Flushing a deceased goldfish down the toilet seems to be a rite of passage: a first pet, not long for this world, getting a ceremonial swirl at the end of its brief, eventful journey. There are some people, however, who don’t wait for the fish to die, and some fish that make it through the ordeal. Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper (BNW), a nonprofit organization that works to protect the Niagara River and Lake Erie watershed, recently took to Facebook to show what can happen next.
The organization recently found a massive—14-inch!—goldfish near the river’s Black Rock Canal, not far downstream from a water treatment facility. These staples of American pet culture and common carnival prizes are not native to North America, but rather come from Eastern Asia, and goldfish have no natural predators here to curb their growth. They can not just survive but truly thrive under certain conditions, and may live far longer—and therefore grow far longer—than they ever would in captivity. It’s estimated that tens of millions of goldfish now call the Great Lakes home, while countless others swim New York’s waterways. “Aquatic invasive species that don’t naturally belong in the Great Lakes, like this goldfish, are a constant threat to the health of native wildlife populations and their habitats,” says a BNW representative, via email.
How this particular, massive goldfish made it to the river is not entirely known, but likely it was one of two ways. According to BNW, the goldfish was either directly introduced to the water by its owner or made an incredible journey through the city’s interconnected sewer system. Many Great Lakes cities have combined sewer systems that are more than a century old and can mix household sewage with storm runoff. On days of heavy precipitation and snowmelt, these systems can become overburdened, and dump excess sewage into local waterways. This is why BNW has a “Responsible Flushing Society” program to encourage people to keep anything unusual—including medications, criminal evidence, and anything alive—out of your toilet.
Goldfish finding their way into bodies of freshwater, accidentally or on purpose, is no new phenomenon. The earliest sightings of goldfish in U.S. waters dates back to the 1830s according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The hope is that by displaying this almost otherworldly goldfish for the public to see, BNW can raise awareness of the issues facing the country’s lakes. “Our lakes are worth protecting,” BNW says, “and if the picture of this little fish can help raise awareness and attention, then maybe the next fish story provides a happier ending for our lakes and rivers.”