Piranhas in the Philippines

Yesterday, I was scanning the news when I spotted a news item about DENR Secretary Angie Reyes conducting what seemed to be a raid on a fish farm near Metro Manila. The target of their endeavor one of the ponds in the fish farm housed the fish called Pygocentrus nattereri also known as the Red Belly Piranha. This morning I was searching for any news about the raid on-line but nada, no information was available on the raid. According to the news report, the owner claimed that he did not know it was piranha and for that he gets to pay a fine of eighty thousand pesos and a probable jail term of eight years.

It is illegal to import and keep Piranhas in the Philippines. And this is because to introduce a non-native animal or plant could potentially upset the ecology of the native environment: displace the local species. The danger of the Piranha itself is secondary.

Piranhas are from South America and most people would remember them from the movies were a hapless animal falls into the water. Remember the Piranha Movies? Piranha and Piranha II: The Spawn , also known as Piranha II:The Flying Killers. However, Piranhas in the Amazon’s are not so blood thirsty as Hollywood portrays them in fact there seems to be no confirmed fatalities resulting from a mass attack. Majority of the tours in Amazon include a fishing expedition where tourists fish for these piranhas using a simple fishing rod with a piece of meat. I remember a feature about how Piranhas get viscious when they become land-locked. The visciousness comes from (a) a limited supply of food and (b)inability to migrate to a new place. The Amazon becomes flooded by the rains every year and the river expands its kingdom to the forest and as it does its denizens go into the new territory. Of course when the rain stop and the water level subsides some of the fish are trapped into the pools and other small bodies of water. And this is where the Piranha becomes deadly - lack of food and no escape they will and can eat any jungle animal that fall into their world. Eventually, the hunger becomes so great that they each other, starting from the weakest and the near dead.

Although the law has been enforced since the time of Ferdinand Marcos it has not stopped people from keeping the fish. My old fisheries prof at the University of the Philippines kept one. She was licensed to keep one and she was one of the top ichtyologists in the country. And I have heard several tales of how the Piranha were smuggled inside the Philippines. One had smuggled it inside a box of Johnny Walker. Another had it classified as the fry, baby fish, of another type of fish - the silver dollar. When I had a pet shop I often got people asking if we sold Piranhas or bull dogs, the code name for Piranhas. Several times in the past I have encountered people who have claimed to keep Piranhas, or more accurately as pet. As for me the closest thing to keeping piranha I ever did when I did some work for a public aquaria.

There are other aquarium fishes that can be legally kept in the Philippines that are more interesting aesthetically and deportment-wise, both saltwater and freshwater species. In fact through the years I have kept a lot of the cloese relatives of the Piranha, some bearing a close resemblance to it, and found them more dynamic than a Piranha. These includes close Piranha relatives ( all belonging to the fish family called Characins) like the cardinal tetras, neon tetras, serpae tetras, and the Colossoma macropomum or Pacu - which looks a lot like the Piranha but is not a carnivore.

The major physical difference between a Piranha and a Pacu are:

(1) The face of the Piranha is more bulldog-like with eyes just above the mouth while the Pacu’s eye are in line with its mouth.

(2) The fin tail of the Piranha will go black-white(transparent)-black while the fin tail of the Pacu will go white/transparent-black.

(3) The teeth of the Piranha is sharp and organized in one row while the teeth of the pacu is square-shaped or molar shaped.

(4) Also as juveniles the piranha has a more rounded shape with spots while the pacu has a diamond shaped.

The problem with the Pacu is that it grews big and fast. In order to maintain it one needs a pond or a very big aquarium.

Still, aside from the fear of what a school of Piranha can do in our system it is the imbalance it can do to the ecosystem that is the greater threat. One such example would be the Janitor fish or Plecostomus sp.: Laguna de Bai and the Pasig River have become home to this South American armored catfish known as the Plecostomus. How it has affected the ecosystem of those freshwater bodies and their native species of flora and fauna one can only guess but there is a thriving population of Plecostomus now in the Philippines. How did they get there? There are anecdotal tales about this fish being dumped into the river by bored hobbyists. This may be true to a certain point. However, there may have been tropical fish breeders near the Pasig River and the Laguna de Bai who had a Plecostomus breeders who escaped during a storm or a flood. Escaping into the open snd without predators the population incread geometrically. Displacing a number of native species and changing the ecology. In Lake Lanao, a number of local fishes, Barbodes, disappeared from the market after four alien species (One them was the Tilapia - which originally came from Africa and Israel) were introduced.

Here is a link to the law banning the importation and possession of live Piranha. The fines and penalty may be a little bit outdated.

Rules and regulations prohibiting the importation and/or possession of any live piranha

One Response to “Piranhas in the Philippines”

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  1. Jul13

    Manuel L. Quezon III: The Daily Dose » Blog Archive » The fugitive

    Said this at 2:40pm:

    […] baratillo@cubao on piranhas in the Philippines (scary thought!) […]


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