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Piranhas are biting in the Ohio

Pet owners likely source of dumping

Saturday, September 08, 2001

By Ervin Dyer, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Pet owners keep throwing piranhas into rivers, and people keep claiming they are catching them.

Terry Schneider of Center holds a piranha he caught yesterday. Schneider said he has hooked two other piranhas but couldn't pull them in. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

Terry Schneider and John Turkovich were the latest anglers to land a member of the sharp-toothed species that is native to South America and cannot survive for long in cold-weather waterways.

Schneider and Turkovich cast their beef-liver bait into the Ohio River near the Beaver County town of Industry early yesterday. They were fishing for bass or catfish in about 8 feet of water. Instead, their catch was a 12-inch piranha.

Schneider and Turkovich's find was the third piranha pulled from the Ohio River in a month.

The first was found by 12-year-old Kayla Shuits in late August. She caught a 13-inch piranha about 10 miles downstream, near Glasgow.

Both probably were dumped into the river by people who had bought them in pet stores when they were only 2 or 3 inches long.

"We aren't supposed to have disposable pets," said Burton Patrick, owner of six Pet Supplies Plus stores in the Pittsburgh area.

Patrick said prospective customers are warned that small piranhas will mature into good-sized fish. But, he said, some people make the purchase and soon come to regret it. Rather than destroying the unwanted fish themselves, they chuck it into the river.

Schneider, 46, and Turkovich, 51, both of Center, said they have fished the spot before and have hooked three other piranhas, but were unable to hold onto the fish.

"They can be very aggressive when first hooked," Schneider said.

Patrick said media coverage of the piranha finds may lead people to stage similar discoveries for publicity's sake.


 
 
Online Map:
Locations on the Ohio River where the piranha's have been found.

   

 

"I would think," Patrick said, "that you'd be hard-pressed to find that many in a short time."

Officials with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission weren't too alarmed by the find.

"We're curious," said Emil Svetahor, a regional manager with the commission. "But we don't make a big issue of it. We get these calls every year."

A biologist with the commission was expected to examine the piranha yesterday to determine its species and then release it back to Schneider and Turkovich.

More than likely, said Svetahor, the piranha is a redbelly pacu, the kind typically sold in pet stores. People don't have to worry about being attacked by these fish, he said. They usually feed on dead fish and vegetation.

Svetahor said if people snare a piranha, they should get it out of the water and dispose of it properly. They are edible and a food source in South America.

They could not survive winter in a Pennsylvania river, said Rick Relyea, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Pittsburgh.

A piranha will stop eating if the water temperature dips below 54 degrees, Relyea said. In cold water, piranhas lose equilibrium, lay on their sides and die.

These fish could survive year-round in only three sections of the United States -- the southern parts of California, Florida and Texas -- Relyea said.

The sale of piranhas is banned in about half of the United States, including those states with warm climates and waterways. If humans dumped piranhas into waterways in those places, the fish could establish themselves and perhaps begin spawning.

Cold-weather states such as Pennsylvania generally allow pet shops to sell piranhas.


Post-Gazette reporter Milan Simonich contributed to this report



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