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Fishermen flock to Chinese city for bounty in 'people's war against the piranha'

BEIJING -- Wanted dead or alive: two Chinese piranhas.

News that piranhas, which are native to the South American waters of the Amazon, have come to the Chinese city of Liuzhou, has compelled local authorities to offer a $150 reward to anyone who can land one of the fish, any way they can.

Amateur fishermen have flocked to the city, in the southern autonomous region of Guangxi, to take part in the hunt. Issued fishing poles and doled out portions of meat for bait, these sport fishermen have been warmly encouraged to perch up on the banks of the Liujiang River to take a stab at hooking the beasts.

Dozens of experienced local fishermen have also been hired by the city government and relevant departments to trawl the river – normally forbidden by city ordinance – in a dragnet that has run systematically through the river.

Though the piranhas are not native to the region, ancient Chinese fishing techniques have been employed to hook the foreign invaders. Fishermen in Liuzhou were using banzeng, a system in which a net baited with one and a half pounds of pork is suspended from a series of bamboo poles and alternatively lowered 11 inches into the water and raised every 10 minutes.

Local media noted that the fishermen operating the four banzeng were operating them on 24-hour watches, dutifully fighting what some Chinese microbloggers have dubbed "the people's war against the piranha."

Bitten while bathing his dog
It all started earlier this week when Chinese state media reported that two men in Liuzhou were badly bitten by piranhas as they enjoyed the warm waters of the Liujiang River.

Zhang Kaibo was swimming and washing his dog in the river when at least three red-belly piranhas attacked him. Zhang managed to catch one of the piranhas with a net after he and his dog leaped out of the water – but not before Zhang was badly bitten on his hand, requiring stitches.

The local fisheries department held an emergency meeting and came up with a rash of policies, including the bounty, to hunt down the piranhas still at large.

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‘Intensive fish hunt’
NBC News attempted to contact the local city fisheries department on Thursday, but was told breathlessly that the entire department had gone down to the river to participate in the hunt.

An official who requested anonymity later contacted NBC News and said that despite days of intense fishing, none of the remaining piranhas has been caught.

"The latest development is that we will suspend our intensive fish hunt at 6 p.m. tomorrow," the official told NBC.

"[The hunt] has been a serious disturbance to the ecological system here since we are catching a huge number of carnivorous fish every day and the cost is also very high," the official said.

Exotic fish owners to blame?
The official blamed local exotic fish owners who had been unaware of how expensive it costs to maintain carnivorous fish like piranhas for their presence in the Liujiang River.

"I can only speculate that these were kept as ornamental fish and the hosts were probably intimidated by their appetites and released them," the official said.

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Earlier this week, Zhou Quan, a spokesman for the Liuzhou government told the China Daily newspaper that, "residents in this city have no need to worry about piranhas in the Liu River." Zhou cited the fact that the fish cannot survive in water cooler than 59 degrees Fahrenheit, making it likely that the piranhas would freeze once the cooler winter months arrived.

Loose controls
That assessment was shared by Wang Songjin, Senior Officer for the World Wildlife Fund’s China Marine Program.

"In China there are some nasty stories of invasive species,” said Wang, "but I don’t actually think piranhas should be the species we should be most concerned about."

Wang noted that while laws and regulations exist that restrict the import of invasive species into China, they can sometimes be loosely enforced, especially when it involves financially lucrative animals. In the case of piranhas, Wang noted that in his investigations, fish markets around China were selling common types of piranhas for up to $160 per fish.

"With species that can bring in a lot of money, the controls can be rather loose," Wang said.

Sizable reward
Still, the intense fish-hunt has generated interest throughout the country and especially on China's websphere. On Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service, many netizens were getting a good chuckle at the fat bounties placed on the heads of these two fish.

"When you work 30 days and only get 10,000 yuan [$1,568] a month … fishing in Liuzhou for 1,000 [yuan] a fish is like heaven!"wrote one user.

Another Weibo user had another solution for dealing with the piranha threat: "Just ask some medical expert to declare piranha organs as beneficial to human health. ... That should put them into extinction soon enough."

NBC News’ Tianzhou Ye contributed to this report.


Correction: July 13, 2012

This version corrects an earlier currency miscalculation. 10,000 yuan equals $1,568.

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