One piranha no match for one bay crab A tooth-and-pincer battle off a Md. dock

September 04, 1992|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Staff Writer

When Michael Vendemia found an 8 1/2 -inch red-bellied piranha in a crab pot with a Maryland blue crab this week, one of the feisty creatures was pretty badly bruised. And it wasn't the crab.

"I walked out there with a cup of coffee to check my pots, and there it was -- a fish in one of the pots fighting one of the crabs," said Mr. Vendemia, 42, who fishes off his back yard dock in Benedict, Charles County. "The fish had marks on him. The crab wasn't shaken up at all. He was running around."

Mr. Vendemia, who recognized the voracious predator from a photograph in the National Geographic, was startled to catch one in Mill Creek Wednesday. But the creature's condition didn't surprise him. In any fair fight, he figured, "a Patuxent River crab would always win against a piranha."

Putting the fish into a bucket, Mr. Vendemia took it to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources center at Hallowing Point, where biologists identified it. It is the second time in 15 months that one of the flesh-eating South American fish has been caught near Benedict.

In June 1991, an Anne Arundel County man hooked an 11-inch, 1 1/2 -pound fish identified as a piranha from the Route 231 bridge. A DNR spokesman said there has been only one other report of a piranha caught in recent years in Maryland, a fish plucked out of a freshwater pond.

Biologists said the sharp-toothed fish were almost certainly lTC raised as pets and released by negligent owners.

James Van Tassel, program coordinator of the Intercept Hatchery Program of the DNR's Fisheries Division, said in a statement that a single piranha or small group would probably limit their diet to smaller fish and would pose no threat to humans or large animals. "They only really become aggressive in large schools," he said. It is possible but not likely, he said, that more piranha are swimming around the area.

He said the size of the Mill Creek fish suggests that it spent many months in the wild. "It doesn't make sense that someone would go to all that trouble only to let the fish go at this size," he said.

Piranha require warm, fresh water. But Mr. Van Tassel said the fish might have wintered a short distance up the Patuxent River at Chalk Point, where the water is warmed by discharge pipes from a power plant.

"Conceivably, a piranha could live and feed there all winter, and continue to grow until the waters warmed again the following summer," Mr. Van Tassel said. "Then it would move down into the fresh-water tributaries again."

But Walter Courtenay of Florida Atlantic University, a specialist in foreign fish introduced into U.S. waters, said the Mill Creek piranha could easily have been released recently. Many fish fanciers keep the predators until they get too big for their tanks. Rather than kill the fish, he said, they "feel sorry for it and turn it loose."

Bruce Hecker, curator of fishes at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, doesn't think the Patuxent River piranha wintered near the power plant. "I won't say it can't happen," he said, "but I would doubt it. They're not a migratory species, by nature."

Dr. Courtenay said he knew of no cases where released piranhas have attacked humans. But on May 24, 1985, a visitor to the National Aquarium had his finger bitten when he dipped it into a piranha tank.

There is only one documented case of a piranha colony establishing itself in U.S. waters, Dr. Courtenay said. A school of white piranha lived for at least 12 years in a sinkhole at a tourist attraction near Miami called Monkey Jungle, he said.

Some Sun Belt states restrict the sale of piranha for fear they will become established in the wild. In Maryland they are freely sold in pet stores.

As for the luckless fish caught by Mr. Vendemia, it is now pickled in formaldehyde at the state's Manning Fishery in Brandywine.

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