Rickey Rivero was checking a crab trap on Bayou Lafourche near his home in Raceland, and found a toothy fish from the Amazon.
"When I first looked at it, I saw it had some teeth on it, and I thought, `This is weird,' " said Rivero, 49. "I told my friend, `Man, I got a piranha!'"
It's actually a largely vegetarian relative of pirahnas, said Joe Dantin, public-involvement coordinator for the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program based in Thibodaux. The program is administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and one of its roles is to help guard against threats to the local ecosystem and water supply.
The fish - a red-bellied pacu, which is native to the Amazon but has been reported in 19 states - was likely released from a pet owner's aquarium, according to the U.S.Geological Survey.
"Man, I've never seen anything like that with teeth on it," Rivero said.
Dantin said the pacu feeds mainly on vegetation, and its teeth are primarily grinders.
"Piranhas have a more sharp type tooth used for ripping and tearing. It's a pure predator; the pacu is not," Dantin said.
The pacu will eat small fish and, despite the occasional rumor, does not attack humans. Dantin said the fish is more solitary, whereas its more-fearsome cousin attacks in schools.
But, he said, pacu could cause problems to local ecosystems if they breed and thrive in the bayou.
Though the fish has been reported in the area within the past year, it isn't believed to be established, Dantin said. He also noted the fish caught by Rivero is not of mating age.
"They have frequented the bayou," Dantin said. "We are still under the assumption they are aquarium-released."
Dantin stressed that any predictions about how the fish could affect the ecosystem are largely assumptions because little is known about how it would thrive in this environment.
He said problems could arise if the fish were to become established as they could possibly compete with native fish such as bass.
Dantin said it's likely this fish was released from an owner's aquarium after it got too big or the owner grew tired of caring for it. It is against the law to release such exotic fish into the wild, he said.
"No one would advocate letting these fish out in the local water systems," Dantin said.
Dantin said he wanted to examine the fish for any evidence the species is established in the area, but Rivero had different plans for the fish, which he dubbed Pacu.
"We got him an aquarium," Rivero said. "As long as he stays alive, we are going to keep him."
Photo Credit: Department of Natural Resources