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'Habitattitude Surrender' offers alternative for disposing of unwanted pet fish

Pet goldfish released into the wild are among the most destructive non-native species in North America. Photo by Doug Jensen, University of Minnesota Sea Grant Program

Finding an oversized goldfish in the St. Louis River might sound cool, but the Minnesota Sea Grant says it is definitely not — it's another aquatic invasive species that can wreak havoc on local ecosystems.

To help solve the problem of people disposing of unwanted fish, reptiles and other aquarium and water garden critters into local lakes, several groups are offering a humane "surrender'' event Saturday where the critters can find good homes and stay out of trouble.

It's the first such event in Duluth, with the University of Minnesota Duluth's Sea Grant program, Animal Allies, the Snake Pit and World of Fish joining forces for the "Habitattitude Surrender'' at Animal Allies in Duluth.

Releasing non-native species into area lakes and rivers is problematic for many reasons, said Doug Jensen, aquatic invasive species coordinator for the Sea Grant.

"Once released, they can invade and take over," or choke out waterways, in the case of certain plants, he said.

Rusty crayfish "hybridized" with native crayfish, he noted, and "some (species) are even more aggressive" in the way that they hog a food source, leaving nothing for native fish.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources this week reported the first-ever finding of red swamp crayfish in the state. Two of the exotic species from southern states were found in Tilde Lake in Clay County in Northwestern Minnesota, and Jensen said they may be a release from an aquarium.

The most common aquarium-raised, non-native species released into the Great Lakes region are Brazilian waterweed, water hyacinth, parrot feather, hydrilla, goldfish, koi, pacu, piranha, Oriental weatherloach, water lettuce, water chestnut, yellow floating heart and lesser naiad.

"We know folks have released unwanted pets and plants into local waters, flushed them down the toilet or maybe allowed them to escape," said Amy Miller of Animal Allies. "While release may seem kind-hearted, these actions are inappropriate, and we want to provide better solutions."

Jensen cited the 2004 drainage of UMD's Rock Pond because large numbers of koi, goldfish and rusty crayfish were found. Goldfish grow larger and degrade water quality as they root through the depths and stir up sediment, warming the water. And because that pond is connected to designated trout stream Tischer Creek — which flows to Lake Superior — the goldfish were a threat. Trout need cold, clear water to thrive.

Members of the carp family, goldfish and their cousins are among the most destructive exotic species in North America, changing entire ecosystems to displace native fish, native plants and even waterfowl. Goldfish also can carry a viral disease that can be deadly to native fish.

That's why flushing dead or alive fish down a toilet is a bad idea, Jensen said. The tissue of the fish — which, if alive at flush, will die during the process — can carry disease that spreads into local waterways.

"Most consumers are doing the right thing and they are holding onto their pets and caring for them in a humane way," Jensen said, but the event is meant to begin offering a consistent outlet for giving up unwanted fish and plants.

The World of Fish retailer and the Snake Pit — a nonprofit organization for reptile enthusiasts — will take what's surrendered and find them new homes. If you can't make the event and want to get rid of critters, Jensen suggests taking them to Petco, World of Fish or another shop or donate them to a school or other hobbyist.

Habitattitude is a national public awareness campaign that started in Duluth and has 250 partners.

If you go

Surrender your fish and other aquarium life from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at Animal Allies, 4006 Airport Road.