Virginia wildlife expert: Don’t release your aquarium fish into the wild

Large goldfish caught in Virginia
Jeremy Fortner, a bow fisherman from Chesterfield, Virginia catches a state record breaking 3 pound, 9 ounce goldfish from Hunting Creek, a Virginia tributary of the Potomac River in Fairfax County. (Courtesy Jeremy Fortner)

In May, a Virginia man caught an almost 4-pound goldfish during a fishing tournament in Fairfax County — and wildlife experts say that isn’t the only goldfish in Virginia’s waterways.

“There are a few areas in the state where they’ve become established and have become quite abundant, and the Potomac River is one of those bodies of water,” said Mike Bednarski, chief of fisheries for the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources.

Bednarski said the biggest populations can be found in rivers, lakes and creeks that connect to the Potomac.

The populations of this type of fish, which should only be in aquariums, are a result of people making a bad decision when looking to move away from owning an aquarium.

“Folks will take their goldfish when they’re tired of them, they either get a little big for the tank or they’ve had it for a while, and they’ll release it into the environment thinking they’re doing a good thing,” Bednarski said.

But releasing the fish into the wild could eventually have a negative impact on other local fish.

“These goldfish can outcompete some of your native or naturalized fishes for resources, and that’s really not a good thing,” Bednarski.

For many aquarium fish, being dropped in a lake is also a death sentence, since their bright colors make them quick prey.

While Virginia isn’t seeing negative impacts of the fish on other species yet, other states like Minnesota are struggling to get a handle on populations of the aquarium fish in state waterways.

Bednarski said the problem is that it’s hard to predict the impact populations of fish — like goldfish — could have on Virginia’s waterways until it is too late.

The record-breaking goldfish caught in the tournament was captured by a bow fisherman in Hunting Creek in Fairfax County, which flows into the Potomac. Bednarski said bow fishing is helping to keep populations down in state waters.

In Virginia, Bednarski said it is illegal for pet owners to release their aquarium fish into the wild.

Instead, he recommends two ways of getting rid of unwanted fish. One is to euthanize them in a freezer, but a nicer way is to find someone else to adopt them. Contacting a local aquarium club could also help in locating willing takers for fish.

Northern Snakehead
Northern Snakehead fish caught in Virginia waterway. (Courtesy Mike Bednarski/Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources)

Bednarski said when it comes to fish that are negatively impacting the ecosystem in Virginia, the biggest problems are the Snakehead and Alabama Bass.

In many cases, Bednarski said, fisherman are intentionally bringing these two types of fish to the state and releasing them in hopes of fishing for them in the future.

Mike Murillo

Mike Murillo is a reporter and anchor at WTOP. Before joining WTOP in 2013, he worked in radio in Orlando, New York City and Philadelphia.

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