A new species is lurking in the waters of Lake Tahoe: the beloved goldfish.
The warm water fish, commonly raised as pets, are invading the pristine lake, taking food and space from native species. And, they're also growing to be quite large.
"They didn't have any predators, so they were able to grow up to 14 inches and four pounds," said Kevin Thomas, an environmental scientist at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Researchers and environmentalists say the trend is not new. Local residents have long reported sightings of the gigantic, bright orange creatures.
"It's not atypical for a strain of goldfish to get to a larger size," said Christine Ngai, a researcher at the University of Nevada, Reno. "They are like humans; some are taller or shorter."
The fish were likely dumped into the lake or used as bait. Like other warm water species, goldfish typically live in shallow areas, close to the shore.
"It's illegal to dump fish anywhere in the state of California," Thomas said, but he acknowledged the law is difficult to enforce when private docks extend into the lake.
For now, the giant goldfish are a nuisance, more than anything. The fish are known for their big appetites, and they secrete nutrients that promote algae growth.
The species is just one of six invasive fish - a list that includes largemouth bass, black crappie and bluegill.
California Fish and Wildlife officials and Nevada-Reno researchers are in the process of weeding out the invasive species. In the last two years, 35,000 nonnative fish have been removed, weighing a total of 4,700 pounds. About 88 goldfish were collected in the process. By comparison, 9,000 bluegills and 23,500 largemouth bass were captured.
"People need to be very careful about not introducing new species," said Ted Thayer, environmental coordinator at the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. "There's potential for great damage to an ecosystem."
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