by s.e. smith
March 11, 2013
Researchers recently pulled a real barn-burner of a goldfish out of Lake Tahoe: the specimen weighed in at more than four pounds, and it was one among a colony of similarly large fish living in a cozy area of the lake. The story makes for some bizarre headlines and good-natured ribbing, but behind the humor lies a very serious issue, because goldfish don’t belong in Lake Tahoe. These warm-water fish are adapted for other climes, but they’re hardy, and that means they can readily become an invasive species, just like their other relatives in the carp family, who have been plaguing waterways across the U.S. for more than a decade.
While goldfish in a tank might not seem like much, they have the ability to grow quite large in the right location, and Lake Tahoe provides just that. There’s plenty of fresh, nutritious food, and as goldfish grow, they can out-compete native species while destroying oxygen-producing plants and disturbing the equilibrium of this famous body of water. Their activities can make the water warmer, which can push out native fish, especially juveniles, who are very sensitive to temperature swings. With all that eating, there’s also a lot of, uh, output, which, to put it bluntly, could put a serious dent in Tahoe’s famous clear reputation.
The stunning blue water and impressive visibility in Tahoe’s waters are both under threat from goldfish colonies, who can produce nutrient pollution that encourages algae growth as well as choking out other fish and plants. Since goldfish breed readily and quickly, they’re hard to get rid of. Scientists have spotted them in the lake’s waters since the 1990s, but despite their best efforts, the population is difficult to control.
Where are they all coming from? Researchers point the finger solidly in one direction: pet owners who dump their aquarium animals. Whether they drop them off directly in the lake in the mistaken belief that they’re giving them freedom or flush them down the toilet and think that solves the problem, pet owners who tire of their aquatic charges are contributing to a nationwide invasive species problem. Overall, the aquarium trade is believed to account for around one third of invasive species in U.S. waters, and a lot of that is due to the lack of public understanding about the risks of releasing pet fish.
Pets are a lifetime commitment, and in an ideal world, people wouldn’t get bored with their fish and decide to move on to something else. If they do, though, researchers and officials warn that they shouldn’t just dump them in a body of water and hope for the best. A dealer may be interested in taking the fish back if they’re rare or interesting, or they could be sold privately on the secondary market, depending on legal restrictions. Fish and wildlife officials may also be able to help people who who need to rehome their fish.