On Sept. 19, the University Programs Council (UPC) will be hosting Fish Fest, where, according to their promotional flyers, live goldfish will be given away to event attendees. Those same flyers also advertise free decorations and, most concerningly, bowls for the fish to be kept in. As a former employee of PetSmart, as well as a lifelong fish owner, when these flyers went up, so did a ton of red flags.
A simple Google search will tell you that a bowl is an unacceptable home for a goldfish for a plethora of reasons, so it’s disappointing to see how ill-researched this event was, or possibly how much information was willfully ignored. Most pet stores reserve the right to refuse to sell a fish to a customer who does not have adequate tank space.
PetSmart defines an adequate starter tank for a single goldfish as 10 gallons or more, while Petco suggests a minimum of 20 gallons. As the fish grows, though, a larger tank (30 gallons or more) is recommended. Such a large tank may sound extreme for one small fish, but goldfish can grow much larger than many people expect. Common goldfish often grow to 6 inches or more when kept in a pond or a spacious enough aquarium.
However, goldfish kept in bowls will generally never grow past 1 or 2 inches, because the limited space stunts their growth. As a result, the fish become deformed and sick, often dying after only a few months, which is significantly sooner than their average lifespan, according to literature found on Petco’s website. Bowls also allow the goldfish to move dangerously close to their opening, presenting fish the opportunity to jump out.
In addition to the insufficient living space, it is very difficult to use a filtration system of any kind with a bowl. While a goldfish may be able to survive without filtration, the amount of waste that they produce makes it very difficult to provide a clean environment for the fish without a proper filter. Buildup of chemicals, such as ammonia, in the bowl can eat away at the slime coating and bacteria that protect the fish’s body, causing painful burns and potential infections.
Fish can also be injured or killed by heavy metals and pollutants in tap water that is not properly treated. The flyers do not indicate any provision of water treatment products or pre-treated water with the bowls and fish. Petco suggests a water change in a goldfish’s aquarium every two to four weeks, and that’s in an aquarium with a filtration system. Without one, the fish owner would need to carry out water changes nearly every two or three days. Even the most dedicated college students likely don’t have time in their schedules for such a high-maintenance routine.
There is also no guarantee that every person who attends this event will understand the amount of effort required to give a goldfish good quality of life. Giving fish away, particularly with the inclusion of a bowl, allows people to pick up a pet entirely on impulse, meaning they are more likely to skip the research that acquiring a new pet would typically warrant.
Often, people who find themselves “in too deep” with a new aquatic pet will simply dump the animal into a local body of water. Pet goldfish released into waterways will quickly and prolifically breed, competing with native fish. They are also known to eat tadpoles or the larvae of other fish, leading to the elimination of other species in their new habitat. Because of the potentially disastrous environmental impact or miserable life in captivity the fish can have, some states have gone as far as banning events where goldfish are given away. In Iowa, Massachusetts, South Carolina, Maryland and Vermont, giving away goldfish at events is a criminal offense, punishable by fine.
I’ve personally reached out to UPC and suggested replacing the goldfish with cacti and other succulents, turning Fish Fest into a terrarium-creation event instead; at the time of writing this, I have yet to receive a reply. However, UPC has stated via social media that a reputable vendor will be providing the fish. Still, a vast majority of questions and concerns regarding the event remain unaddressed. At present, the best hope for these fish is for students to do their research and create a proper environment for a goldfish before picking one up.