Thursday, January 30, 2014

Thoughts on Smuggled Piranhas

Red-belly piranhas at the Muséum Liège (Belgium)
(photo by Luc Viatour)

Piranhas were smuggled into New York City by an importer called Transship Aquatics. The owner of the company Joel Rakower smuggled almost 40,000 piranhas in 2011 and 2012 from a Hong Kong distributor by having them labeled as silver tetras. That's a pretty fun story in and of itself, but I had various other thoughts on the matter.

How can piranhas be confused with silver tetras?
Piranhas do indeed have sharp teeth,
but they are best exposed by pulling back the lips.
Definitely not something to try at home!
Some people pointed out that piranhas and silver tetras aren't all that similar, and questioned how this confusion could've happened. Part of that confusion probably stems from what most people think of as piranhas, these big, tough-looking fish. But I've actually seen piranhas sold (legally) at pretty small sizes, including similar sizes to the tetras you commonly see around. Given the fact that he sold almost 40,000 piranhas over two years, I'd be pretty confident that most of them were less than 3", no bigger than a silver tetra. Piranha teeth aren't necessarily obvious, either; only when the mouth is protruded and the lips pull back do they really become all that obvious, and on small fish such teeth may be missed. To add to the matter, piranhas and tetras are in fact closely related! So you can imagine piranhas as being quite a lot like tetras, but bigger.

Silver tetra (Ctenobrycon spilurus)
Photo from FishBase
One thing that's interesting is, as an aquarist of about 15 years, I can tell you that silver tetras are not very common in the pet trade. You can find some information on the internet on them easily enough, but searching silver tetra usually pulls up the very different silver tip tetra, which is a mainstay in the aquarium industry. So silver tetras aren't exactly a fish that people have a lot of direct experience with, so it might be hard to tell a small piranha from a tetra.

Juvenile Catoprion mento wimple piranha
Full disclosure: This is not the common
red-belly piranha species that was likely involved.
(Photo by Charles & Clint)

Though perhaps piranhas take it even further than rough similarity. Juvenile piranhas and tetras live in the same rivers, and some piranha species have been seen to school with other tetras, feeding off of the unsuspecting school members (Nico & Taphorn 1988). It's been suggested that juvenile piranhas actually mimic the tetras to get away with this! As far as I know, direct mimicry of piranhas with silver tetras has not been reported, but it's not that hard to imagine that juvenile piranhas and tetras might be confused with each other.

That's a long way to go for piranhas!
Piranhas are from tropical rivers in South America, so it's interesting that the fish are from Hong Kong. Hong Kong of course is on the other side of the planet from both South America and New York, so if you wanted a direct source of piranhas you'd think it'd be easier to get them from South America itself. That's not necessarily the cheapest way, though. There are ornamental fish farms in a number of tropical Asian countries. I'd be willing to wager that these piranhas were captive bred on such a farm, shipped to Hong Kong, and then to New York. Crazy how trade of a South American fish doesn't need South America's involvement at all!

There are ornamental fish farms in Florida, but piranhas are illegal to own in Florida too, so they couldn't come from there.

This whole point about piranha legality actually raises another question. Piranhas are illegal in many states, including New York, California, Georgia, Texas, Washington, and Florida (although some of these states allow permits and licenses). These states contain some of the biggest international airports, and thus shouldn't even be able to import piranhas. It's surprising piranhas come in that much at all given that the main pathways in are theoretically limited or cut off, but I have seen them quite often in states where they are legal.

What did he do with them after smuggling them in?
From their website, Transship Aquatics says they supply fishes to wholesalers. But how are the wholesalers supposed to know what they're ordering? I'm going to admit that I have no idea what happened here. Piranhas are illegal in New York so Transship Aquatics probably couldn't put piranhas on their lists, and labeling them as silver tetra on the list would probably lead to some real confusion. Maybe they did it all under the table. Alternatively, since piranha prohibitions are spotty across the states, it might be possible for some sellers in other states ordering piranhas to simply not know they are banned in New York.

At what cost?
This guy smuggled "39,548 piranhas, worth $37,376." I assume these are the cost to Transship Aquatics, since they're really low for anyone that only sees retail prices on fish. Almost no fish in the pet trade is sold under a buck a piece on retail. I'm not sure what these were being sold at, but I'd wager the typical prices could range anywhere between $4-10 if these fish are as small as I think and prices are how I remember them (piranhas are illegal in my current state). So it's potentially big money for anyone involved, although the money has to be divided amongst the various links from exporter, to importer, to wholesaler, and to retailer. Generally, though, the major hike in prices happens at the retail level; many of the more common fish are staggeringly cheaper earlier in the distribution chain. For fish that are wild-caught, fishermen often get paid very little relative to the prices that the fish command in the pet trade.

It's a good thing piranhas are banned in New York, right?
I'd also like to mention that piranhas are typically not all that aggressive, despite the mythology that surrounds them. It's been written on quite a bit but I'll just point you to Prosanta Chakrabarty's commentary on a recent incident where people in Argentina were bitten by a school of piranhas. Piranhas are dangerous, for sure, especially when cornered or captured. They have strong bites and sharp enough teeth that piranha jaws can be used to give haircuts. So like other wild animals, you do have to be careful around piranhas, but they're not man-eating killers.

Even though there are 40,000 extra piranhas in New York (or elsewhere?), there's nothing to worry about. There's little chance piranhas can survive the frozen winter in New York. However, the aquarium trade is definitely a main pathway for invasive species to reach the United States. All aquarists should be urged not to release their fishes into the wild, which is extremely irresponsible. I can see that these bans in some of the more southerly states as more valid. In any case, I hope that the piranhas have found good, legal homes.

Red-belly piranha at the Newport, Kentucky aquarium
(Photo by Greg Hume)
Piranhas are pretty cool fish, though. They are often found at public aquaria, too, so if you ever get the chance, you'll see they can actually be pretty mellow.