Sunday, July 28, 2002

Ron Weidenbach, co-owner and manager of Hawaii Fish Co., held a striped snakehead of typical size Tuesday. The fish are sold to stores and restaurants from his aquaculture farm on the North Shore.

Hawaii snakehead lacks
ferocity of mainland kin

A kinder, gentler fish, it poses
no local threat to the environment

By Keiko Kiele Akana-Gooch

It has been called "voracious," "injurious" and "like something from a bad horror movie" by the U.S. Department of the Interior. It has also been on Oahu for nearly 200 years.

But the predatory snakehead fish isn't as scary as its cousins on the mainland. The Hawaii State Division of Aquatic Resources says the fish is not a pest or a problem in the islands.

In Maryland, the freshwater fish is believed to threaten fisheries, native fish and animals, and the state's natural landscape, causing U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton to propose a ban on live importation and interstate transportation of all 28 species of snakehead, including the version found here -- Channa striata.

Part of the difference may be the species -- Hawaii's Chevron snakehead, also commonly known as pongee and striped snakehead, is not the same species as Maryland's northern snakehead, or Channa argus, which could mean a slight difference in characteristics.

Fishery biologist and aquaculture farm owner Ron Weidenbach said pongee eat mainly Louisiana red crayfish, mosquito fish and insect larvae; not native fish and animals. Pongee prefer the calm waters of reservoirs, namely Lake Wilson in Wahiawa, whereas native oopu (goby) and opae (shrimp) occur in streams and rivers where water is in constant, swift flow.

However, on the mainland, native species may share the same habitat as the snakehead, possibly causing ecological damage.

Weidenbach said that while the northern snakehead may be able to tolerate New England winter conditions, most of the other snakehead species, including pongee, are true tropical fish and would not survive the cold winter.

He also reminds us that snakeheads aren't the only predatory fish. Bass, oscars and bluegills are among the many other nonnative species of fish eaters present in Hawaii waters.

But freshwater biologist and marine life author Mike Yamamoto said that while the northern and Chevron snakeheads don't belong to the same species, they probably have more similarities than differences, as in appearance and behavior.

It's eel-like body, snake-like face and fully racked mouth of teeth make it a fearsome creature. With teeth jutting backward to secure its prey, "it can create a pretty nasty bite," said state Division of Aquatic Resources administrator Bill Devick. But that's only if people put their hands in its mouth.

Yamamoto said pongee "looks pretty gruesome, but it's pretty highly esteemed" among local fishermen, who help to keep the fish population in check.

With a name like "snakehead," Weidenbach said the fish is instantly given a bad rep.

But he and Devick said the snakehead doesn't live up to many of the sensational characteristics people have given it, including the ability to walk or slither across land and eat larger animals.

Weidenbach said that because the fish is an air-breather, it can follow small trickles of water and mud beyond the main waterway, making it appear to slither across the ground. But if it gets stuck on dry land for several hours, it will die. In Hawaii, the pongee can survive in shade for several hours to a day before perishing. "Unfortunately, you mix a little science with some sensational stuff and it scares people," Weidenbach said.

Snakeheads cannot eat birds, fish and mammals larger than they are, Devick said. Instead, Devick considers the fish -- a native to southeast Asia -- interesting and recounted its deep association with Chinese culture. The Chinese would keep snakeheads in a tank at home to serve as devil-eaters, hence their nickname "devil fish." If the fish was found belly-up dead, it was said to have eaten an evil spirit lurking in the house. If the fish was still alive, the house was free of evil spirits.

Pongee's history in Hawaii also has a Chinese connection as its introduction and establishment in Oahu stems from Chinese immigrants in the 1800s, who raised the fish in their rice patties and taro fields.

With snakehead hysteria on the mainland coupled with the proposed ban, Weidenbach, whose North Shore fishery includes a snakehead population, may receive the brunt of a wake of turmoil. Weidenbach and his wife, Lita, have been studying and raising pongee for the past nine years as a secondary product, following their golden tilapia. The Weidenbachs are supplying a Chinatown store fish tank with live pongee, which are killed and cleaned on the spot for customers paying $12.95 a pound. Its scarcity, flavor and slow growing process make it a large investment requiring a high price tag.

Weidenbach has already received several calls from news agencies and his grant awarder, who he said is still supportive of his work with snakeheads. "The concern I have is this knee-jerk reaction," said Weidenbach, who is against a ban on the entire family of snakeheads and worries a block of snakehead transportation across state lines would stiffen his business potential, especially to a welcoming Chinese market in New York.

Devick agrees that the snakehead anxiety on the mainland has gone overboard. "To be quite blunt, this has reached silly proportion."

Hawaii is ahead of the game with restrictions on snakehead importation and facilitation. As a Part B restricted list fish under the state Department of Agriculture, the snakehead cannot be imported alive by the general public. The Board of Agriculture approves importation for aquaculture only after the farm passes an inspection ensuring the fish cannot escape. The state currently does not regulate snakehead exportation -- a key fact to Weidenbach's snakehead business.

But Weidenbach said he has extra measures in place should an irresponsible person handle his pongee. Through years of research, Weidenbach has found that pongee can barely survive Hawaii's winter, let alone a white Christmas in New York, where his potential market lies. "I don't do this just haphazardly," he said. "I think the same policy could work just as well" on the mainland.

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