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Ralph Gardner Jr: One Less Carp

NYS Department of Environmental Conservation Officer Jeffrey Cox
Ralph Gardner, Jr.

About a month ago I penned a commentary about the single fish in my pond – a grass carp. I suggested that I probably ought to give him a name because, after a number of years swimming around in solitude and growing to the approximate size of an ocean-going tuna, he’d assumed the status of a family pet.

Come spring, all would not be right with the world until I spied him lolling just beneath the surface of the water, knowing that he’d survived another winter.

Once I’d spotted him this season I was confident that I’d enjoy his company through the summer as he made his way through the depths and shallows, possessed, I suspected, of a powerful imagination.

The reason I say that is because nobody could spend that much time doing nothing more interesting than floating, sampling the vegetation at the edges of the pond, and on the occasions when a predator’s shadow darkened the water, vanishing into the depths with a reflexive spasm and splash -- without having a vivid inner life.

So it’s with great sadness that I’m forced to report that my carp is no more.

Before I go any further it’s probably best to offer that warning I often hear on TV that the following material might not be suitable for children or anybody with delicate feelings.

Last weekend I walked out to the pond in the full expectation that my experience would be as it always is – a combination of wonder, gratitude and curiosity about what wildlife – an unusual duck, a deer sipping at the water’s edge, a brigade of turtles basking in the sun – I might encounter there.

But the first thing that caught my eye was something white floating on the surface and so large that I guessed, with some anticipation, that it might be a swan. I’ve never before seen a swan on our pond. But part of the joy of this modest one-third acre of water is the anticipation, occasionally rewarded, of the novel and unexpected.

But as I raised my binoculars to my eyes I saw that the object wasn’t a swan but the bloated remains of my beloved carp floating belly up.

And the fish, as it turns out, was but the proverbial canary in the coal mine, though an over-sized and odiferous one.

Drawing closer to the pond I noticed a lot of debris in the water. At first I assumed it was leaves or pollen fallen from the surrounding oaks and maples. But as I looked closer I realized they were tadpoles and baby frogs, all of them dead.

My shock was slightly cushioned because I’d noticed something odd about the pond a few weeks earlier. An invasive weed – milfoil – was growing up from the bottom.

It returns every year. But it usually doesn’t make its fan-like tentacles apparent, and the pond less fun to swim, until late June or early July.

But this year I spotted the weed in May, and also the water clouded with an algae bloom. Milfoil crowds out native species and can also choke a pond of oxygen.

However, I noticed that larger frogs and turtles, who have the luxury of dividing their time between water and land and breathing the air, seemed to be doing just fine.

There were alternate explanations for the kill-off – pollution, poison, an ancient curse, vandalism.

However, none of those seemed likely. The pond is 100% spring-fed. There are no streams carrying water into it that might be tainted by pesticides or fertilizers.

But just to be on the safe side I contacted the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and one of their officers assigned to Columbia County, Jeffrey Cox, paid a visit the next morning.

He confirmed my suspicions, that the fish and frogs had probably been killed by a lack of oxygen. He thought the cause of the early milfoil bloom might have been a warm spell early in the spring, before what seemed like weeks of below normal temperatures and rain.

Officer Cox said he’d seen another pond in similar condition a couple of weeks earlier.

He thought the milfoil could have originally migrated to the pond on the feet or bodies of geese or ducks.

But there didn’t seem much that could be done except giving my friends a proper burial deep in the woods; I’d spent several hours collecting my carp (it must have weighed twenty pounds) and perhaps a thousand tadpoles.

I’m happy to report that the pond already appears to be on its way to recovery. The water is now reasonably clear. New tadpoles are slithering through it; salamanders, too. And the turtles seem as nonchalant as ever.

I mourn my carp, however, still expecting to find him making his rounds. The pond won’t truly be back to its old self until I find a suitably steadfast replacement.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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