Kenton Richardson and two of his children were fishing in a Hedingham neighborhood lake just down the street from their home earlier this month when his son, Kaleb, reeled in an unexpected find.
The fish at the end of his line was 14 inches long and weighed about 1.5 pounds – big for what Kenton, Kaleb, who is almost 6 years old, and Kaylee, 4, usually catch at Foxcroft Lake. But the real shocker came when they took a closer look and discovered the fish had a mouthful of powerful-looking teeth.
Kenton’s first thought was that they had found a piranha, but he felt silly even thinking it.
“It’s hard to say ‘I just caught a piranha,’ ” he laughed.
He quickly sent a picture to a friend, who replied that the fish looked like a pacu. Pacu is a general name for several species of fish that are related to piranhas – minus the appetite for meat. Pacus have teeth that look more like human molars than the sharp teeth of piranhas.
Richardson then placed a call to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission; Kirk Rundle, a fisheries biologist, confirmed his identification.
Rundle said he gets several calls each year from people who have caught unusual fish such as pacus. Typically, the fish are former pets whose owners have decided they can no longer take care of the fish and dump them in nearby bodies of water.
Wayne Starnes, the curator of fishes and director of the research lab at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, said the powerful jaws and teeth of the pacu are designed for crushing rather than biting. The fish, which are native to South America’s Amazon basin, eat fruits and nuts in their natural habitat.
Both Rundle and Starnes said pacu are very unlikely to survive a North Carolina winter, so they pose less of a threat than other potentially invasive species that can wreak havoc on an ecosystem.
In those cases, a newly introduced species may prey on native species but have no natural predators of its own, which causes an overpopulation problem and interrupts the food web, Rundle said.
Under state law, it’s illegal to put stock in a body of water without a permit, he added.