When game wardens seized 50 illegal koi in Harpswell on Monday, some readers likely were left wondering why the possession of a bunch of captive fish was such a big deal.
Many people, after all, keep fish in tanks in their homes.
But koi are not legal to possess in Maine, joining many other species that are not recognized on the state’s “unrestricted list,” which itemizes the critters that Mainers can own.
And after a two-year legal battle, state officials stepped in to seize Georgette Curran’s koi.
The state’s stance on koi is not mirrored in many other parts of the country, and the sale of koi and koi-raising supplies is big business for some.
In South Hadley, Mass., for instance, Cathy Knowles co-owns New England Koi, where you can buy nearly every koi-related product you’d ever need.
“Maine is really the only [state] that I am aware of [that doesn’t allow koi],” Knowles said via phone on Wednesday. “We ship to pretty much every state in the U.S., products for people’s ponds.”
So what makes koi so attractive to so many?
“Koi can be extremely friendly. They actually become more like a pet,” Knowles said. “They eat out of your hand. The recognize your voice. There is a long tradition of koi keeping in Japan. Some of these fish will live up to 100 years and be willed from family member to family member.”
Knowles also said that a koi keeper is unlikely to put the fish in situations where they might get free and wind up in a nearby lake or pond.
Knowles will sell a six- to eight-inch koi for $50. But she said the sky’s the limit with koi, and a single fish from a particular breeder can cost thousands of dollars. With that kind of investment at stake, she said koi keepers are very careful.
Francis Brautigam, a regional fisheries biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said that’s not always the case, and pointed out that one person’s idea of “careful” might not match another’s. In one case, Brautigam said that a person in Limerick released another person’s koi into a public pond because the two were angry at one another.
That koi was eventually captured by biologists.
Brautigam said koi could cause plenty of problems in any local lake or pond.
“The reality is, a koi is a carp, so a lot of the environmental damage that carp cause can be caused by koi,” Brautigam said. “Their feeding strategy is that they grab material from the bottom and spit it up in the water column and eat [the organisms that emerge] … They create a tremendous amount of turbidity [in the water]. It’s really bad for water quality.”
Brautigam said restricting the species that are allowed in Maine makes perfect sense to him.
“I think we have such a rich fisheries resource it would be irresponsible to open the door to fish or any other organism that has [a negative] effect on our cold water resources,” he said.
But the unrestricted list doesn’t just address fisheries concerns. All wild critters, whether they slither, crawl, run or fly, must be on that list in order for a Mainer to possess it.
“The idea behind the approved list is that those are species that don’t pose a threat to the native wildlife of the state of Maine or the people of Maine themselves,” said Jim Connolly, director of the DIF&W’s bureau of resource management. “We do try to reach out to folks who are experts, inside the department and also outside of the department, to try to evaluate animals to decide if they’re appropriate.”
And the list is always a work in progress. One species, the red-eared slider turtle, for instance, was once allowed in Maine. Now it’s not, though some folks who already owned the turtles have been allowed to keep them.
And Connolly said that although the state does not currently allow people to own hedgehogs, the department is studying a species of pygmy hedgehog to see if it would be appropriate to allow those animals in Maine.
Maine Game Warden Lt. Dan Scott said wardens investigate several cases each year that deal with animals not on the unrestricted list.
“More than a dozen and less than a hundred,” Scott said.
Among the animals wardens have seized: Capuchin monkeys, scorpions, tarantulas, caimans, alligators and various snakes.
Scott said that in most cases, when koi keepers are told that the fish are illegal to possess, a simple solution is found.
Wardens will often arrange for the koi owner to make contact with other koi owners in states where the fish are allowed, and help the two parties transfer the fish.
“Our goal with a lot of these situations is to bring [the koi owner] into compliance without taking further action,” Scott said.