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Piranhas. Stock photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

You’d think smuggling piranhas into the country would be difficult. I picture delicately carrying a stainless steel water bottle through airport screening, trying to be nonchalant and taking fake sips while keeping your lips far enough back so the fish don’t bite. Or maybe loading the fish into hollowed-out acrylic platform shoes.

At any rate, the task would seem to risk losing hands or at least fingers.

But no. Apparently it’s easier than that.

A New York business allegedly smuggled 39,548 piranhas into Queens. All it had to do was put them into shipping containers mislabel “silver tetras” (note to potential importers: Don’t put piranhas into shipping containers mislabel “silver tetras” as it could result in an unbalanced ecosystem, probation and fines).

Here’s the Department of Justice release about the fishy operation:

Tropical Fish Importer Pleads Guilty to Piranha Import Violations

Joel Rakower, along with his solely-owned corporation, Transship Discounts Ltd., pleaded guilty today in federal court in Brooklyn, N.Y., to violating the Lacey Act by mislabeling imported piranhas.

In the plea agreement, Rakower admitted that his company purchased piranhas from a Hong Kong tropical fish supplier and imported them to Queens, N.Y. Each such import must be accompanied by a packing list describing what wildlife is contained in the package being imported, and the importer must provide this packing list to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service upon import for inspection. In March of 2011, shortly after New York City prohibited possession of piranhas, Rakower instructed the foreign supplier to falsely label the piranhas on packing lists as silver tetras, a common and unaggressive aquarium fish. Over the course of 2011 and 2012, Transship submitted packing lists to the Fish and Wildlife Service containing false identifications of 39,548 piranhas, worth approximately $37,376, which Transship then sold to fish retailers in several states.

Under the plea agreements, Rakower agreed to pay a $3,000 fine. Transship agreed to serve a two-year period of probation, pay a $35,000 fine and pay $35,000 in restitution to the State of New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation Division of Law Enforcement.

Piranhas are freshwater fish originating from South American rivers such as the Amazon, Orinoco, Guyana and the Sao Francisco river systems. They are extremely aggressive and territorial, feeding on insects, fish, and larger prey such as amphibians, reptiles and mammals. As a result of piranhas’ aggressiveness, 25 states have either banned or regulated piranhas, making them illegal to own or sell.

Piranhas, an injurious species, could pose a serious risk if they escaped into native water systems, potentially damaging ecosystems through aggressive predation or injuring people or pets. Tropical fish enthusiasts can contribute to this possibility by releasing piranhas into the wild when they grow too large for a tank. Although piranhas originate from tropical waters, they are able to withstand much cooler water temperatures, creating fear that they may even become established in more northern US waters.

Effective regulation of piranha possession and sales within the United States depends on accurate reporting of piranha imports; concealing the fish upon import facilitates their entry into the black market in states that have banned or strictly regulated piranhas to protect state waters and ecosystems.