39,000 piranhas smuggled into NYC

A tropical fish vendor in New York City illegally imported 39,548 piranhas in 2011 and 2012 and resold them to fish retailers in several states. Only 850 were recovered. The piranha smuggler has agreed to pay $73,000 in fines.

By , Associated Press

Federal authorities say a tropical fish merchant has admitted smuggling 39,548 piranhas into New York City and mislabeling them as common aquarium fish.

The Justice Department says Joel Rakower and his Queens company, Transship Discounts Ltd., pleaded guilty Wednesday and agreed to pay $73,000 in fines.

Piranhas are illegal in New York City and more than two dozen states.

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Prosecutors say Rakower imported the piranhas in 2011 and 2012 and resold them to fish retailers in several states. Only 850 were recovered.

Although they originate in the Amazon and other South American rivers, piranhas can thrive in cooler northern waters, and the government fears that if released by owners when they become too large for an aquarium tank, they can threaten people, pets and the ecosystem.

But as The Christian Science Monitor reports, the ferocity of piranhas has been hyped by Hollywood.

"The truth is that piranhas, like most other predators, are very unlikely to attack something so much bigger than themselves. They are meat-eaters, but their diet consists almost entirely of smaller fishes. Some piranhas are even vegetarians (plant-eaters).

The natives of South America work and bathe freely in rivers where piranhas live. They have no fear of these fishes. In fact, piranhas are a sought-after food item.

Piranhas were sold as aquarium fish in the United States until 1961. That's when further importation of wild piranhas was banned by federal law passed by the US Congress.

When regularly fed and not in a school, piranhas were not as aggressive as those in the wild and adapted well to life in an aquarium."

Rakower's lawyer tells Newsday that Rakower had been in the wholesale tropical fish supply business for 30 years. He says the 66-year-old Melville man made an error in judgment and is now paying for it.

Sentencing was set for April 24.

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