Maine high court rules Harpswell woman can’t have exotic fish, but she says ‘they’re not taking my koi’

Georgette Curran of Cundys Harbor in Harpswell feeds and talks to her pet koi in the basement of her house Wednesday, June 27, 2012.
Georgette Curran of Cundys Harbor in Harpswell feeds and talks to her pet koi in the basement of her house Wednesday, June 27, 2012. Buy Photo
Posted Feb. 06, 2014, at 11:04 a.m.
Last modified Feb. 06, 2014, at 2:07 p.m.
A more than foot-long koi swims in a 90-gallon tank in the basement of Georgette Curran's house in Cundys Harbor Wednesday, June 27, 2012
A more than foot-long koi swims in a 90-gallon tank in the basement of Georgette Curran's house in Cundys Harbor Wednesday, June 27, 2012 Buy Photo

PORTLAND, Maine — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court signaled this week that it has reached a decision in the case of a Harpswell woman hoping to keep her exotic fish without restrictions.

The high court’s memorandum of decision Tuesday indicates it has affirmed a lower court ruling that the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife did not overstep its bounds when it hefted significant restrictions onto a permit it issued the woman.

As that permit was reportedly conditional to allow the legal process to play out, the law court’s decision could now pave the way for game wardens to order Georgette Curran of Cundy’s Harbor to move her nishiki koi fish out of state. State wildlife officials also could seize the exotic fish outright.

Cpl. John MacDonald of the Maine Warden Service said Thursday morning that he is not issuing any immediate comment about what the department will do next.

“They’re not taking my koi,” said Curran, who plans to apply for a new permit, Thursday. “I don’t know what I’m going to do, but they’re not taking my koi.”

Curran had told the Bangor Daily News in previous interviews she hoped to use the nearly two-year legal battle with state regulators as a platform to ultimately legalize possession of koi fish for everyone.

At the very least, she hoped to convince the state supreme court to force the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to lift what she considered onerous restrictions on a permit she initially received to keep the fish in July 2012 — after previous permit applications were denied.

Under the permit restrictions, Curran was required to provide the department with a full written description of the nishiki koi, have a necropsy performed on any koi that die, notify the department if the fish breed and destroy the new fish if the koi do reproduce.

The koi are a subspecies of carp, which are considered by the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to be an invasive threat to crowd out native fish species if released into Maine waters.

This week, the state’s highest court agreed with Kennebec County Superior Court Judge Donald Marden that the department was justified in seeking heavy restrictions on Curran’s koi ownership.

But Curran maintained on Thursday that rules regulating carp should not extend to koi. She also noted that another subspecies of carp, goldfish, are commonly owned across Maine.

“It would be like listing wolves [as illegal] and assuming dogs are, too. Koi are not common carp any more than a dog is a wolf. It’s a subspecies,” Curran said. “Maine does not have a koi law — it has a carp law.”

Curran has long argued her koi could not possibly reach the wild from her Harpswell facility, and the exotic fish are too fragile to survive cold Maine waters even if they did.

“At 66, I don’t need this pressure over a fish that wouldn’t survive out in this weather,” Curran, who represented herself in court, said Thursday. “But they’re hell-bent to say they’re an invasive species. Maybe if we were in West Virginia, in a different climate, it would be an issue, but not in Maine.”

In the winter, Curran’s fish live in a 900-gallon tank in her basement, and in the summer, she moves them to a nearly 6,000-gallon pond she built outside, which is lined with plastic, isolated from any waterways and has a filter system to keep the water clean. Curran said Thursday she has recently added a full roof and eight-foot-tall fencing enclosure, with locking doors, around the outside pond.

Curran’s case represents the latest in a debate over koi in Maine.

In 2006, state fisheries agents raided the China Rose restaurant in Freeport and seized koi being kept in a 150-gallon aquarium there, but later returned them after a lengthy legal battle and issuance of a special permit, which included restrictions similar to the ones imposed on Curran.

“How much is this [koi prohibition] costing the state? The rest of the world accepts koi as a common trade fish, but Maine doesn’t. And Maine wants jobs,” said Curran, who said she’s heard from retirees and landscapers who would move to the state if koi ponds were made legal. “Koi are a multimillion-dollar business everywhere else.”

There have been examples of koi finding their way into Maine’s natural waterways. In 2008, fish biologists said they discovered a koi in Pickerel Pond in Limerick and subsequently drained part of the pond in an effort to rid it of the rest.

BDN staff writers Beth Brogan and Christopher Cousins contributed to this story.

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