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New York man pleads guilty to smuggling nearly 40,000 piranhas into the U.S.

By Rande Iaboni, CNN
February 2, 2014 -- Updated 0132 GMT (0932 HKT)
Joel Rakower pleaded guilty Wednesday to smuggling nearly 40,000 piranhas into the United States.
Joel Rakower pleaded guilty Wednesday to smuggling nearly 40,000 piranhas into the United States.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Joel Rakower pleads guilty to smuggling piranhas into the United States
  • He instructed foreign supplier to label exotic fish as silver tetras, statement says
  • Rakower agrees to pay $70,000 in fines and restitution

(CNN) -- New York City resident Joel Rakower bit off more than he could chew when he smuggled nearly 40,000 piranhas into the United States.

Rakower pleaded guilty Wednesday in federal court in Brooklyn to smuggling the deadly piranhas from 2011 to 2012, according to a U.S. Department of Justice statement. The federal Lacey Act combats trafficking in "illegal" wildlife, fish and plants.

In a plea agreement, Rakower admitted that his company purchased piranhas from a Hong Kong tropical fish supplier and imported them to the city, according to the statement.

Rakower instructed the foreign supplier to falsely label the exotic fish on packing lists as silver tetras, a common and unaggressive aquarium fish, because New York City prohibited the possession of piranhas, the statement said.

Rakower smuggled 39,548 piranhas over the course of 2011 and 2012, swimming up costs of approximately $37,376, according to the statement.

Piranhas, freshwater fish originating in South American rivers, are described as extremely aggressive and territorial. As a result, 25 states have either banned or regulated piranhas, making them illegal to own or sell.

Rakower was "driven by greed and without regard for the health and safety of people or the environment," said Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, who helped investigate the case.

Rakower agreed to pay more than $70,000 in fines and restitution, and his company will serve a two-year period of probation. Rakower will be sentenced on April 24.

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