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COMMENTARY

Giant goldfish of Black Rock: A flush followed by global fame

In an unlikely moment in the sun, the most celebrated resident of the Black Rock Canal is a giant goldfish receiving a 21st century burst of international fame.

Yet Marcus Rosten, who helps with social media for Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper, said the goldfish would still be living in murky anonymity if not for the Twitter "Creature Feature" that Waterkeeper sends out every Friday, spotlighting unusual or fascinating wildlife along the Niagara River and the Great Lakes.

Even so, he hardly guessed a 14-inch Buffalo goldfish would command such attention.

"This is the craziest thing I've ever seen," said Rosten, coordinator of community engagement for Waterkeeper, an agency dedicated to protecting and restoring the quality of the Niagara River watershed.

One week, for the Creature Feature, Rosten went with cliff swallows, which adapt to a changing city landscape by building their unique nests on such places as, say, the USS Little Rock. On another Friday, he tweeted about bowfins, his favorite fish, "which have the ability to gulp air for oxygen thanks to a swim bladder that acts like a lung."

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That raised the bar. What could possibly top bowfins, which can also "swim backwards thanks to a dorsal fin that runs almost the entire length of their bodies"?

Rosten had an idea, based on his old job. Last Friday, he tweeted about the 14-inch goldfish he found two years ago in the Black Rock Canal, just south of the International Railroad Bridge, when he was still working as a biological technician on invasive species for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

"They aren't really that uncommon, but this is the largest I've found," Rosten said, noting that more than a dozen goldfish were discovered in the same survey.

Marcus Rosten with a bowfin, a Great lakes survivor and his favorite fish. (Courtesy Marcus Rosten)

What made the tweet particularly interesting was the theory associated with it: While the fish could have been dumped in at some point from the shoreline, Rosten said the saga probably began when someone flushed a small goldfish down the toilet. Most likely, he said, it managed to bypass the meet-your-maker wastewater treatment process and went straight into the river, probably when lots of rain or snow caused the sewers to kick into combined overflow mode, mingling sewer and storm water.

That provided a second chance in the wild, and this goldfish embraced it with zeal. By 2017, it had grown to more than a foot long, which means that by now it might be big enough to hang around the Bird Island Pier, working on a six-pack and second-guessing the Sabres.

That is because Rosten, a Cheektowaga native, put the goldfish back. He found it during an electrofishing survey, when Fish & Wildlife staff give a little zap to immobilize wildlife in a particular waterway, before counting them up and then returning them to the water. Other goldfish turned up at the same time, none nearly as big as the one Rosten tweeted about the other day.

In any event, Rosten hardly expected what would happen once he put up the Tweet, even though it offered great get-your-attention language:

Boom. It took off. Within a couple of days, Waterkeeper was getting calls about the giant goldfish of Black Rock from the BBC and the Huffington Post. Rosten sings in the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus, and a friend from the BPC also alerted him to a Japanese paper that did a big article based on the Tweet.

The Waterkeeper staff, knowing a good thing when they see it, climbed on the train. If you go to their website, they now have a drop-down alert called, "What's with the goldfish?" that calls for civic membership in the "Voluntary Flushing Society," which basically means a toilet should only be used for, well, the purpose for which it was built.

In other words, at least until all combined overflows are no more, seemingly cute household pets – like goldfish – can become invasive species once released into waterways where they essentially have no predators or competition, especially because they can survive our winters. Indeed, what makes the giant goldfish of Black Rock so interesting, Rosten said, is that domestic goldfish – after they start mating in the wild – quickly lose that pet store sheen and become more of a dull brown.

This goldfish was as gold as gold can be, meaning – in a fashion similar to Nemo, of cinematic fame (spoiler here!) – it most likely went straight from someone's home, through the sewer system and into the river.

As for all the skeptical online comments telling Rosten that what he is holding in the photo is one especially good-looking carp, he said that is not so. The difference comes down to barbels – a 'slender, whiskerlike sensory organ near the mouth.'

Carp have them. Goldfish do not.

The giant of the Black Rock Canal, Rosten said, was barbel-less.

Cliff swallows, another star of the 'Creature Feature.' (Courtesy Marcus Rosten)

This is hardly the only household pet, dumped into nature, that manages to thrive. Rosten said red-eared sliders, the familiar household turtles, have pushed and shouldered their way – yes, turtles have shoulders – into becoming a common presence in local ponds, sometimes at the expense of native species.

So to Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper, this world-famous goldfish serves as a living message. Please do not give little Goldie from the ball-toss game at the carnival a swirling farewell, because goldfish out of a bowl never really stop growing, and the only natural enemy those goldfish would have in Black Rock are 5-foot-long house cats.

OK, I made that up. But Rosten said the trouble with releasing fish, turtles, snakes and other pets into our local environment really comes down to this.

"They take the niche of our local species, they can disrupt food chains, and they have a tendency," he said, "to muddy our waters."

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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