On July 14 a Limestone public works employee inspected a culvert and made a discovery he didn’t expect.
A 22-inch fish that weighed nearly 7 pounds, later identified as a South American pacu, was swimming in the small pond above the screened culvert.
A subsequent investigation has resulted in charges against the Limestone man wardens say illegally kept, then released the toothy pacu — a relative of the piranha — into the stream.
Joe LaPierre, 34, has been charged with illegally stocking inland waters and with possessing a restricted species of fish without a permit. Both charges are Class E crimes that could result in fines between $1,000 and $10,000.
At a press conference in Bangor on Tuesday, Game Warden Sgt. Dan Menard said wardens tracked down LaPierre after the pacu was found at a culvert on Mill Road.
The pacu was swimming sluggishly around a small, shallow pool upstream of the culvert. The outlet of the culvert was blocked with a screen to prevent beavers from damming it.
Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife fisheries biologists and game wardens were called to the scene and captured the pacu, which was killed and frozen to preserve it as evidence.
“Through the investigation we were able to talk to [LaPierre], who readily admitted to stocking inland waters with the pacu,” Menard said.
Menard said he was confident that only one pacu was released into the brook, so there was no threat of the fish reproducing.
Menard did not know whether the tropical fish would have survived in northern Maine waters, but said the mere presence of an exotic fish poses its own risks.
“We’re not sure what parasites or diseases that fish might bring into the environment,” Menard said.
Menard said that according to the law there’s no difference between the illegal introduction of fish that might breed or of a single fish that will not find a mate.
“The law doesn’t differentiate between the two [situations],” Menard said.
According to Menard, although the illegal introduction of fish into Maine waters is a substantial problem in the state, it’s rare that the Maine Warden Service actually apprehends those responsible.
“I’ve been [a warden] for 18 years and I can only think of one other situation that would possibly be remotely [similar], that I was fortunate enough, or unfortunate enough, to be involved with,” Menard said.
In that case, he said, goldfish were illegally stocked in Biddeford.
The DIF&W maintains a list of approved non-native species, including fish, reptiles, birds and mammals. If a species is not on that list, people are not allowed to possess those species in the state without a permit signed by the commissioner of the DIF&W.
Menard said pacu, which is a general name that includes at least 1,000 species of fish, eat insects, crustaceans and smaller fish. The pacu is not on the state’s list of approved species.
Although related to the piranha, the captured pacu did not possess the trademark razor-sharp teeth of its notorious cousin, according to DIF&W regional fisheries biologist David Basley.
“It has a horny beak, kind of like a parrot,” said Basley, who works out of the DIF&W Ashland office and saw the fish after it was caught. “But it has kind of strong jaws. They’re known to eat nuts.”
Menard said the fish had been in the Limestone brook for about a week before it was captured, and the beaver-control grate on the culvert kept the fish from swimming downstream.
After the fish was found, he said the investigation was fairly straightforward.
“Obviously, this is small-town Aroostook County,” Menard said. “Word got out that somebody had seen [the pacu] in [LaPierre’s] fish tank. So we went out and questioned him and right off the bat he was forward with us and told us what we needed to know about the situation.”
Menard said LaPierre was an aquarium owner and kept the fish as a pet.
“He bought [the pacu] years ago when he lived in Florida. He moved up here a couple years ago and brought his fish tank with him,” Menard said. “This was a case where the individual didn’t want to kill the animal. He didn’t jump through the hoops to find another home for it. So he thought it wouldn’t be an issue if he re-leased it into the wild.”