The goldfish is actually a variant (or many variants, to be more precise) of the carp Carassius auratus. Although this species is native to central Asia, China and Japan in the wild, the goldfish has been introduced throughout the planet. While it is generally not considered an ecological threat to most aquatic habitats based on several hundred years of experience with accidentally or intentionally released fish, some negative impacts from introduced populations have been reported. While most well-cared-for goldfish only live a few years, the longest reported lifespan was over 40 years. Although there is considerable commercial production in sub-tropical regions of the U.S., goldfish actually prefer cool- and cold-water conditions and they have several adaptations that enhance their survival when ponds are frozen over.
Exactly when selective breeding of goldfish began in ancient Imperial China is not clear, but most accounts suggest it was well over 1000 years ago. Over the following centuries, the culture of various color varieties and body shapes advanced and in the early 1600’s goldfish varieties were introduced to Japan and southern Europe. Accounts vary as to the time and place of the first introduction of goldfish into the U.S., but by the late 1700’s a number of introductions had probably occurred. In the 1880’s and 1890’s the U.S. Commission on Fisheries was accommodating requests for live goldfish through members of Congress, with annual distributions of 20,000-plus fish. This politically driven activity actually served to advance the popularity of the species, and by the turn of the twentieth century goldfish could be found in bowls, tanks and ponds throughout the country.
By the 1920’s rare varieties were regularly imported from Asia for breeding purposes and there were dozens of commercial goldfish hatcheries around the country. A number of goldfish societies had become established in the U.S. and regular exhibitions and competitive shows were becoming more common.
Mass produced goldfish had become common in the 1950’s and 1960’s as staple items at many five-and-dime stores and inexpensive prizes at County Fairs and outdoor festivals. The use of live goldfish as bait for both commercial and recreational fishing became common, and as the aquarium hobby (including zoos and public aquariums) expanded to include many large predatory species during the 1970’s the market for “feeder” fish took off as well.
Selection of breeding stock can begin when fish are still very young, usually with a focus on desirable colors and body shapes. Many fish will be mature at one year of age, with a weight range of 2 to 4 per pound, and some producers maintain their brood fish for many years before retiring them. Although goldfish are generally tolerant of rough handling and transport stress, fish that will eventually serve as breeders should be handled with care. Spawning usually takes place in outdoor tanks, vats or ponds when water temperatures reach 60o F in the spring.
In most cases, spawning mats are used to collect fertilized eggs, allowing for the transfer of eggs to other ponds or tanks for initial rearing. If a pond will be used for spawning and subsequent fry production, it should be filled no more than one or two days before broodstock are introduced. Fertilizers should be added as the pond is filled in order to have appropriately sized plankton available as food for newly-hatched fish. If all goes well, fry will be seen schooling along the pond’s edge one- to two weeks after spawning.
Newly hatched fry generally take about six weeks to reach an average length of ¾ inches, at which point they are graded and stocked out for growth to marketable size. Since spawning only occurs once per year, stocking and feeding rates determine (roughly) age and size at harvest over the following twelve months. Having a number of ponds stocked at different densities (25 thousand to 1 million fish per acre) allows regular shipments of uniform product. This, however, may also require a significant investment and the need to compete for market share with large, established producers.
According to the 2018 Census of Aquaculture conducted by the USDA, some 328,000 pounds of feeder and bait goldfish sales were reported by 35 farms that year, with a value of $1.162 million. That equated to a farm gate price of $3.55 per pound of live fish. In contrast, summary data for ornamental goldfish were not available due to confidentiality concerns, but average prices per fish ranged between $0.75 and $5.23.
Although this is not as critical a consideration for goldfish and other ornamental species as it is for foodfish, markets must be available to accommodate your production when it is ready for harvest because maintaining the crop beyond a harvestable size requires excessive feed, labor and energy costs as well as unproductive use of facilities and capital. As a producer you will need to provide value through quality control and customer service, but your customers must also be willing to provide reliable outlets for your fish production when you need to move it.
Accurate and detailed cost projections are essential when establishing a goldfish farming business. Projected costs (variable, fixed, marketing and opportunity costs) must be compared to prevailing market prices for the sizes and quality of the fish you intend to produce. Keep in mind economies of scale – a smaller operation will have higher costs and will require small-volume markets that are willing and able to pay higher prices. This may not be realistic for feeder and bait goldfish production, and for ornamental varieties it will require a focus on higher-quality fish. This in turn will involve a higher investment in breeding stock and more labor and infrastructure to accommodate culling of sub-standard fingerlings.
Your input suppliers (feed, equipment, chemicals, etc.) must be reliable and trustworthy, even when larger customers are competing with you. Consider your feed requirements – who will supply it, at what cost, and in what quantities will it be delivered? Where will your breeding stock come from? Again – how often, at what price and in what quantities?
Small scale feeder goldfish production may not be profitable without a competitive edge in local markets due to accessibility, customer service and logistics. In contrast, the ease of entering markets for fancy, ornamental fish depends more on the quality of the product you will be offering. Regulations on live transport and possession of many aquatic species, including goldfish, vary from state to state, so this aspect of the marketing plan should receive special attention and regular updating.
Prepared by C. Greg Lutz, Louisiana State University Agricultural Center