HARPSWELL, Maine — A Harpswell woman who has been ordered to get rid of an exotic species of fish is about to receive a permit to keep them under certain restrictions, but she says she is taking the issue to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court in an effort to have the restrictions lifted.
Georgette Curran of Harpswell is no question an animal person. She breeds numerous varieties of freshwater fish, which she sells to animal retailers, and has dozens of other pets. But as far as the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife is concerned, her stock of nishiki koi poses a danger to Maine’s waterways.
Koi, which is a subspecies of carp, is classified by the department as an invasive fish that if released into a pond, lake or river, has the potential to take over and eliminate native fish species, according to Andrea Erskine, deputy commissioner of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. However, Erskine said this week she is reinstating a wildlife importation and possession technical committee to study whether koi and a number of other exotic species are safe in Maine.
“There’s just a lot of concern about the risk of the fish escaping, of someone picking some up from [Curran’s] pond,” said Erskine. “We don’t want them to spread.”
Curran, who has hundreds of fish of various varieties in an elaborate aquarium setup in her home, bought her first koi about six years ago. She doesn’t know exactly how many she has, but it is at least a couple dozen, she said. In the winter, the fish live in a 900-gallon tank in her basement, and in the summer, she moves them to a 5,000-gallon pond she built outside, which is lined with plastic, isolated from any waterways and has a filter system to keep the water clean.
“A koi is a domesticated version of the common carp,” said Curran. “These fish are mutts compared to the ones in Japan. They just wouldn’t survive in the wild. It would be like throwing a chihuahua into the woods and expecting it to live. Our waters are too cold for them.”
She said she thought they were goldfish when she bought them.
“I found out later they were koi,” she said. “They hooked me and I bought the rest on eBay.”
The dispute over koi in Maine isn’t a new issue. In 2006, state fisheries agents stepped in when they discovered koi being kept in a 150-gallon aquarium at the China Rose restaurant in Freeport. The state seized the fish, but returned them when the owner of the restaurant, who said koi are thought to bring good luck in Asian cultures, received a special permit allowing the fish under the same restrictions being imposed on Curran: that the fish are kept inside, are well documented with photographs and details about each fish, and the owner agrees to periodic state inspections.
And there have been examples of koi finding their way into 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. Erskine said there also have been reports of varieties of carp found in some coastal Maine rivers.
Though Curran said she understands the concern, she said Maine’s restrictions against carp are too broad and the law should be more specific about subspecies like hers. She said her koi have never reproduced and that she’s never sold one despite their value, which can run into the hundreds or thousands of dollars. She regards them and many of her other fish as pets.
In her downstairs aquarium, Curran has an easy chair where she said she spends hours each day enjoying her fish. The koi, which recognize her and are shy with strangers, flutter their fins around her when she comes near, nibbling at her fingers and letting her pet them. There is one that will swim into her hand over and over again so she can toss it into the water with a splash.
Curran, who has high blood pressure and has lost her mother and fiance in recent years, said the time she spends with her fish — many of which have names such as Phoenix, Lemon, Spotty and Tiger — is good for her health.
“My fish mean the world to me,” she said. “They are very therapeutic and calming. Losing them would end the way I look at life. I’d be devastated. They’re my Prozac.”
Though she takes good care of her fish, including feeding them specialized food she said is available at virtually any Walmart or pet store, Curran said they need to be in her outside pond during the summer. She built the pond just for the koi at a steep cost and installed wiring over the water to prevent owls and other birds from preying on them.
“It’s not good for them to keep them in this tank,” she said. “It’s too small.”
In June, a couple months after game wardens first visited her home after learning of her koi, Curran received a written order from the DIF&W that she must transport her koi out of state. Curran appealed the order, but has not yet received a decision, so she has decided to fight the battle in court. Meanwhile, Erskine said Thursday that she was working on granting Curran a permit to keep them, but with restrictions.
Curran, who plans to represent herself in the Maine supreme court case, which has not yet been scheduled, said her goal is to make koi legal to keep in Maine. She said koi are allowed in every other state in the country. Erskine said she couldn’t confirm whether that is true, nor whether other states place restrictions on koi. She said that is one of the first aspects of keeping koi in Maine that the technical committee will research when it convenes. The committee, which hasn’t yet been named but may begin meeting by the end of the summer, also will study numerous other exotic animals that Mainers wish to own, such as wallabies, primates and other species of fish.
Erskine said it’s important to protect Maine’s natural resources, and cited northern pike that were illegally put in Long Pond in Belgrade as an example of what can happen. The pike there have driven out virtually all of the native fish in the pond.
“There are people in the public who don’t feel this is appropriate,” said Erskine. “Some think, ‘Why would we regulate on keeping cute little animals?’ But there are a fair amount of people who have concerns about whether the animals should be here.”