It wasn’t quite like a scene from the Piranha movie series, but two fishermen were surprised when they caught something much different from the rainbow trout they were angling for.
Sam Cho, a Nanaimo sport fisherman, said he’d recommended Thomas Lee and Lee’s friend try their luck catching trout at Westwood Lake on Tuesday. The university students were fishing from the bluff rocks in Westwood Lake, one of Nanaimo’s most popular summertime swimming areas, when something hit Lee’s bait and he reeled in what appeared to be a piranha.
The novice anglers, not certain what kind of fish it was, took pictures with a cell phone and sent them to Cho.
“They sent the pictures to me to confirm what this is. They thought it was a piranha, so I confirmed, yes, it’s a piranha,” Cho said.
He recommended Lee file a report with the B.C. Conservation Officer Service and put the fish in their refrigerator at home so conservation officers could study the remains.
The B.C. Ministry of Forest, Lands and Natural Resources did not have anyone available for comment, but did confirm in an e-mail Friday that the fish was positively identified as a red-bellied piranha.
Cho said he has spoken with other anglers who told him they caught a fish that looked like a piranha in Westwood Lake earlier in the year. The ministry also confirmed that incident, from late July, when the fish was submitted to ministry staff and also identified as a red-bellied piranha.
“[Fishermen] worry about them spreading through the lake because if somebody caught one before, it’s not only one fish, so that’s a big concern and then if a piranha really found a mate over there maybe it’s dangerous to the kids,” Cho said.
Tristan Robbins, manager of Freshwater Fisheries Society of B.C.’s Vancouver Island Trout Hatchery in Duncan, expressed surprise at the news of the catch. The hatchery stocks central Vancouver Island lakes, including Westwood, with catchable size rainbow trout twice each year.
“We typically don’t encounter [piranhas], but we do hear these random sporadic stories of it and just speaks to how the public needs to be better educated on moving invasive species … I assume that’s an aquarium fish that somebody’s released thinking that’s somewhere their pet would do well,” Robbins said.
Robbins said piranhas are warm water fish and likely would not fare well in temperatures under 24 C.
“They’d be OK over the summer, but as soon as winter comes I don’t think that thing would be very likely to survive … but in the summer months they could wreak a lot of havoc just by eating all the fish in there,” he said.
The BCCOS e-mail also confirmed piranhas can’t survive Nanaimo’s winter temperatures and that there has been no opportunity to study the potential impact of piranhas as an invasive species in Canada or the U.S. since the fish haven’t successfully established themselves in the 13 U.S. states they’ve been detected, which all have warmer water temperatures than in Canada.
As for being a threat to humans, that risk also appears low.
“The red-bellied piranha does have the reputation of being an aggressive predator to humans. While care should be taken when handling them live, the risk to humans is low,” the e-mail noted.
The BCCOS also said the piranhas were likely aquarium fish dumped in the lake, and cautioned the public to never buy aquarium fish from overseas and also to ensure fish and other aquarium plants and rocks are not invasive before buying. Also, unwanted aquarium pets should be donated to a local pet store, other fish owners, fish clubs, schools, nursing homes, or offices and never dumped or flushed into local waterways. Diseased fish cannot be donated and should be humanely euthanized and disposed of in a landfill.
“Persons convicted for a first offence of the illegal movement of aquatic invasive species could be fined up to $100,000 and/or a prison term of up to 12 months, and for a second offence a fine of not more than $200,000 and not less than $2,000 and/or to a term of imprisonment not exceeding two years,” the e-mail noted.
People who suspect they’ve caught an introduced species are asked to report it to the nearest Forest, Land and Natural Resources office or call the RAPP (Report All Poachers and Polluters) line at 1-877-952-7277.
Lee, who has returned to university in Ontario, has not replied to a request for an interview, but Cho said the piranha, landed Tuesday, was caught with yellow-orange PowerBait, intended for trout, on a line and sinker.