A Queens fish merchant who smuggled 39,548 flesh-eating piranhas posing as docile silver tetras into the country has been hooked by the feds, the Justice Department announced Wednesday.
Joel Rakower, 66, of Melville, and his Jamaica company, Transship Discounts Ltd., pleaded guilty and agreed to pay $73,000 in fines for having his Hong Kong supplier mislabel the piranhas as common aquarium fish.
The government said piranhas are illegal in New York City and 25 states, describing them as "extremely aggressive and territorial, feeding on insects, fish and larger prey such as amphibians, reptiles and mammals."
The piranhas Rakower imported in 2011 and 2012 were worth $37,376 -- less than $1 a fish -- and he allegedly resold them to fish retailers in several states, prosecutors said. Only 850 were recovered, a Justice Department official said.
Although they originate in the Amazon and other South American rivers, piranhas can thrive in cooler northern waters, and the government fears that if released by owners when they become too large for an aquarium tank, they can threaten people, pets and the ecosystem.
Rakower's lawyer, Barry Agulnick, said his client had been in the wholesale tropical fish supply business for 30 years, and used the false labeling to bring in piranhas shortly after New York City passed its ban in 2011.
"He made a minor error in judgment and he's paying for it," Agulnick said.
Rakower and his company will be sentenced in Brooklyn federal court on April 24.