A fish caught by a pre-teen girl at a suburban Houston lake last month has been identified as a red-bellied piranha, making it only the second piranha ever verified in Texas waters and the first in nearly 30 years, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department officials said.
The hand-sized fish chomped down on piece of hot dog used as bait Aug. 27 at the 23-acre lake at Harris County's Tom Bass Park, just south of Houston. When adults with the girl saw the fish's pointed and wedge-shaped razor-sharp teeth, they turned it over to authorities.
The species identification then was confirmed.
Robert Goodrich, assistant chief for fisheries law enforcement for the parks and wildlife agency, said officials have spotted more and more exotic illegal species in recent years.
"The Internet has made it a whole lot easier for people to get them," he said. "You can purchase almost anything on the Internet. That doesn't make it legal."
Parks officials told the Houston Chronicle the notoriously aggressive meat-eating piranha, about the size of a perch and native to the Amazon basin, likely was dumped in the lake by an aquarium owner who either got tired of it or the fish outgrew its aquarium home.
Goodrich said his people "quite often" run across piranhas as aquarium pets.
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The only other time a piranha has been verified in Texas waters was in 1982 when one was taken from the Boerne City Reservoir in Kendall County, the newspaper reported Monday.
Piranhas have been found in waterways in a dozen states but haven't been able to establish a population in North America. They can't survive in waters where temperatures fall below 50 degrees.
Texas law bars sale and possession of live piranhas and other dangerous or potentially dangerous fish. Many other states, however, don't prohibit them and federal law bars importation of only a few fish species, and piranha isn't among them.
Possession of a banned fish is a Class C misdemeanor in Texas, carrying a $500 maximum fine. Subsequent convictions could result in heftier penalties.
People caught releasing a live prohibited species also face a misdemeanor charge with repeat offenders subject to a felony charge.