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Uproar Sweeps Israel Over Claims of Piranha : Sea of Galilee: A fisherman’s alleged find creates media excitement. But a noted expert eviscerates the tale.

THE WASHINGTON POST

In the Sea of Galilee, where it is said that Jesus Christ walked on water and where tourists flock nowadays to water ski, Yaakov Ezri dipped a trawling net and pulled out three interlopers from among his usual catch of carp.

Savage-looking and six inches long, the fish had sharp teeth and, the fisherman imagined, the eyes of carnivores. Word spread quickly, in the Tiberius market and beyond: By accident or some sinister plot, man-eating piranhas had come to Israel.

“He’s very delicious, a real delicacy,” Ezri pronounced after frying one of them in a pan. “The only problem is that he also finds people pleasing to his palate.”

Israel Radio, which treated the find as serious news, quoted marine biologists as warning there could be hundreds of the tropical killers in the Galilee--actually a lake, and the nation’s principal fresh-water supply. The only note of hope to be found was that piranha, as natives of Brazil’s warm waters, might not survive the winter.

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Israel’s tabloids, which love anything to do with carnage, splashed what they dubbed “pira-noia.” Maariv ran a two-page spread headlined “Piranha Panic.” It featured full-color promotional posters from the horror flicks “Piranha” (wherein toothsome predators chase an attractive young woman in a small bikini) and “Piranha 2" (wherein flying toothsome predators chase an attractive young woman in a small bikini).

“The smell of blood excites them,” said Menachem Goren, a professor at Tel Aviv University, apparently speaking of the fish and not the press. Maariv turned that quotation into an inch-tall headline.

TV talk show host Yair Lapid did the tabloids one better, inviting an expired piranha. The deceased, escorted by a somber gentleman from the fishery department, posed for numerous close-up camera shots of its teeth. Lapid professed to be too frightened to touch it. “I don’t care if it is dead,” he deadpanned.

Questions abound. Were these fishy fugitives from an aquarium? Pawns of a foreign power? Would Israel demand a crackdown by Yasser Arafat?

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Yerucham Arieli of Israel’s Agriculture Ministry told reporters that whoever introduced the fish into the Galilee--known in Israel as the Kinneret, another of its biblical names--had committed “a grave infraction of the law.”

Hopes that winter might kill the invaders, biologists said, might be foiled by the Galilee’s numerous hot springs. “If it becomes clear that there are large numbers of piranha, we will not be able to pull them out,” one unidentified expert was quoted as saying. “We’ll have to close the Kinneret and kill all the fish to get rid of the predators.”

Only last year the Galilee’s boosters had to squelch reports, as yet unconfirmed, that a crocodile had taken up residence.

“It’s not enough that we had a crocodile,” said Tiberius Mayor Yossi Peretz. “Now we have this carnivorous fish. Clearly this can hurt tourism, in which we’ve invested so much over the years. I hope it becomes clear that we’re not talking about a dangerous fish at all and that everyone will calm down.”

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Not everyone cooperated. The Galilee’s fishermen did their best to hype the fish, apparently dreaming of rich new markets. Crowds of shoppers in the Tiberius market bid hundreds of shekels (more than $100) for one of Ezri’s catch, and competitors rushed in with fish stories of their own.

Zvi Ortenberg earned the headline, “Killer Fish Bites Kinneret Fisherman,” with this revelation in Maariv: “It was really scary. I never saw anything like it. He has teeth like a human being. Even though he was dying he chewed my fingers.”

But all sensations must come to an end, and this one finally fizzled at the hand of Daniel Golani, fish detective. Someone from the Agriculture Ministry tracked down the ichthyologist on a field trip in Eilat and pleaded with him to rush back to Jerusalem.

Golani, who is curator of Hebrew University’s fish collection, was not so excited. To begin with, he said in an interview, “the piranha has an unjustified reputation of being a mean fish. It doesn’t really attack people.” The famous story of a school of them devouring an entire cow is true, he said, but it turned out to have been staged for Teddy Roosevelt with a population of piranha that had been starved for weeks.

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“Any fish would have done it,” he said, a bit defensively.

Even so, inquiring minds wanted to know: Did the Galilee have piranha, or didn’t it?

Later, an icy sample landed on Golani’s desk.

“The moment they defrosted it, that was it,” he said. “I realized right away.”

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The teeth were all wrong. Piranha teeth look like “little blades,” the better to tear meat. The teeth on the sample were sharp and strong, but they were made to cut through plants and nuts.

It was no piranha, Golani said. It was a common picu, a distant cousin also from Brazil. A vegetarian.


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