That's one frightening fish

So, it was a pacu, not a piranha pulled from the Catawba River by an angler. It still has a fearsome set of teeth.

When Jerry Melton of Gastonia, N.C, hauled in a silvery, sharp-toothed fish from the river June 28, he was certain it wasn't a bass. Someone reportedly told him it was a piranha, the carnivorous South American fish of legend, which, in schools, is capable of stripping a large animal of all its flesh in a matter of minutes.

That was a good guess. The fish Melton caught bears a close resemblance and, in fact, is a relative of the piranha. But experts with the state Wildlife Resources Department identified the fish as a pacu, another South American fish.

"They look very similar and can be hard to tell apart," said Jacob Rash, a Wildlife Resources biologist. "The telling sign is that pacus have two rows of molars on their upper jaw where piranhas have a single row of sharp teeth."

Another crucial difference: While pacus will eat almost anything, they are mostly vegetarian. In fact, they are sold as aquarium fish, which probably explains where this one came from. They can be interesting at first, but they are fast growers, sometimes exceeding two feet in length, and they soon outgrow all but the largest home aquariums.

Pacus also have been bred in Brazilian fish farms as a food source. The pacu's prolific spawning has made it popular for fish farms around the world.

But that also illustrates the danger of randomly releasing non-native species into the wild. Think kudzu, zebra mussels, walking catfish and other species that have thrived too well, exceeding efforts to control them.

The idea of a toothy, two-foot-long South African fish cruising the Catawba might be intriguing, but the effect hundreds or thousands of pacus might have on native fish and vegetation could be devastating.

In short, when an exotic fish outgrows an aquarium, instead of throwing it into a nearby body of water, invite friends over for a fish fry.

Weird catch illustrates the potential hazards of letting non-native fish loose in wild.