When 12-year-old Alyssa Gossen loaded her lure with minnows left to dry out in the sun and cast her line into Williams Lake from her family’s dock on Sutton Road, she wasn’t expecting to catch an exotic fish.
After all, she’s been fishing in Williams Lake since she could walk, and the other two fish she’d caught a few moments before were Northern Pikeminnows, known commonly as squawfish.
Alyssa was sitting on the dock, relaxing in the sun, with her line in the water, when something on the end of her line started giving her a run for her money.
She fought hard, while her sister and friend cheered her on, and when she finally reeled it in, she’d caught a 10-inch Amazon Red Bellied Pacu.
“I thought it was a rainbow [trout] at first because it fought differently, but when it got closer I saw it was flatter. I called my sister and her friend and they came and were supporting me, saying you can do it,” Alyssa recalls.
She’d never seen anything like a Pacu and once she had it on the dock she brought it up to the house to show her dad.
“He thought it was a bass and then we looked it up online and saw what it really was,” she says.
Pacus have human-like teeth, but Alyssa says the one she caught didn’t have the top front teeth, maybe because it was smaller. They can, after all, grow to three feet and weigh 55 pounds.
“It had teeth in the back like molars. Its front teeth still could have been growing.”
The Gossens put it into a bag in the freezer, thinking someone might want to follow up on it.
When Allysa’s brother posted a picture of his sister with the fish on Facebook, a local Department of Fisheries and Oceans officer saw it and contacted the family.
DFO acting area director Les Jantz says Pacus are normally vegetarians and will eat nuts, seeds and snails.
Jantz figures it would not have survived the winter in Williams Lake because it is a warm-water species.
“We frown upon people releasing aquarium fish into the wild because you never know what you’re going to be introducing into the system. This may survive and end up taking over. People can actually be fined for doing it,” he warns.
Gail Wallin, executive director of the Invasive Species Council of B.C. based in Williams Lake, adds: “The thing about Pacus is they keep growing. Most fish will grow to the size of the aquarium, but Pacus are not known to be invasive in B.C. or Canada because it’s not known to be able to establish itself in our cold winters.
“This fish can only handle plus 10 degrees and our lake goes to about four degrees in its warmest spot in winter. There’s not a concern about it being invasive,” Wallin says.
There have been a host of issues about non-native fish around the province this past summer, she adds, citing the Snakehead fish in Burnaby and Carp in Vancouver.
“This Pacu was one more. It is not invasive, but this is still an example of a fish that’s been most likely released by people that wanted to get rid of it. It’s an example of what not to do.”
How long the Pacu was in the lake and how it got there remain a mystery; however, Wallin says fish can be dated based on their ear bones, similar to counting the rings to date a tree.
The Ministry of Forests Lands and Natural Resource Operations confirms that detailed scale analysis is being performed to determine how long the fish was in the lake.
“The analysis is expected to take a couple of weeks, but due to biological requirements it is highly unlikely the Pacu could establish itself in northern waters,” the ministry responded in an e-mail.
Ken Stevenson of Exotic Aquatic in Williams Lake only sells Pacus on special order.
Total Pet says it doesn’t sell them at all anymore.
Stevenson has sold four or five in the last 10 years.
“I’m not recommending them to most people. They can grow to three feet and require an aquarium in excess of 300 gallons. They are voracious feeders and have enough power in their jaws to crush brazil nuts,” Stevenson says.
Stevenson has a degree in zoology and says while Pacus are sold as “vegetarian piranhas” his comment is that “they are broadly related.” Both fish are part of the characin family.
When people release exotic fish it hurts stores like his in the end because then a whole section of species are banned, he says.
“Things like poison dart frogs got banned. They are poisonous because of the ants they eat in the wild. They aren’t poisonous in the pet industry because no one imports the ants,” Stevenson explains.
He wouldn’t be opposed to Pacus being banned, but not at the expense of other species that might be lumped into the picture.