A piranha in Dundalk

Swimming hole yields rare catch

Aquarium owner probably discarded flesh-eater

September 27, 2006|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN REPORTER

Chew on this: A flesh-eating piranha was caught this week in a Dundalk park pond.

Inches from the tall reeds along the shore of Stansbury Pond and just to the left of an abandoned beach ball, William Murphy landed a lean, mean, eating machine, 3 1/2 pounds and 16 inches long.

There's probably only one piranha - probably an aquarium discard, experts say. But that's what they said about the northern snakehead, the alien critter that made the federal government's most-wanted fish list in 2002.

Murphy, 21, was fishing Sunday evening from the Stansbury pier, a dough-ball bait at the end of his line.

"It just came up and hit it. I thought I had the world-record bluegill," he said. "He put up a pretty decent fight."

Once it was on the dock, Murphy and his childhood fishing partner, Joey Brown, got a closer look at their catch. Then they backed up.

"I thought it was a piranha right away," said Brown, 18, who is first mate on the charter boat Gloria Jean and more at home handling striped bass and croaker.

They slipped the fish into a bucket and took it to Brown's home, where his mother "flipped out" and made him put it in a cooler in the backyard.

On Monday, the fishermen took the deceased carnivore to nearby Bluefins Bait and Tackle shop.

"When I pulled down its lower lip and saw those chompers, I said, `This has got to be a red-bellied piranha,'" said Jerry Sersen, a charter boat captain and store employee.

Marty Gary, a Maryland Department of Natural Resources biologist, confirmed yesterday that Murphy's catch is a piranha.

"We have records of them being caught," said Gary. "To the best of our understanding, piranha cannot survive Maryland winters. We believe this fish, and those in the past, were releases from aquariums that they simply outgrew."

Pygocentrus nattereri is one of 20 varieties of piranha that come from South America. They have brown scales with flecks of gold and silver. In addition to having a red stomach, they have red eyes.

Adult red-bellies hunt, either by charging their prey or ambushing them, in low-light conditions.

But in the case of this particular piranha, food most likely came to it as a state-subsidized meal. Every year, the DNR stocks the pond with more than 1,000 trout.

"That would be like a dinner bell," said Mike Weisman, who works at Totally Fish in Silver Spring and has been selling aquarium fish for more than 20 years. "Any food is prime food to him. He doesn't discriminate."

Piranhas are legal to own in Maryland, but not in states with warmer waters year-round, where they would probably have a better chance of survival in the wild.

"It's a very popular pet fish," said Weisman. "They're aggressive. People like their personality."

But like northern snakeheads, when piranhas outgrow a 20-gallon aquarium, people dump them into a nearby body of water.

In 2004, a small red-bellied piranha was dropped on the deck of a boat in London's Thames River by a passing seagull. This summer, a fisherman hauled a piranha out of the Des Plaines River, about an hour south of Chicago. Several years ago, the DNR searched Allen Pond in Bowie after an angler reeled in a piranha.

"People have to learn not to dump their pets," said Brian Esteppe, owner of Blue Fins. "We don't need these fish all over the place."

Just behind the shop in Schoolhouse Cove swim two other South American fish called Oscars that are obvious discards.

Although the pond, known locally as Stansbury quarry, is posted to prohibit swimming, children and pets often jump in. That might be changing as word of Murphy's catch spreads.

"Don't go swimming in Stansbury quarry," cautioned Esteppe. "You might get a pedicure you won't forget."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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