Read Caption

A red-bellied piranha shows its teeth.


Man Smuggles 40,000 Piranhas

New York man pleads guilty to illegally importing the sharp-toothed fish.

Talk about taking a bite out of the Big Apple.

On Wednesday a New York City man pleaded guilty to smuggling nearly 40,000 piranhas into the city illegally.

Joel Rakower, 66, entered his plea in federal court in Brooklyn for alleged offenses from 2011 to 2012, when he said he smuggled 39,548 piranhas, worth $37,376. (Read: "6 Bizarre Animal Smuggling Busts.")

In his plea, Rakower said his Queens-based company, Transship Discounts, bought the sharp-toothed fish from a Hong Kong tropical fish supplier and told the supplier to falsely label them as "silver tetras," a popular and nonaggressive aquarium fish.

New York City prohibits possession of piranhas, and the federal Lacey Act prohibits importing of wildlife and plants that are deemed illegal. (Watch: "Wild Justice: Piranha Crackdown.")

Piranhas are aggressive, territorial freshwater fish with sharp teeth; they are native to South America. There are about 20 known species, and the fish are illegal or restricted in 25 U.S. states because of the danger they can pose to people.

Although piranhas might not be quite as fierce as Teddy Roosevelt thought in 1913, they can still inflict nasty bites on people. (Watch: "World's Deadliest: Piranhas Devour Chick.")

In December 2012, one piranha species, the black piranha (Serrasalmus rhombeus), was recognized for having the strongest bite, pound for pound, among living fish. (Watch: "Jungle Catfish: Zeb vs. Piranha.")

In his plea, Rakower agreed to pay more than $70,000 in fines and restitution, and his company will get two years of probation.

Queens District Attorney Richard Brown told the media that Rakower was "driven by greed and without regard for the health and safety of people or the environment."

But Rakower's lawyer told Newsday that Rakower had been in the wholesale tropical fish supply business for 30 years and that he made an error in judgment and is now paying for it.

Follow Brian Clark Howard on Twitter and Google+.