How Many Goldfish Are Too Many?
I didn’t set out to cause an environmental disaster, but I guess nobody ever does
I didn’t set out to cause an environmental disaster, but I guess nobody ever does
After letting myself in through the back gate and wading through the fading, overgrown winter grass to the pond, I stared into the impenetrable black water. My imagination transformed it into a clear, fresh water garden where fish and frogs frolicked and dragonflies buzzed through long summer days.
A break in the water made me jump. Something was alive in there.
Even though I wasn’t technically trespassing (the realtor was due any minute) I quick-strode my way back to the gate, all of a sudden concerned about what could be in tangle of weeds that passed for a back yard.
Even as I chided myself for being such a coward the swishing sound my jeans in the grass goosed me a bit. I was not the outdoorsy type.
The relator, a woman in her fifties with faded platinum hair sprayed into wave on top of her head looked too much like my high school guidance counselor. She wore big, round eyeglasses and pearls with her business suit. I didn’t like her immediately. I told her about the thing living in the pond out back.
“Wouldn’t surprise me if there were goldfish in that water,” she said, her dismissive tone and Mid-Atlantic accent going directly to my spine.
“It looked pretty big,” I said, skeptical and imagining something more mammalian, a beaver maybe.
“Oh, they can get big.”
And that’s pretty much why I bought the home I’m sitting in now: because goldfish can get big. That one sentence made me see all the other possibilities in the house while ignoring that they only thing I was less skilled at than carpentry was horticulture.
The goldfish were koi which, according to a library book on water gardening, could live for decades and grow to spectacular sizes. Even though I now owned either one or several koi (counting them proved impossible in the black water ) I had never seen one outside of an Asian restaurant pond. As with my drafty new home, I only saw possibility.
The Case of the Runaway Koi
There were problems with both the house and the pond that a first-time landowner couldn’t conceive. When spring came, I only cultivated the pond in my mind. Waterlilies, left to grow wild, dug their thick, fleshy claws through layers of plastic, allowing the water to seep impeded only by the clay-and-stone bedding below.
By June they were a thick, green, flowerless presence through which I intuited more than detected the water. The entire carpet undulated when the koi broke the surface. Although I could go weeks without seeing them, I got the impression there were four different shadows. One was easily 18-inches long. Then, one summer day, they ran away.
I’d been topping off the pond (again) when I decided to take a spur-of-the-moment weekend getaway. Coming home Sunday afternoon, I found a swamp where my backyard had been. It didn’t even occur to me to worry about the fish until I found a carcass ten feet from the pond a day or so later. It was one of the smaller ones. I like to hope the other three made it to a stream somewhere, but I’m doubtful.
My kids got older, I got busier, and fifteen years later I was divorced and remarried. I’d re-dug the pond, replacing the cheap, tattered landscape plastic with wet-suit-like material into which no waterlily would ever gouge, not that I had replaced the horrible things.
Digging them out of the crevices between the river stones into which they’d insinuated themselves over at least a decade took hours of painstaking labor and resulted in a policy: No water plants in the new pond. Instead, I planted around it.
The rest of the yard work should have been enough.
Just beyond the pond I’d cultivated grapevines that stretched up and along four posts to create a topless pergola. The eldest vine had grown to four inches around. Its tendrils extended into the now-clear water at the height of summer, setting the tone for a lush little place.
The red maple, which had been a mere stick, now bloomed tall and full and turned the water purple at dusk. Birds and squirrels played in the shade. I was considering adding a water fall. We didn’t need fish, I told myself, it was fine just as it was.
A Dark Pet Store Realization
I don’t have any justification for buying koi, though the lie I told myself was they would keep the mosquitos in check. The fact is I wanted fish, and koi are hard to kill and pleasant to look at.
I started with five fish, each between two and five inches long. It was satisfying to see them scoot around before settling as if suspended near the bottom, glowing orange and white. That was before the killings started.
I blame the fish disappearances on a contingent of domineering bull frogs, which I believe stalked and ate my small koi that first year. The next year I bought seven with the same result. After three years, if felt as if I were feeding frogs, not raising koi. And things got dark.
Buying a pet from a store can be ethically and ecologically fraught. Standing in the fish aisle feeling my moral fortitude soften, I realized how desperately I wanted this koi pond. I didn’t want to own the koi, I wanted to befriend them (they are friendly fish), feed and protect them as you would with any creature you hope to share your space with.
I was compelled as if by gravity. I didn’t even have to choose which koi to buy, there were seven left and I took them all. As the teenager who’d made the mistake of asking if I needed help chased the last of the koi around the empty tank, I saw the feeder fish.
My fish aisle epiphany unlocked a brutality and callousness I didn’t recognize. Sacrifices would have to be made. Fish were going to die.
Feeder fish are born to die young. It’s awful to think about. Pet store display aquariums are graded by size. Any three-cent fish that lives long enough to be worth a quarter gets moved up and becomes more likely to live. I looked into that tank and decided to become a cruel liberator.
Here they would surely die, but in my pond they’d have a fighting chance. I bought 30 brave, doomed fish to be aquarian shields protecting the young koi from ravenous frogs.
I was a man driven. I dumped 37 fish into that pond in 2019. The koi blossomed. We had some casualties early on, but by the end of the summer, the four remaining koi, Gladys, nearly albino with a hint of orange; Florence, black-and-orange mottled and with eyes highlighted as if by blue eyeshadow; Delores, mostly orange with some white; and The Shadow, a mostly-black fish who was nearly impossible to see except for the small orange spot above his right eye.
The goldfish were another story altogether. It was a frogless summer, so instead of dying as had been their mission, the school thrived. The tiny feeder fish grew bigger and more distinctive. Then they started getting names. Pinky and the Brain were albino, Stanley had a white stripe, Bruce was gray and fat. By July we’d lost three koi and were down to 26 fish all told.
The feeder fish were glorious. While the koi were stately and serene, the goldfish were manic, darting around, taking lap upon lap in the pond and occasionally crashing together, troubling the water, making it glisten.
As it turns out, this is fish sex.
The Solution Becomes the Problem
By the spring of 2020 we were back up to 30 fish. We added a second pump to deal with the tremendous amount of goldfish filth. Water hyacinths (annuals that spread and don’t root) provided cover for the fish, but this summer the plants couldn’t cope with the nutrient-rich water and floated wan and stunted. Some of the fish have to go. There’s no way around it and few great solutions.
Pet stores will take fish off your hands, but many of these fish have names and personalities. The Brain didn’t make it, but it would feel a little like a betrayal to ship Pinky off to a tank after he’d had more than 500 gallons to explore.
Of course, by those lights it’s cruel to donate any fish, but no less cruel to let their water get toxic.
Equilibrium is something we only can participate in.
An alternative would be to donate them to a garden center, increasing their odds of staying outside. The real difficulty, though, is that giving them away only turns me into a reluctant fish-breeder and sets me up for a lifetime of choosing which fish get shipped off to new homes.
I didn’t set out to cause an environmental disaster, but I guess nobody ever does. Having started the research after the damage was done, I’m learning that there are no painless ways out of the mess I’ve created.
It’s interesting that I think there should be a painless way out of a mistake, because that has never been my experience. Although it’s often easy to avoid suffering the consequences of admitting you were wrong, I don’t know whether it’s good.
When you have to decide to correct a mistake and pay the cost, it should make you more thoughtful in the future.
Even though I didn’t want to “possess” my little nature preserve, I tried to impose my aesthetic beyond my expertise and beyond this fabricated ecosystem’s capacity.
According to my after-the-fact research, both goldfish and koi will continue to grow to the limits of their space. This means that the fish I bought to protect the koi will likely end up limiting their growth unless the goldfish stop producing. I don’t like those odds. There were 45 as of today.
Maybe this year the frogs will return, or maybe the water snails I also bought without researching will have better luck finding and eating fish eggs. I guess the most responsible thing to do at this point is remember that it doesn’t make sense to try and force equilibrium or even to facilitate it. Equilibrium is something we only can participate in. It makes so much more sense to learn to allow things to find their space than it does to force them to.
Tony Russo is a journalist and author of “Dragged Into the Light: Truthers, Reptilians, Super Soldiers, and Death Inside an Online Cult.” Subscribe to his Bagel Manifesto here.