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Invasive snakehead fish found in B.C. park lagoon

A Singapore fishmonger displays a snakehead fish being prepared for sale at a market in the city state July 26, 2002.

Jonathan Drake/ Reuters/Jonathan Drake/ Reuters

It's a toothy, nasty-looking creature, with a torpedo-shaped body, small head and a big mouth – and now it may be swimming in British Columbia.

An amateur video posted online this week shows what appears to be a snakehead, an invasive fish native to Asia and Africa, in Burnaby's Central Park lagoon. Provincial officials are now looking to capture the fish, a voracious predator that can grow to more than a metre in length and reproduce rapidly.

"The first priority is to confirm what exactly is in that lake, because it looks like a snakehead," said Matthias Herborg, aquatic invasive species co-ordinator for the provincial Ministry of Environment.

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Michael Russello, an associate professor of biology at UBC's Okanagan campus, said the snakehead, were it to breed, would be a big threat to B.C. aquatic life. "It has a fantastic ability to reproduce and spread. They are an ambush predator," he said. "They can completely decimate native fish populations."

Out of the dozens of species of snakehead, the one Mr. Herborg said his ministry is most concerned about, is the Northern Snakehead, which is especially hardy and capable of thriving and breeding in this climate.

B.C. is the only jurisdiction in North America that allows the importation of the Northern Snakehead, according to a 2006 report from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

It is illegal to import snakeheads into the United States, or to transport them across state lines. Ontario has laws prohibiting the public from owning live snakeheads, as do most American states.

B.C. currently has no laws restricting the possession and sale of snakeheads, and they are widely available in food markets and pet stores, said Mr. Herborg.

The Minister of Environment did not respond to questions about whether the snakehead sighting in Burnaby could lead to discussion about new laws banning it in the province.

Live snakeheads are available for sale at a variety of supermarkets in B.C., including in the seafood section at the chain of T & T Supermarket, said Sandra Creighton, a spokeswoman for T & T Supermarket Inc.

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The ministry hopes to have scientists on the scene at the Burnaby lagoon by the end of this week, said Mr. Herborg, where they will be looking at a number of things, including the outflows from the lagoon into other bodies of water.

"These outflows eventually do link into the Fraser [River] so our worst-case scenario is this fish getting out into a big system like the Fraser, because if it is a Northern Snakehead, then it will be fine to live and spread there," said Mr. Herborg.

If the fish does get into the Fraser, Mr. Herborg said, it could have a significant impact on commercial and recreational fisheries.

Rod Gonzalez of Burnaby, a long-time fish keeper and enthusiast, was the one who spotted the fish and shot the video during a Sunday afternoon stroll with his three-year-old son. Mr. Gonzales said he did not expect that the video would be of interest to anyone other than a few of his fellow fish hobbyists. But within 48 hours, it was being viewed with serious concern by scientists in the Ministry of Environment.

Mr. Herborg, Mr. Russello and Mr. Gonzales all said that the invasive fish was most likely introduced into the lagoon by someone who bought it at either a pet store or food market, and then ill-advisedly released it.

"It's funny," said Mr. Gonzales. "My wife said to me, 'Out of all the people to see this, it had to be a fish geek like you.'"

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