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Importer Mislabeled Piranhas as Nicer Fish

(CN) - A New York tropical fish importer pleaded guilty Wednesday to mislabeling piranhas -- which are banned in Manhattan -- as common aquarium fish.

In a plea agreement, Joel Rakower admitted that his company, Transship Discounts Ltd., imported piranhas from a Hong Kong supplier to Queens, N.Y.

The Lacey Act requires such imports to contain a packing list describing what type of wildlife the packages contain. After New York City banned the possession of piranhas in 2011, Rakower told his supplier to falsely label the predatory freshwater fish as silver tetras - a cheaper and much gentler type of aquarium fish.

Piranhas, on the other hand, are extremely aggressive and territorial fish that have been banned or regulated in 25 states. Originating from South America, piranhas can damage ecosystems by preying on fish, amphibians, reptiles and even mammals. They also pose a risk of injuring people and pets.

From 2011 to 2012, Transship gave U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service inspectors packing lists that mislabeled nearly 40,000 piranhas worth more than $37,000, according to prosecutors.

Transship then sold the piranhas to fish retailers across state lines.

"Rakower flouted federal laws meant to protect people and the environment from the illegal trade in wildlife species," said Acting Assistant Attorney General Dreher. "Mislabeling imported wildlife presents dangers to the public and the environment and we will continue to prosecute these cases."

Rakower agreed to pay a $3,000 fine, and his company will shell out $35,000, plus another $35,000 in restitution to New York's Department of Environmental Conservation Division of Law Enforcement.

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