Local fisherman reels in a piranha
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Piranha may be running in the Allegheny River, but don't blame global warming.
A home aquarium probably got dumped, which is how a toothy predator more at home in the Amazon jungle wound up on an angler's hook off 13th Street in Sharpsburg yesterday morning.
"I was in a state of shock," said Jim Rulli, a former bricklayer who caught the tropical creature while angling for catfish with a nightcrawler. Rulli, 50, lives about a block from the river and fishes almost every day. "At first, I thought I had a really nice bluegill. When I saw what it was, I had to put my glasses on because I couldn't believe my eyes."
He measured his catch at 12 inches, counted four rows of "big, sharp" teeth, and was struck by the fish's scarlet belly. He put the fish into a bucket of river water, then hurried to Sam Stellitano, a Sharpsburg taxidermist and bait dealer, who declared it a red-bellied piranha.
Biologists from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium believe it more likely was a red-bellied pacu, the piranha's bigger, more common aquarium cousin. "You can only really tell the difference by dentition. A piranha's teeth are like cutters. A pacu's are like grinders," said the fish commission's Rick Lorson. "But in my 24 years with the department, I've only ever seen pacu come out of local waters."
And see them he does, every summer or two, after a home aquarist has dumped a tank into the river because pacu are getting too big and expensive to feed.
Two years ago, the fish commission was called to rescue an alligator from the Allegheny River that turned out to be a caiman, its smaller South American cousin. That reptile was taken to the Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium.
Owners who can't place pacu with a pet store or another aquarist may be forced to euthanize, since dumping an exotic in Commonwealth water -- even goldfish, which thrive in the rivers -- is a summary offense with a $100 fine, Lorson said.
First Published August 1, 2006 12:00 am