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B.C. scientists begin hunt for dangerous snakehead fish

Municipal and provincial government officials prepare a fishing net to try to catch the snakehead fish in the lower pond at Central Park in Burnaby, British Columbia, Wednesday, May 23, 2012.

rafal gerszak The Globe and Mail

The predator becomes prey, as the hunt is on for the mysterious and potentially dangerous snakehead fish that's thought to be lurking in a Burnaby lagoon.

They're not sure how to catch it – or, indeed, whether it's really even there – but a group of provincial ministry scientists and municipal employees assembled at the pond Wednesday morning, looking for the fish that's generated national attention.

A crew of about 15 was at the Central Park lagoon, with several trucks and different kinds of fishing gear.

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The snakehead issue raised alarms last week, after a video surfaced online, seeming to show the invasive predator in the Burnaby lagoon.

Matthias Herborg, aquatic invasive species co-ordinator for the B.C. Ministry of Environment, said the plan for the first day was to try different methods and techniques to see what will work best in this particular setting.

They began their day in the rain, with a pair of officials knee-deep in the pond dragging a seine net. This yielded a handful of invasive, non-native fish, including bullheads and goldfish, but no sign of the snakehead.

Melinda Yong, an environmental technician for the City of Burnaby, said that many non-native species have been introduced here by people who no longer want them as pets. She suspects that's also how the snakehead came to be swimming in Central Park.

"With the goldfish, it's not an issue, but in the case of the snakehead fish, it's a predator and it has a potential huge impact on our environment."

The next catch method they tried was electrofishing. This involved Ron Ptolemy, a rivers biologist from the Ministry of Environment, with a pole plugged into an electric unit on shore. He said that as he waded through and inserted the pole into the lagoon, it passed an electric pulse through the water.

As Mr. Ptolemy made his way through the water shocking the fish, Mr. Herborg followed him with a hand net. The electricity temporarily stuns fish around an area of about one or two metres, Mr. Ptolemy said, "so they become quite vulnerable to the guy with the net."

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As the mid-morning sun came out and made for more agreeable fishing weather, a crowd of curious onlookers gathered at the water's edge. Bruce Causier was there with his video camera, as he said he has been most days in the past week. He has posted videos online seemingly showing the snakehead, including one clip where it tried to snatch a lure off of a fishing rod.

As the crew took a lunch break, Dave Ellenwood, Burnaby's director of parks, came by to check out the scene. "I hope it doesn't exist in the pond. But if it does, I hope we catch it," he said.

After lunch, they rowed a small pontoon boat out to the middle of the lagoon, dragging another long net tethered to shore. As they brought the net in to the bank, it produced some bigger creatures, including carp and a turtle, but still no snakehead.

Mr. Herborg said that even if they do catch a snakehead, there are a number of unknowns. "The main thing is to figure out what's in here: is there one? Is there only one? Are there many? Are there many generations?" he said. "That determines how we'll progress."

If and when they find the snakehead, the plan is to kill and thoroughly examine it. "Genetic tests to figure out what species it is, what it's been eating, and a bunch of other tests. We do the whole CSI on it," said Mr. Herborg.

Mr. Herborg said that after Wednesday's search, they will head back to Victoria, regroup and come back with a new plan.

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