Report of snakehead fish in Burnaby park under investigation

An unconfirmed snakehead sighting at Burnaby's Central Park pond is causing concern with parkgoers, city officials and the provincial government.

The snakelike fish is an invasive predator from Africa and Asia, well-known for wiping out native species when introduced in a foreign environment. Snakeheads prefer live prey and feed on frogs, fish and occasionaly small mammals, like mice and rats. They can breathe air, wriggle around on land and survive out of water for days, provided it's wet.

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"It's terrible," said local resident Gordon Andree, while visiting the park on Wednesday. "(They will eat) anything they can probably get their mouths around. They are a very ugly thing, very carnivorous."

Burnaby resident Mitchell Wentzell heard about the snakehead sighting while taking pictures at the pond.

"I didn't know what to think at first," he said. "It's going to eat a lot of things in here, so it's obviously not good for the pond. They're pretty vicious. They'll eat those baby ducks probably like nothing."

Wentzell said he used to work in a fish store, which sold small snakeheads as pets.

"They get huge," he said. Wentzell said it is tough to spot a snakehead in the pond's murky water, but one would be able to see it's different from the koi.

The NOW inspected the pond on Wednesday and found dozens of giant koi, schools of tiny goldfish, sun bathing turtles, a particularly aggressive squirrel, two great blue herons and a handful of baby ducks - but nothing resembling a snakehead fish.

"It's a concern for us there might be something up in there," said Dave Ellenwood, the City of Burnaby's director of parks, recreation and cultural services. "It's a creepy-looking fish, and the information I've got on it is it's a source of concern for the Ministry of Environment and for fisheries. It's an invasive species, it's not native, and it's a voracious predator. It will come in and consume everything basically that it can."

Ellenwood said this was the first snakehead fish reported in Burnaby waters and that the city hasn't had many problems of people dumping pets or fish.

"In Burnaby Lake and Deer Lake, no," he said. "(But) in the Central Park pond, there's koi fish in there. There have been people who will occasionally dump off pet fish. They may survive, they may not. It's an urban area. There are people who will be irresponsible and do that."

Burnaby resident Rod Gonzales caught the snakehead on film on Mother's Day.

"I didn't know if it was a snakehead or not," he said. "I thought it was a catfish at first, then I zoomed in and said, 'Oh, wow, it's a fairly big snakehead."

Gonzales' video, which he posted online, shows a fish with snake-like patterning and a long dorsal fin fairly motionless in the murky water. He estimated that the fish was about a foot and a half long. There are two ponds in Central Park, and Gonzales said he was at the southern one, closest to the pitch and putt by Imperial Street.

Matthias Herborg, an aquatic invasive species coordinator said the provincial government is trying to get a crew to Central Park as soon as possible to investigate. Fish experts will try to locate the fish and determine if it is in fact a snakehead.

"Identifying a fish from the video is always a bit of a challenge," Herborg said. "We really prefer to try and get out there and get our hands on this fish. ... There are a bunch of different species of snakeheads, which people can buy, it depends which species it is."

Snakeheads can be sold as pets or as food. Herborg said tropical species are not a concern, but coldwater snakeheads are. Herborg said they may use nets or electrofishing, which involves zapping the water with a light electrical current so nearby fish float to the surface. The procedure won't kill the fish, but it allows government staff to pick out any snakeheads they find.

"People, however well-intended, should never let any aquatic fish or species in the wild," Herborg said. "It is illegal, and we don't know what the consequences are."

To see the snakehead video, go to Jennifer Moreau's blog at www.burnabynow.com.

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