An old college friend sent me this photo of a Red-bellied Pacu along with a short note:
"If I could figure out how to turn the pic I would, sorry! Can you see the teeth??? Pacu caught in Leander, TX in neighborhood 'fishing hole'...certainly wasn't expecting this. It's about 12" long and estimated at 4 lbs. Hoping to find a home for this sucker since we don't think it should go back..."
This fish, native to South America, was caught by her son in a neighborhood pond in the city of Leander just Northwest of Austin. She has also posted a short video of the Pacu online. See it below.
The fish in this photo is a Red-bellied Pacu and is often sold (legally) by pet stores as a 'Vegetarian Piranha.' They do look a lot like their more well known, and feared, cousins but are quite different. Pacu are indiscriminate eaters that will ingest almost anything. They do have large teeth but they are flatter and more square, in order to crush seeds and nuts, than the razor sharp teeth of the totally carnivorous piranha. The Pacu also grow to be much larger than Piranhas. Pacu are responsible for most of the 'Piranha' reports that surface in the U.S. media.
There are several reasons Pacu owners might choose to dump their fish. Red-bellied Pacu growth is not limited by the size of the tank they are kept in and can quickly grow to lengths of 2-3 feet. Aquarium owners often get overwhelmed by the size of the species and look for a way out.
While they are not as ferocious as their carnivorous cousins, Pacu do sport a powerful set of jaws and teeth that can deliver a nasty bite. There have been several cases in the U.S. where owners have been injured by their fish. This may also be a contributing factor in why Pacu owners sometimes choose to dispose of their pets in public waters in what they presumably consider an act of benevolence.
The fact is releasing any exotic species into the wild is considered an illegal act in the United States. If introduced into a non-native ecosystem the Pacu might out-compete native species for food and habitat. They might also introduce parasites and/or diseases against which native species have no defense. Basically, releasing these fish into U.S. waters could cause all manner of harm to the ecosystem. One need look no farther than the zebra mussel infestation of the Great Lakes, the growing population of snakehead fish all over our country, and the 'flying' silver carp of the Mississippi River to see some of the ecological consequences the release of exotic species into our public waterways can cause.
Please notify the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department if you become aware of the presence of any exotics in your local waters.