Joel Rakower pleaded guilty to smuggling almost 40,000 piranhas into the U.S. in 2011 and 2012.

Rakower admitted that his New York City-based company, Transship Discounts Ltd., purchased piranhas from Hong Kong and illegally transported them back to their Queens warehouse. According to the Justice Department report, Rakower had the Hong Kong supplier label the piranhas as silver tetras, an aquarium fish, to get the piranhas into the country. Owning piranhas is illegal in the U.S., as is mislabeling wildlife being trafficked internationally.

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

Rakower imported 39,548 piranhas over a two year time period, worth an estimated $37,376, all using false identification to get past the Fish and Wildlife Service. As part of his plea agreement, Rakower will pay a $3,000 fine personally and his company must pay a fine of $35,000 and an addition $35,000 in restitution to the State of New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation Division of Law Enforcement. Transship Discounts Ltd. will also be put under a two-year probation.

Piranhas are banned and/or regulated in 25 states and are considered high-risk pets. The aggressive fish is known for it’s predatory ways (they have even inspired a horror movie or two) and could pose a great threat to United States ecosystems should they get loose in freshwater systems. Piranhas are carefully regulated in the United States and purchasing piranhas is illegal in New York City.

“Driven by greed and without regard for the health and safety of people or the environment, the defendant and his company illegally trafficked in piranha by falsely labeling the imported predatory freshwater fish as being silver tetras, a far more benign fish often kept in home aquariums and having a far less street value than piranha… I thank the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and our federal colleagues … for providing a reasonable and appropriate resolution to the case,” Richard A. Brown, Queens County District Attorney, said post-trial.

Rakower is expected to be sentenced on April 24.

Olivia Truffaut-Wong

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