BROWNVILLE, Maine — Cheri Szidat’s daily morning routine was to fill her coffee cup and then walk outside and watch the goldfish in her hobby pond at her Wildwood Trailside Cabins and Lodge.
Twelve of the goldfish were transplants that Szidat had carried across the state line nearly five years ago from a hobby pond at her former Massachusetts home. Those goldfish over the years produced many offspring in the pond, which doubles as a fire protection pond.
Until the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife received an anonymous tip on its Operation Game Thief hot line last November, Szidat had been unaware she not only had violated federal law by transporting the goldfish across a state line, but also Maine law by keeping them in an outdoor pond.
“I didn’t know it was illegal. I just put my pet goldfish in there,” Szidat said Monday as she watched state biologists spray the chemical Rotenone into her $45,000 lined pond to kill the goldfish.
After the November hot line call, state officials began an investigation, which concluded Monday when the goldfish were destroyed.
Szidat and her husband, Paul, could have faced fines of up to $10,000, but because they cooperated with state officials and allowed the fish to be destroyed, they will escape any penalty. As a good-will gesture, the biologists agreed to net some of the goldfish from the fire protection pond so the couple could keep them in an aquarium inside the lodge. They also plan to give Szidat a permit so she can stock native species in her pond.
While the Szidats were unaware they were violating federal and Maine laws, others are more deliberate.
Illegal fish stockings are on the rise and stand to threaten the ecosystems of Maine’s watersheds, according to Nels Kramer, a biologist of the DIF&W’s Enfield office. Kramer, who was at the lodge on Monday, said there has been an epidemic of illegal fish introductions in the state, including bass, pike and koi, which is a variety of carp.
Last Thursday, a fisherman on Endless Lake caught two largemouth bass, which is a new invasive species in that watershed, Kramer said. Endless Lake is in the Piscataquis drainage, east of Sebois Lake.
Invasive fish, most of which are illegally introduced via pails from one body of water to another, compete with native species, Kramer noted.
The introduction of illegal fish “has just gotten out of hand,” he said.
Kramer said the biologists saw the case with the Szidats as an opportunity to educate the public about invasive species. There may be other people in the state who are unfamiliar with the law, he said.
“Goldfish are very prolific, and a lot of people are unaware they’re not supposed to have them outside,” Jason Seiders, a DIF&W biologist, said Monday. “We actually consider this an illegal stocking of a private pond.”
Maine law stipulates that tropical fish and goldfish have to be inside, Seiders said. “The concern is that with an outside pond like this, it’s kind of an uncontrolled environment and, even if it’s unlikely, you could always have someone come in and move fish around,” he said.
Dressed in a white protective garment on Monday, Seiders sprayed the chemical over the water, turning it milky white. Several minutes later, goldfish, a frog, some minnows and a sucker or two could be seen floating near the surface. As they rose to the top, the biologists removed the fish with nets.
Rotenone, which is derived from plant roots, basically inhibits the oxygen and suffocates the fish, according to Seiders. Even though the pond, which has no outlet or inlet, was treated, Seiders said the fish could be placed in fresh water to be resuscitated.
Brian Campbell, a regional biologist with DIF&W’s Enfield office, said that the chemical would dissipate within two to three days and that the Szidats would likely be able to use the pond again by next Monday.
Cheri Szidat said she recognized the need for the actions taken Monday by the DIF&W officials.
“I understand why they’re doing it,” she said, adding, however, that the greater problem is people who have a tank of goldfish in their house, get bored with taking care of them and then dump them in a pond, lake or river.
While she was upset to lose her goldfish, Szidat said she was pleased she won’t be faced with a penalty, especially after surviving a winter that was bad economically for her business because of the lack of snow. She plans to focus her efforts on restoring the pond as a focal point of the lodge, which serves as a backdrop for weddings and reunions. Only this time, she plans to keep it legal with native fish.
“I have to start all over again” to build up the pond’s ecosystem, Szidat said. “I just want people not to make the same mistake [that we did.]”