Trade in piranhas still brisk despite dangers to Korean waters

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Trade in piranhas still brisk despite dangers to Korean waters

Despite a recent scare in Gangwon, where three piranhas - each about 17 centimeters (7 inches) long - were discovered earlier this month in a local reservoir, the omnivorous tropical fish, commonly found in the Amazon, can still be found here for sale.

At one tropical fish store along “aquarium street” in Dongdaemun District, eastern Seoul, so named for the multitude of stores it boasts specializing in aquatic animals, piranhas measuring 3 to 4 centimeters are sold for just 7,000 won ($6) a piece.

“After this becomes an issue, you won’t be able to buy one even if you want to,” the shop owner warned.

The Ministry of Environment only designated piranhas as a harmful species that poses a threat to the Korean biosphere on July 17, prohibiting their import. The ban, however, isn’t set to go into effect until the ministry’s amendment is officially recognized at the end of the year.

“For now, there’s no legal basis for controlling the [piranha] trade. People are only encouraged not to throw their personal piranhas in rivers or lakes,” said Kwon Gun-sang, who works in the biological diversity division of the Environment Ministry.

With no legal recourse to stop piranhas from coming into the country, and no established methods or processes for restricting their distribution, those interested in buying these fish can easily find vendors online, as well as at large-scale piranha distributors.

And all this means that there is still a chance for just about anyone to release piranhas into open water sources like rivers, lakes and reservoirs.

The Environment Ministry is in the process of creating legal amendments to biological diversity laws that would fine or imprison those who release harmful, potentially threatening species into the local environment. However, there is little chance that these amendments will be able to pass through the National Assembly and move through other procedures to become law by the end of this year.

Even if these revisions do become law, there is also the issue of tracking down who was responsible for releasing these species into the wild in the first place and figuring out how and when they did.

Still, controlling the movement of species like piranhas isn’t the only problem. The trade of endangered species remains rampant.

One shop near the tropical fish store sells birds and reptiles, and had conure parrots - found throughout Mexico and southern Chile - on display and for sale.

These birds are on the list of threatened species protected from trade by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, an international agreement between governments regarding the trade of endangered plant and animal species.

Under current law, a person is required to pass appropriate legal procedures and have a certificate to import endangered species. Whenever a trade is made, one must report the transfer and the quantity of the trade.

BY HWANG SOO-YEON [enational@joongnang.co.kr]

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