ST. GEORGE – Wildlife officials in Cedar City received a surprise Wednesday morning when someone brought in a large fish they found along the shore of a city fishing pond. Soon identified as a pacu, a popular aquarium fish, officials took to social media to warn people against ditching their fish in outdoor ponds and rivers.
“This pacu was found dead on the shore at the Lake at the Hills in Cedar City today,” wildlife officials posted on the Facebook page for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Southern Utah region. The post came complete with photos of the expired fish.
“The pacu is a popular aquarium fish and was probably recently released by its owner after outgrowing its tank. Native to the Amazon, the pacu didn’t survive long in the cold water,” officials wrote on Facebook.
The pacu is a more placid cousin to the piranha and lacks its nasty, pointy-fanged teeth. A pacu’s teeth are more flat and human-like and used to chomp fruit that falls into the water from overhanging trees, rather than tear out chunks of meat.
“We don’t see this very often,” said Phil Tuttle, DWR’s outreach manager for Southern Utah.
While finding the fish in Cedar City was a surprise, it’s not the first time a large pacu has surfaced in Southern Utah.
In June 2015, St. George resident Mark Magnera saw a large fish swimming in the Boilers pond, also known as Warm Springs, in Washington City. Curious as to what type of fish it was, he fished it out, took some photos, then put the fish back in the pond. He did not know if the then-unidentified fish was endangered or protected, he said.
He subsequently contacted DWR and learned the identity of what he had caught.
“It’s the weirdest, biggest fish I’ve caught,” Magnera said.
Due to the Boilers’ consistent 72-75 degrees temperature year-round, it has long been a spot where area residents have tossed pet fish.
However, ditching the fish is a big no-no as far as wildlife officials are concerned, and just happens to be illegal as well.
“This is a good reminder that releasing aquarium fish in Utah waters is ILLEGAL and potentially highly damaging to the lake environment,” official wrote on the Facebook post.
Tuttle echoed those words Wednesday.
So what’s the big deal?
“These fish could be invasive and out-compete our native species,” Tuttle said.
A recent example of what dumping pet fish into a water system can do played out last summer at the Red Hills Desert Garden in St. George.
The Washington County Water Conservancy District oversees the Red Hills Desert Garden which features a stream packed with fish and plants found in the Virgin River ecosystem. The water itself is brought in from the river it imitates.
Populating the stream are fish native to the river like the Virgin River chub and woundfin minnow. Both are listed as endangered species.
They were among the primary residents of the stream until someone introduced goldfish and other fishy invaders into the mix.
“The No. 1 threat we have to our native and wild fish are introduced species,” said Cory Cram, assistant general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District.
The goldfish reproduced so fast that the water district was left with little option but to catch all of the native fish it could, drain the stream, treat the remaining water, and start over.
Fortunately there hasn’t been a resurgence of the problem fish at the desert garden since then, Cram said.
An invasive species can do many things to decimate a native population. It can prey on the native fish or compete for the same food source and destroy a species that way. An example of that is the invasive red shiner that has plagued the Virgin River.
An invasive species can also spread far and wide through an ecosystem if the body of water the fish are dumped into is connected to a larger water system.
Know the law (from the Utah DWR “Don’t ditch a fish!” website)
- Introducing fish — including aquarium species — into Utah waters is illegal.
- Transporting live fish from one water to another is a violation of state law.
- Releasing any species of fish into a Utah pond, stream or lake is against the law.
- Fishing with live baitfish is illegal in Utah.
To learn more about the dangers of releasing fish and proper ways to dispose of pet fish, visit the “Don’t ditch a fish!” page on the DWR website.
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