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Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Frankenfish

Fifteen minutes of fame might not be much -- unless you're a fish, in which case that flash of notoriety is more than you had a right to expect in the first place.

Variously described as "alien monsters," "the stuff of nightmares," and "something from a bad horror movie," they are said to eat human flesh and attack without provocation. In the U.S of A, they are considered such a serious threat to the national welfare that officials have proposed banning the so-called "vicious predators". 

No, we're not talking about lawless corporate executives here. The reviled species du jour is actually Channa Argus or "northern snakehead fish," a freshwater-dwelling meat-eater native to southeast Asia and found unexpectedly proliferating in some pond in the U.S in 2002. How did this aggressive air breathing fish that is native to the Yangtze river in China end up there? 

Because northern snakeheads are quite tasty and can live for up to three days out of water, they are often shipped live to fish markets. What better way to ensure fresh fish? Two years ago a New York seafood dealer sold a pair of live snakeheads to a fish enthusiast who originally intended to make them into soup. Instead of the soup kettle he put them in an aquarium. That's when the rest of the trouble began. 

Before long the pair outgrew their aquarium, and ate their way through their owners pocketbook. Rather than mortgage his home to buy feeder goldfish, he elected to divest himself of the ravenous fish by dumping them in a pond behind the local strip mall. The snakeheads found they had hit pay dirt. Their new home was teaming with tasty sunfish and bluegills. The carnivorous snakeheads, which can grow to three feet in length, have no natural enemies in any states in the U.S.A. So its easy living and bountiful food swelled the snakehead population into the hundreds.

The unsightly creature, dubbed "Frankenfish" by the media, walks on dry land and can reputedly survive out of water for as long as three days. Well, of course the Americans seem to find the idea of a walking fish particularly disturbing — why, I don't know. Perhaps it smacks too much of evolution, another item high on their list of Dangerous Things That Must Be Banned.

What's ironic is that even as American scientists plotted to exterminate the fearsome beast in, large-scale artificial breeding projects were underway in China and neighboring countries to meet a growing demand for snakehead meat throughout Asia, where it's valued as both a soup ingredient and a folk remedy. Singapore alone imports more than 1,200 tons of northern snakehead a year. Locals there, who prize it in noodle dishes and wound-healing salves, are said to be "amused" by the outbreak of snakehead fish hysteria in the United States. To tell you the truth, I'm pretty amused myself haha! I like the fish. It's nice.

Even homegrown fish experts balk. In reality, they say, the northern snakehead fish can only survive out of water for a few hours; its "walk" is really more of a wriggle; it's known for being rather sedentary in its natural habitat and doesn't wander far; and it won't eat your pets, let alone you. 

Not that its presence doesn't pose an environmental problem — it does, like that of many other non-native species taking root in the U.S. It's just that the humble snakehead has suffered more than its fair share of media hype and bureaucratic zeal since its discovery here. This has been more Hollywood than science. As for the snakehead owner who dumped them in the pond in the first place, he's probably wishing he'd decided to make soup after all.

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