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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Why you should never release a pet fish into a public pond

Recently I recently visited Manito Park's Nishinomiya Tsutakawa Japanese Garden in Spokane, Washington. At the entrance gate was a sign informing people that the pond had recently been restocked, an ongoing effort in its fourth year, to replace the 50 koi that used to reside there until someone dumped a koi or common goldfish into the pond that carried the Koi Herpes Virus.

Have you ever thought there's no harm in releasing unwanted pet fish into the fish pond at your local park?

As it turns out I learned only fish experts should release new fish into existing ponds. Why? Because a pet koi or goldfish can look healthy but be a carrier of KHV, a highly fatal virus.

I have to admit I didn't think releasing an unwanted pet fish could have catastrophic consequences. That is until I met Claudia McGowen and Margie Luce of Spokane, Washington's Inland Empire Water Garden and Koi Society.

A beautiful koi at Spokane's  Nishinomiya Tsutakawa Japanese Garden

When the water temperature rises to 64ยบ (F) the KHV virus becomes active and the fish can begin dying within 24-48 hours.

The fish in Spokane's pond were counted in May 2008 and two common goldfish and a single koi were found to have been added to the pond. Within two weeks of the check the pond's koi, many of them as large as 25" long, began dying.

Margie Luce told Spokane's Spokesman Review Newspaper:

“Some well-meaning citizens probably don’t know to this day that they are the ones that caused this,” Luce said.

When you go to the Japanese Gardens you expect to see beauty and experience peace and serenity, not hear the tragic tale of the death of the park's colorful koi. The garden itself was constructed in 1974 so some of the fish had been there for 34 years before the incurable virus was introduced in 2008.

The 18 fish that didn't die became potential carriers of the virus and had to be euthanized or any new fish restocked into the pond could contract the disease from them and either die outright or become carriers themselves. At first I wondered why they simply couldn't be moved to a new, smaller pond to live out their days. But then I read they can live to 80 years old. WIth such longevity there is probably too high of a risk that they could someday, accidentally, be moved or mixed with other healthy fish, continuing the spread of the disease.

ETA: Reader Dana Smith pointed out that our own Japanese Koi pond at San Jose's Kelly Park lost 235 koi to KHV back in 2009. The pond was left empty for 3 years and was scheduled to be replenished with new stock, donated by our sister city in Japan, Okayama, just last month.

It was truly a stroke of luck that my mom and I happened to arrive just as volunteers Claudia and Margie, were about to release several more koi, donated by members of the local koi society, into the pond.

They had been transported to the park in a large, round, rubber tank in the back of a pick-up truck. One by one they were placed in large plastic bags and Claudia quickly brought them into the park with a steady stream of onlookers following her.

It was such a cool thing to witness!

My mom and I agreed that it made our impromptu visit the best ever! And we've been visiting the park since it opened in 1974.

The largest koi that day was 26" long! We all stood there with our jaws dropped as she carried it in.

Each time Claudia would carefully lean over the shore and allow the fish to slide from the plastic bag into the pond.

The first three immediately moved away joining up with other koi in the pond. The last one lingered for a few minutes keeping Claudia in sight the entire time. Finally it swam away when a train of fish passed by.

We laughed as the women called out a fish's name. They know the names and the history of all of the fish and come by to perform wellness checks on them. Sometimes fish will be missing or injured as there is a local osprey and a heron that come to try to catch them for dinner. Raccoons are also predators of any pond fish. If there are new fish that people have released in the pond they will be caught and removed. The Koi Society has gone to great lengths to stock the pond with traditional Japanese Koi, not variations of them, as the park itself is a true reflection of the gardens of Japan.

There are few things that can create a visual more serene than a pond full of koi surrounded along its shores by Japanese Maple trees.

The one bright spot in the story Margie and Claudia shared with us is that the new koi are much younger than many of the previous residents so they are breeding in the pond. We even spotted two "babies" (about 5" long) that had been born there!

The reason I shared this story with you is so that we can all be better informed and know:
  1. Never to release pet fish into public ponds
  2. It may take some time and effort but giving your unwanted fish to another fish lover is the best way to re-home them
  3. If you see someone else about to release goldfish or koi into a pond ask them not to. Now you can explain to them about the Koi Herpes Virus and tell them about the 50 koi in Spokane that lost their lives

If you ever visit Spokane, WA be sure to schedule a visit to the Japanese Gardens. If you live there and you've never gone to see it in person be sure to go!

Where: You'll find it on the South Hill located at south Bernard Street and 21st Ave.

Parking: There is a large parking lot on the east side of the gardens and a small lot on the north side. There is also street parking along 21st Ave.

When: Open daily from 8:00 am to one half hour before dusk. April 1st through November 1st.

Cost: There is no admission charge to visit the park

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