could ban their future sale and breeding, pet snakeheads may be in their last cycle.
As Lisica tries to preserve those fish that remain, his fear isn’t death by natural causes, since some snakeheads live as long as 15 years.
“We never had any die from being sick or anything,” he said. “They only die from jumping out” of their tanks and drying up. Consequently, Lisica and his friend, Jason Sweeney, 17, who owns seven red and cobra snakeheads, weigh down the covers of their tanks with 20-pound weights and cinder blocks to save their pets from themselves.
An aspiring marine biologist who also maintains tanks of piranhas and corn snakes, Lisica said the prospect of being forced to relinquish his pets was “like taking a dog away you had for 10 years.”
So attached is Lisica to his fish, that in his freezer he keeps a rock-hard, 32-inch snakehead that jumped out three months ago. Sometimes, he preserves the heads of others that escaped.
“We’ve had 16 or 17,” said Sweeney, tossing panfish to his two biggest snakeheads, which instantly devoured the fish whole.
He and Lisica said they admire the species’ aggression, though if there were any chance they could adapt to Maryland waters, said Lisica, he would turn in his pets.
Lisica hopes to someday build a 1,200-gallon tank for his growing fish, which now swim under Plexiglas at a regulated 78 degrees. He and Sweeney estimate they spend about $70 per week on the 400 feeder goldfish typically used to nourish the snakeheads.
The appeal, said Mike Hresko at the House of Tropicals, is that the fish are big and menacing like pit bulls or pythons. His store used to sell loads of snakeheads, he said, but has not been able to obtain them since 2002.
Hresko and other pet shop owners applauded the DNR’s decision to revise the ban.
“To be concerned about the ones that have been kept for two, three, six years . . . doesn’t make sense,” said Ruth Hanessian, president of the Maryland Association of Pet Industries.
Hanessian, who called the fuss over all brands of snakeheads “cockamamie,” said, “I’m absolutely opposed to the introduction of non-native species, but this was way over the edge.”
The DNR will take public comment after submitting its redrafted proposal at the end of the month, said Hunt. She said it will probably ban only the northern and blotched snakeheads, which the DNR fears could adapt in regional waters.
However, said Hunt, the lingering concern regarding all snakehead varieties is that nobody is certain they cannot adapt.
“We don’t want to encourage or even allow people to be getting more snakeheads,” she said, “… any snakeheads we have should be all the snakeheads we have.”