The immortal goldfish is no laughing matter.
LIKE HEDGEHOGS, GOLDFISH (CARASSIUS AURATUS) WERE FORTUNATE ENOUGH TO EVOLVE INTO SOMETHING HUMANS FIND CUTE. THEY ARE NOT CUTE. THEY ARE TERRIFYING. YOU JUST DON’T KNOW THIS BECAUSE YOU’VE NEVER SEEN ONE OUTSIDE OF A TANK.
Don’t let the glowing skin, big eyes and graceful tails fool you; goldfish are not only killers, they’re damn near immortal. It’s as if Aquaman (the sexy one, not the blond goober one) had a child with Galadriel, the most powerful of the elves from Lord of the Rings. Overfeed a domestic goldfish, and it will die in its bowl – not from obesity, but from poisoning – a victim of the toxic ammonia produced by uneaten fish food.
No such issues in the wild. Outside of its glass prison, Goldie becomes almost indestructible, capable of ballooning to more than two kilograms in weight and enjoying an average lifespan of 41 years.
The things have a full complement of survival superpowers. Drain a goldfish’s pond, and it’ll burrow down to live in the mud. Freeze the pond, and come spring, Goldie thaws out like Han Solo to carry on as if nothing happened. Goldfish are voracious eaters, feeding on plants, insects, crustaceans and native fish. Their trough- like chow down style kicks up mud and sediment, leading to harmful algae blooms that can choke out ecosystems. Even worse, contrary to the name, goldfish are not naturally gold. Like a labradoodle, a thousand years of breeding has gone into creating the shiny monstrosity that is the domestic version of Carassius auratus. In the wild, especially when they are young, goldfish are a more camouflage mix of browns and blacks, making detection and elimination difficult.
Everyone in Aotearoa understands we have a uniquely fragile ecosystem. Kiwis discuss introduced species the way other countries discuss the weather. The North Island has been dealing with invasive fish like tench, carp, koi and goldfish for decades, the spread of which was accelerated by a madman who wanted to recreate the peasant waterways of his English homeland. However, despite all our talk of eradication, our pet stores continue to put dangerous invasive species in the hands of preschoolers. New Zealand’s pet-store policy seems to mirror American gun policies: Just huck a bunch on the playground and then let someone else, in this case the Department of Conservation (DOC), spend a lifetime trying to clean up the mess. But to fix a leak, you need a plumber, not a mop.
Here on the South Island, I learned of the Albert Town goldfish invasion in 2011, when I was shocked to see one such “cutie” in our neighbourhood pond. I reached out to the Albert Town Community Association, who set up a meeting with the Department of Conversation (DOC). The amazing teams at DOC and Fish and Game outlined the myriad methods they have used to try to contain goldfish: draining ponds, deploying nets and traps, and even electrocution.
In Albert Town, a small highly-skilled team of kids regularly cull goldfish from the local ponds in an effort to assist DOC. Then, during the 2019 flood, one specimen found its way into the Mata-Au / Clutha River, where it was speared by a junior fisher. The catch made the cover of the Otago Daily Times, both due to its size—more Aquaman’s forearm than his pinkie—and the ecological implications of the fact that it had escaped into the river. There’s debate about whether Goldie would have survived long in the clean, cold water of the Clutha, but given the species’ Han-Solo-esque indestructibility, we wouldn’t want to lay any bets on it.
Meanwhile, Emma Burns, the curator of natural science at the Otago Museum, saw the ichthyological anomaly in the paper and reached out to the young goldfish eradication team in the hope of acquiring samples to be taxidermied for an invasive species exhibit. This was not a problem for Albert Town locals Hudson and Hank Weathington, who quickly collected four sizeable samples using the ‘gondola-spear’ method (the best method for dispatching large goldfish, I am told). More media coverage followed, and the unusually pot-bellied fish caught the eye of Spearfishing New Zealand, who informed the Weathington boys that they had accidentally set the New Zealand record for a speared goldfish, at 2.46 kilograms / 5.4 pounds.
The boys and their posse of orange kipper obliterators hope the record and the Otago Museum exhibit will draw attention to the dangers of releasing pet fish into the wild.
Their plea to you: If you need to dispose of a goldfish, or any brand of sea kitten for that matter, do not flush it down the toilet, and do not set it free. Instead, you might want to try a wooden stake through the heart, maybe a silver bullet, and throw in some kryptonite for good measure. But to be safe, best to bonk it on the head and throw it to the chooks.