Piranha panic pervades Taitung

A fisherman says he caught a pregnant piranha in a local lake, leading to a frenzy of Internet chatter and a NT$1,000 bounty

By Sam Sky Wild  /  Contributing reporter

Mon, Jun 10, 2013 - Page 12

A small fish is making a big splash in Taiwan’s southeast. Web forums in Taitung City are awash with a rumor that the town’s local lake — a favorite for swimmers, canoeists and anglers — may be harboring a swarm of flesh-eating red-bellied piranhas.

Headlines splashed across the national media have reported that a fisherman surnamed Chiu (邱) netted one of the voracious predators in mid-May — and that she was pregnant.

If the media feeding frenzy is to be believed then the usually pleasant kilometer-long bath-temperature swimming hole known as Flowing Lake (活水湖) could become a hot-blooded aquatic diner.

Amid the news, Taitung Netizens are struggling to get a sense of the scale of the problem. But most remain skeptical. Eric Hsu (許景復), a retired F-16 fighter jet pilot and lakeside regular, said that until he saw one of the Latin American carnivores with his own eyes he would remain unconvinced.

“I haven’t heard about anyone being hurt by piranhas so why not swim there,” he told the Taipei Times.

The aggressive water-borne feeders are renowned for their ability to strip large animals to the bone within minutes and news of the potential invasion has made ripples among local authorities. Recently the Taitung County Agriculture Department, the Urban and Rural Sports Association and the Taitung Fire Department formed a group charged with the task of netting any more of the critters. Despite the lake-wide fish-hunt and a NT$1,000 bounty which drew large numbers of hopeful fishermen, the scaly beast has evaded capture.

All eyes are now turning to the upcoming Dragon Boat races that are set to take place in the usually tranquil lake on Wednesday. Last year one of the boats was televised as it embarrassingly sank beneath the water’s surface. Organizers may be concerned that anything more Hollywood than that would make for very unsavory viewing.

Lin Pai-lei (林沛立), a fish researcher at Academia Sinica, said: “The piranhas are not biting people now, [but] this does not mean that they won’t bite people later.”

However, if any of the sharp-toothed beasties are actually living in the lake the real impact would more likely be on the local ecosystem as the piranha is not native to Taiwanese waters, a razor-sharp scientist told popular tabloid Apple Daily. The scientist added that any red-bellies must have been dumped there by a careless aquarium owner.

As rumors continue to flood in there will no doubt be many a sorrow to drown if anyone ends up actually being harmed by one of the flesh-eating beasts, but for the time being Taitung looks set for the creation of its very own, if not scaled down, Loch Ness legend.

— Additional reporting by Adam Matz