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LOOKING BACK/AHEAD: Now pickled, Burnaby's snakehead awaits further identification

The snakehead that was caught in Burnaby’s Central Park this year is now preserved at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria. - Gavin Hanke/RBCM
The snakehead that was caught in Burnaby’s Central Park this year is now preserved at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria.
— image credit: Gavin Hanke/RBCM

The subject of much anxiety in Burnaby last spring now sits in a jar of formaldehyde, awaiting further study.

“It’s pickled and the jar even has a steel clamp on it. He’s not getting out of there,” said Gavin Hanke, curator of vertebrate zoology for the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria, with a laugh.

“It” is the snakehead fish discovered in Burnaby’s Central Park last spring by someone with a video camera on Mother’s Day. Biologists from the environment ministry and local universities and city parks staff hunted the highly-invasive species for weeks before it was finally caught June 8 after the park’s lagoon had been partially drained to aid the search.

The fish, which has been imported live and sold for aquariums or in Asian food markets, caught the imagination of many.

After all, the freshwater fish has sharp teeth and can range in length from 10 inches to more than one metre (3.3 feet). They can reproduce incredibly quickly, with spawning females releasing up to 15,000 eggs as often as five times a year, and have voracious appetites, eating fish, amphibians and other small animals.

They even have a primitive lung system that allows them to slither across land for days or weeks depending on the habitat.

Not surprisingly, many media reports dubbed it “fishzilla.”

In recent years, snakeheads have taken over waters in parts of the United States with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources even announcing its second annual snakehead contest this year, where prizes worth up to $200 are offered for people who catch and kill the invasive fish.

Of the three dozen species of snakehead, it’s the Northern snakehead that poses the greatest problem in Canada because it’s the one that can survive and reproduce in our cold waters, said Hanke. Whether the Burnaby specimen was the northern variety still hasn’t been confirmed, he said, noting one group that used DNA testing on tissue samples claims it’s a “spotted snakehead,” a species that could also survive for a long time in the Lower Mainland.

“That’s a bit of a controversy right now that’s got to be rectified,” Hanke said of exactly what type of snakehead was caught in Burnaby.

Meanwhile, the B.C. Ministry of Environment announced changes to its controlled alien species regulations on Dec. 20 that would make the release of a live aquatic invasive species, such as a snakehead, into local waters subject to a fine ranging from $2,500 to $250,000 for a first conviction, and $5,000 to $500,000 for a subsequent conviction.

Similarly, people who don’t clean invasive zebra and quagga mussels, dead or alive, off their boats or equipment could be fined up to $100,000.

It will also be an offence to possess, ship or transport a prohibited aquatic invasive species and to fail to prevent them from breeding. Those offences carry fines of up to $50,000 for a first conviction.

“The Northern snakehead was the impetus to do this but we took the opportunity to make it broader and to include other species that we know would pose a risk to the natural environment,” said Environment Minister Terry Lake in an interview.

Pet stores and food markets will no longer be allowed to sell live snakeheads, and many have already voluntarily stopped carrying them, Lake said.

“Certainly we recognize there was a gap there and this is closing that gap for sure.”

The amendments to the regulations took effect immediately.

Lake said he followed the Burnaby snakehead story closely and called the prospect it could start breeding here and put lakes and waterways in danger “quite scary.” The impact on the Great Lakes from invasive mussels is about $3 billion, he said. “Economically, environmentally it just wreaks havoc.”

As for the Burnaby snakehead specimen, after biologists at Simon Fraser University took tissue samples and examined stomach contents and bone to learn more about it, it was sent to the Royal B.C. Museum which, in addition to a place for public exhibitions, is also “basically like a biological library,” said Hanke. “We store things for future researchers to come and look at. If someone wants proof that that animal was here, we have the actual animal.”

The snakehead, the first to be found loose in the province, has been fixed in formaldehyde and eventually will be transferred to alcohol for permanent storage.

“I put him in a nice fancy old museum jar because I thought he was a pretty spectacular specimen,” said Hanke, who added he plans to strap the tall glass container down to prevent it from tipping over in the event of an earthquake.

As for exactly what type of snakehead it is, Hanke plans to study the specimen himself and make that determination. But it will have to wait until he returns from parental leave in the fall of 2013.

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