If you had pets growing up, there’s a good chance that you owned at least one goldfish. But no matter how much you loved and fed Mr. Bubbles, he eventually had to go to the big fishbowl in the sky. And, for some reason, you probably sent him there by flushing him down the toilet.
Despite that practice becoming a virtual rite of childhood, environmentalists have finally asked that we stop flushing our goldfish down the toilet. That announcement was prompted by an unexpected discovery beneath the surface of the water.
Today, you don’t have to look hard to find a goldfish: they’re found at pet stores, fairs, and carnivals where you can win a new friend for a couple of bucks. It’s estimated that over 480 million goldfish are sold every year — that’s a lot of fish flushed down the toilet!
What’s strange, though, is that long ago, goldfish were more than just a carnival prize. In fact, the Jin Dynasty first recorded red, orange, and yellow carp between 250 and 420 AD — and they had a purpose that would’ve never seen them flushed.
Over time, the fish became status symbols; yellow was an imperial color in China and the iridescent scales were linked to wealth. Goldfish reached Europe in 1611 and spread to the United States in the 19th Century. But today, they’re subjected to “flushing funerals” — and it’s becoming a problem.
To better understand the issue, we’re heading to northern New York State, home to massive bodies of water. There, the non-profit organization Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper (BNW) work to protect the area’s watershed. Normally, they wouldn’t think about goldfish. They’ve got other issues to worry about.
The Buffalo News
For instance, they’ve been a driving force behind the rejuvenation of the Buffalo River and the surrounding area. The also give tours and help restore local shorelines and wetlands.
Since they spend so much time pulling things out of the water, BNW is used to making unexpected discoveries. But they recently found something even they hadn’t seen before.
BNW was at the Niagara River, which runs just past Buffalo and forms the border between the United States and Canada. The river is frequented by fisherman, but no one had ever caught what BNW found just downstream from a water treatment plant.
They caught a goldfish! Now, the Great Lakes might sound like a paradise to a goldie — your basic fish tank contain around a gallon or two of water. All of the Great Lakes combined hold six quadrillion gallons. But this fish was different.
See, this wasn’t your ordinary pet. While goldfish usually don’t grow more than a couple of inches long, in the right circumstances — like when they’re in a massive river full of food — they can become larger. The specimen they found proved that point.
It was 14 inches long! The environmentalists at BNW were blown away by their find, and immediately their scientific minds considered a handful of questions: how had this happened? And what repercussions did it have on the environment?
As to how this happened, BNW put forth two main theories. The first possibility was that someone released it into the river. For whatever reason, its owner couldn’t keep it and decided to set it free into the closest body of water.
The other idea was a little darker. It’s possible, they surmised, that a live fish was flushed down the toilet and, thanks to Buffalo’s combined sewage system, got dumped out into the river!
No matter the route it took to the Great Lake, you have to admit, that’s one tough goldfish! Still it’s not a unique journey; more goldfish are out there than you might believe.
Scientists estimate that between 40 and 50 million goldfish live in Lake Ontario alone. Still, they wondered how these pet fish — which can die in a matter of days at home — thrive in the wild?
Since they originated in Asia, goldfish have no natural predators in the Great Lakes. That mean’s they’re free to eat and reproduce to their heart’s content. While this may sound like a reward for your fish, it isn’t all fun and games out there.
Goldfish are actually wreaking havoc on the ecosystem. They decimate the food chain, making it harder for native fish and amphibians to survive.
So while, sending your fish to a massive body of water where it can eat until it’s as fat as a king, it isn’t wise. And at the end of the day, there are two morals to this fish tale.
First, be responsible with your goldfish! If you can’t keep your buddy any longer, don’t flush him or set him free in the wild. Give him to a friend or a pet store.
Secondly, goldfish are tougher than you thought. So if you flushed your childhood pet years ago, it could still be out there thinking of you — and it might be begging you to help keep the Great Lakes clean.
Because since the late ’90s, Lake Erie has endured a recurring pollution problem thanks to farmland runoff. Chemicals make their way into the lake and create something that sounds like bad news even for the scientific layman — toxic algae blooms.
Essentially, pockets of organisms form from an excess of nutrients — like nitrogen or phosphate — getting dumped into the water. Though an abundance of nutrients usually indicates a good sign, these masses have catastrophic effects on the environment.
Circle of Blue
See, once the microbes in the algae bloom die, they suck up all the oxygen in the water. In turn, all the living creatures depending on that oxygen die. The masses of oxygen-depletion have an appropriately sinister name — dead zones.
Algae blooms have plagued Toledo, Ohio, residents for years, but in 2014, the situation reached a new low. The city of Toledo announced a 3-day tap water ban because the toxicity had contaminated the drinking water.
This environmental hazard left 110 people sick and still another half million were stuck without safe drinking water. Given that over 11 million people receive their drinking water from Lake Erie, this incident showed the widespread ramifications of toxic blooms. But what could be done?
Joshua Lott / Reuters/ National Geographic
Speaking out and raising voices against the pollutions had earned no action from public officials. So local activists gathered in a bar to hash out their concerns over a few beers. They wracked their brains and finally hatched an outside-the-box solution.
Toledoans For Safe Water / Facebook
They pushed to win Lake Erie legal rights. Markie Miller of the Toledoans for Safe Water led the charge. She explained, “For three days in 2014, we lost access to our drinking water, and we didn’t see any action come out of that. We wanted to do something for ourselves.”
The initiative to consider Lake Erie as a legal person marked the first case of Rights of Nature being instituted in the US. Surprisingly, though, it wasn’t unprecedented: other countries have pulled the somewhat unusual card to protect nature.
The Rights of Nature
The Rights of Nature movement has sprouted up all over the world. The movement aimed to show “Rights of Nature is about balancing what is good for human beings against…what is good for the planet as a world.” In fact, Lake Erie joined a long list of other natural resources looking for human level freedoms.
We Can International
Back in 2008, Ecuador prioritized this green legislation by recognizing the rights of Mother Nature in its constitution. The resolution passed with 64% of the vote, making it the first country to take this forward-thinking step.
DGR News Service
New Zealand followed suit in 2014 when they declared the Te Urewera forest to have personhood. Thanks largely in part to the efforts of the Maori peoples of the Tuhoe, who believe the lake holds utmost significance to their culture. The list continued growing.
India passed legislation affirming legal rights to the sacred Ganges and Yamuna rivers in 2017. The law qualified the rivers as “legal and living entities having the status of a legal person with all the corresponding rights, duties, and liabilities.” However, the status didn’t last.
Just four months later, the personhood of the heavily polluted rivers was overturned in the High Court, which reasoned the legislation was “not practical,” despite Hindus believing the rivers to be holy. The rights of nature were certainly not a guarantee — so would this work in Toledo?
Hinduism Stack Exchange
Back there, the efforts of local activists sparked a special election. On February 26th, 2019, the people filed to voting booths to make their voices heard loud and clear. And they were.
When all the votes were tallied, the Lake Erie Bill of Rights Charter Amendment passed with 61% of the vote! Best of all, the bill’s passing happened at a crucial moment.
According to environmentalists, flood levels for the Great Lake were to surpass any other previous years, bringing water levels to an all-time high. Protecting the water from pollutants was necessary to avoid a recurrence of tainted drinking water.
The Weather Channel
A delighted Markie Miller gave a statement on behalf of the Toledoans for Safe Water about the historic law. “Beginning today,” she said, “the people of Toledo and our allies are ushering in a new era of environmental rights.” Still, not everyone was onboard.
Farmers, like Mark Drewes of Drewes Farm Partnership, cried out in protest of the bill, making moves the day after its passage to sue in hopes to see the bill of rights overturned as unconstitutional. Others protested in different ways.
Of the several lawsuits filed in protest of the new legislation, all made the argument that the Lake Erie Bill of Rights is an overreach of government regulation; that it opens farmers up to hefty lawsuits and puts financial strains on the ability to do their jobs and their very livelihoods.
Activist Tish O’Dell said, “We’re seeing the results of our narrow-mindedness, of our belief that nature is property and property ownership is the highest right. The hope is that by beginning somewhere, like Toledo, the conversation enlarges. You never know what’s going to be the tipping point.”
Toledoans For Safe Drinking Water / Facebook
As of 2019, the lawsuits were pending, so whether the Lake Erie Bill of Rights would retain its personhood remained to be seen. Still, the landmark case could inspire other environmental activists across the United States to protect ecosystems under climate duress.