Transporting koi safely from one pond to another or to a koi show
It is possible for koi to be transported from the dealer to the home pond, from one pond to another if a koi-keeper should change address, or be transported to and from koi shows without discomfort or risking harm to them provided it is done correctly. There are two main methods; they may be transported individually in plastic bags or in a purpose made transport tank which will usually be designed for transporting several koi at once.
With either method, it is important that the koi should not be stressed either during the netting process, during bagging and transport or when they are released. Stress is a commonly used word in koi-keeping circles but what does it mean?
The purpose and benefits of the stress response
In the very short term, a physical/physiological stress response in animals, including fish, has been an evolutionary advantage. When faced with an environmental condition or a situation that might affect its health or its safety, the automatic response is to release into the bloodstream what are commonly called “fight or flight” hormones. The full physiological effects are too complex to describe in detail here but hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol prepare an animal to fight off the aggressor or to get away from the situation as quickly as possible. Functions such as the heart rate, blood pressure and respiration increase. Blood flow is diverted away from bodily functions that can be dispensed with in the short term in order to allow maximum blood flow to the muscles and parts of the body that are most important to the fight or flight response. After fighting off the aggressor or getting away from the situation as appropriate, the levels of the stress hormones subside. The heart rate and respiration return to normal and such functions as were put on hold for a few minutes can resume.
Since koi were not designed to fight, their preferred response to a fight or flight situation is to swim quickly away to safety. If it is possible for them to do this then the stress response would be a good reaction. The stress hormones which will have allowed the koi to get away from danger can quickly subside with no long term ill effects on it. But what will happen if a koi cannot get away from a situation where it perceives itself as under threat?
The potential harmful effects of continued stress
The stress response evolved to give fish (and other animals) maximum advantage in a fight or flight situation but if a fish cannot escape from the stressful stimulus, the release of stress hormones will not stop after a few minutes, they will continue to be released. The fight or flight response that evolved to provide a short term advantage now begins to work to the detriment of the fish. The heart rate and respiration were not designed to work at elevated levels for longer than a few minutes at a time. Nor were the digestion, immune system and osmoregulatory system intended to be shut down for extended periods. A fish that is stressed for extended periods by its environment or other stressful situations can become physically harmed by processes that originally evolved in order to allow it to swim quickly away from danger. Alternatively, its depressed immune system might allow the koi to fall victim to a disease or pathogen that it might have successfully resisted if its immune system had been working to its full efficiency. This explains why fish sometimes fall prey to diseases such as ichthyophthirius multifiliis (white spot) after being subjected to a stressful journey or situation. This parasite is common in the aquatic environment and is normally successfully resisted by healthy fish but it can take advantage and infect a fish that has an impaired immune system.
The importance of water quality in avoiding stress or harm when moving koi
The fear in a fish of potential danger is not the only stressor (stress stimulus or situation) that can trigger the stress response; this response can also be caused by poor water quality. Just as a potentially dangerous situation would normally cause a koi in a lake to swim rapidly to a safer place, poor water quality would also invoke the same response. A koi in a travel bag or transport tank, in which water quality is poor, will become doubly stressed; firstly by the physical effects of the poor water quality and secondly by the fact that it is unable to swim away to somewhere where the water quality is better.
Preparation when koi are about to be moved is a key factor in ensuring good water quality during transport. Koi are ammonotelic which means that they eat and metabolise protein which results in the waste product, nitrogen, being excreted in the form of ammonia. For this reason, unless the journey is likely to be short, it is a good idea not to feed koi for about five days before they will be transported. This will allow any protein they have eaten to be fully metabolised along with any stored amino acids from that protein. It is the breakdown of protein into amino acids and the further breakdown of those acids that produces ammonia as a waste product so, after this period, although the excretion of ammonia will not cease entirely, it will be very much reduced. Decreasing the amount of ammonia that can build up in a travel bag or transport tank, not only reduces the risk of harm due to ammonia burns, to the gills or fins in particular, but when a high ammonia level reduces water quality in a travel bag or transport tank, a fish will be stressed by that poor water quality.
A second reason to not feed fish for five days before they are moved in order to reduce their ammonia excretions is due to the fact that the ammonia level inside a fish cannot be lower that the ammonia level in its surrounding water. If koi are fed normally before being moved and, as a result, ammonia were allowed to build up in the water in a travel bag or tank, the ammonia level that will build up inside a fish in that water due to it being unable to dump ammonia can cause it to become stressed. In extreme cases, the elevated ammonia level inside the fish may even prove fatal.
A third reason not to feed fish prior to them being moved is because a great deal of oxygen is required in order to digest and metabolise food. Koi that are being regularly fed will take more oxygen from the water than those that haven’t been fed for a few days.
The higher oxygen demand of regularly fed koi in a koi pond is unimportant. As respiration removes oxygen and replaces it with dissolved carbon dioxide, the air stones in the pond will replace that oxygen and help remove the carbon dioxide by a process known as gassing off. When koi are being moved in a bag, the oxygen available to them is obviously limited to whatever is in the bag at the time it is sealed and so, if feeding is suspended prior to them being moved, the oxygen in the water in the bag will not be depleted so quickly. When koi are moved in a transport tank, it is usual for there to be an air pump that can run from the vehicle’s battery and so, as long as this air supply is sufficient, it is arguable that if the koi are only being moved from one pond to another, the higher oxygen demand of fish that have been fed normally will not be important. This is true but since normally fed fish will cause more ammonia pollution in addition to the higher oxygen demand, even koi that are being moved in an aerated transport tank should still not be fed for five days prior to the journey.
It should be noted that where koi are being transported in order to take them to a koi show, not feeding them for the five days prior to the show is also a requirement under the Show Rules and Guidelines of the UK Koi Policy Unit (UKKPU) which were published in November 2010 and which are soon expected to define show protocol for all UK koi shows.
- 11.4.1 The Koi should not be fed by the Koi Keeper for 5 days prior to travelling to the Koi Show. There is sufficient natural food in the pond to sustain them. This precaution will help to minimise ammonia in the transport bags and significantly reduce the need for water changes due to raised ammonia levels in your Show Vat.
There have always been recommendations regarding feeding koi before koi shows and this rule was written in its present form so as to be compliant with appropriate animal welfare legislation. It has since been adopted in its current wording in the BKKS show rules as published in March 2011.
Oxygen in travel bags
The amount of dissolved oxygen that water can hold is very small when compared with the amount of oxygen in the air above it and since the dissolved oxygen will rapidly start to deplete anyway, it makes sense to have the maximum amount of air in the bag to replace that oxygen as quickly as it is being used even though this will mean having less water. It is necessary to have the gills completely covered when the bag is lying in its normal horizontal transport position but the water need not be any deeper than that. The water in the bag doesn’t need be deep enough to cover the dorsal fin. Fish in a bag need air, not water depth.
Methods for inflating the bag will be described later but if the water just covers the gills when the bag is horizontal and the rest of the bag is filled with air, there will be enough oxygen in that air for one fish for an hour. If the journey and floating time necessary to equalise temperatures is likely to exceed one hour, the space above the water should be filled with oxygen as described in “Inflating the bag” below.
Although there will be more than sufficient dissolved oxygen already in the water and in the air space above for journeys in excess of an hour without the risk of suffocation this should be considered the maximum travelling time for koi without adding oxygen to the bag. If oxygen is added, the higher level of dissolved oxygen that this will produce will go a long way towards ameliorating any harmful effects from the build up of ammonia in the water.
The water in a transport tank or travel bag should, as far as is possible, be prevented from becoming excessively warm during the journey. This will be easier with a tank than it is with a bag because the greater volume of water will change temperature more slowly but both should be shaded from the sun. If the temperature of the water is allowed to rise, the level of dissolved oxygen will fall and it is even possible that, regardless of dissolved oxygen, the water temperature in a travel bag in a car parked in the sun whilst the driver stops for lunch could rise beyond the survivable limit for koi. Journeys should be kept as short as is possible, especially in hot weather.
For journeys significantly longer than an hour in hot weather, there will be an advantage if the transport water is cooled slightly by external ice packs. This will slow the koi’s metabolic rate which will reduce the amount of ammonia it excretes and its oxygen consumption. Decreasing the oxygen consumption in turn will also reduce the build up of carbon dioxide in the water in travel bags. When carbon dioxide is dissolved in water it forms a weak acid, (carbonic acid), which lowers the pH. Koi can acclimatise to a range of pH but they can be stressed if the change happens too quickly. Although it is true that the lower pH would help to protect the koi from the effects of ammonia in the water, [link to explanation to be inserted when available], if the water is cooled slightly, both the build up of ammonia and the rapid decrease in pH will be reduced which is advantageous to the koi. The use of ice packs should not be over zealous. The water shouldn’t be abruptly cooled by more than 2°C or 3°C below that of the water from which the koi is being transferred.
Signs of stress in a fish
Since the evolutionary purpose of the stress response in fish has been to provide it with the best advantage possible to escape from a potentially dangerous situation by physiological changes such as increasing the heart rate, blood pressure and respiration rate, these will be the most noticeable effects that will indicate that a fish is stressed. The normal slow, even and rhythmic gill movements will become more rapid and they will open more widely than usual. The increased blood pressure and blood flow through the capillaries (very fine blood vessels) in the skin will cause a general reddening of the skin and cause the capillaries to become visible as fine thread like red streaks. This is particularly noticeable on white skin. The increased blood pressure in the fine gill capillaries may also cause them to burst resulting in bleeding from the gills.
De-stressing additives to the transport water
Anecdotally, salt, small doses of various fish anaesthetics or proprietary products are not uncommon when transporting fish. Koi dealers and some koi-keepers who are experienced in transporting koi may achieve good results by adding salt or a light anaesthetic or other additive to transport water. If experience shows that the fish are less stressed during transport by these methods, there is no reason why they should be discouraged. But for the lesser experienced hobbyist, since individual methods and conditions of transport are too varied, no recommendation regarding additives to transport water is given here other than to say that if an additive is used, it should be one that is specifically recommended by a manufacturer for this purpose and should be used strictly in accordance with the manufacturers’ instructions.
Netting and bagging
Fish should always be transported in double bags. Strong, clear PVC bags from a koi dealer are ideal, flimsy food bags or similar bags are not. To put one bag inside another, put a small amount of water in what will be the inner bag and drop it into the outer bag, its weight will allow it to fully drop inside. Both bags should be rolled down together by about ¼ their length to form a cuff. This cuff will prevent water getting in between the two bags and also act as a floatation collar allowing the bags to be floated in the water in order to be ready at hand when required.
There are many different methods to net and bag koi. The experienced koi-keeper may have a preferred method which quickly and efficiently transfers the koi into a bag without causing it to be stressed in which case there is no reason to change. For the less experienced, possibly the least stressful way is to use a bowl and a second person to assist.
With a bowl
A bowl should be held at right angles to the water and submerged by about ½ its depth. A second person should now guide the koi towards the bowl. The fish shouldn’t be chased with the net; it will be faster and more agile than someone dragging a net through the water after it. All that will happen is that it will become stressed and may swim into a wall or other fish in its panic to escape. The art in netting koi is to use a large shallow pan net and to hold it horizontally in the water so that it presents the least resistance to movement and then move it slowly towards the koi. If the net is kept slightly below the koi, this will encourage it to stay nearer to the surface rather than follow its natural reaction of diving to the depths. As the koi moves away from the net, predicting what it will do and out-witting it is the key to stress free netting. If it isn’t going in the correct direction, move the net in front of it and spin it through 90° to form a barrier so that it is encouraged to change direction rather than being chased. If this is done correctly, the koi will be guided into the vertical bowl which can be quickly spun through 90° under it without either the net or the bowl touching the fish.
That’s the theory! Experts can do this and make it look simple but it isn’t always quite so easy in practise. Sometimes the only way to ensure the koi’s co-operation is to bring the net up under it with the leading edge of the net still under water and the trailing edge just above. The koi shouldn’t be lifted, contact with the net should be minimal, but in this fashion it will be semi captive and can be guided towards the bowl as before.
Once in the bowl, the bag which should still be floating nearby can be put into the bowl and the koi scooped cleanly, head first into the bag. Fish were designed to swim forwards so putting a fish into a bag head first minimises any risk of damage to scales, fins or any other injury. Also by having previously rolled down the top of the bag to form a cuff, this will cushion the front edge of the bag avoiding any risk that the edge of the bag will give the fish the equivalent of a “paper cut” as it goes in.
Direct into the bag
The methods for guiding the koi with the net are identical to those described above except that it is guided to the bag instead of the bowl. At the last moment, as the head is about to go in, it can be scooped but this time it may be necessary to use a hand to lift the back end slightly to help it slip in.
In either case, once the koi is in the bag, the cuff can be unrolled and the amount of water can be adjusted to the correct level for transport.
Inspecting the koi in the bag
Once the koi is in the bag, there is an opportunity to look at its underside more closely than when it is swimming in the pond to ensure that there are no ulcers, sores or visible parasites such as argulus (fish lice) or lernaea (anchor worm) in order that these may be treated before the fish is transported, for example, to the owner’s new pond.
If the koi is being transported to a koi show there are health criteria that are a requirement for entry. These are detailed Section 9 of the Show Rules and Guidelines of the UK Koi Policy Unit which were published in November 2010 and which have since been adopted by the BKKS in their show rules as published in March 2011.
Whilst small koi in a bag could be lifted with ease, larger koi cannot. Also fish in general are likely to feel exposed and unsafe if lifted into the air where they are subjected to light from all directions with what they will perceive as a big empty space below them and this may cause them to struggle to try to escape and swim downwards. It may be a better idea to lift the bag onto the pond wall and bend down to see the underside. The fish will have a “floor” below it so it won’t need to try to swim down and it will still be possible to inspect, first one side, and then the other. If this is done, the wall should be covered with a towel beforehand to avoid the risk of puncturing the bag, and the bag should be well supported or held firmly to ensure that it cannot fall.
Inflating the bag
Travel bags are best transported in appropriately sized cardboard boxes or purpose made boxes. Either way they should have a lid which can be closed to shut out the light which will generally ensure that the koi remain calm. Unless you are certain of how much to inflate the bag before putting it into the box, it may be better to put the bag into the box first to avoid over inflating it. Gather together the open end of the inner bag as if you were going to blow up a paper bag. Don’t blow into the bag to inflate it! For short journeys under 1 hour the bag can be inflated by inserting an airline, without an air-stone, from the normal pond air pump. For longer journeys, oxygen should be used. Gripping the gathered end of the bag around the hose, allow it to fill with air or oxygen but stop just before the bag is completely full and begins to feel “tight”. A fully inflated bag can burst during transport if the temperature rises and the air or oxygen inside it expands. Bags that are not quite fully inflated also have a little “give” in them and will resist being punctured. This is less likely, (although still possible), by the rays of a koi’s dorsal fin but it is a real possibility that an excessively taught bag could be punctured by the scutes of a sturgeon.
After inflating, the neck of the inner bag should be twisted several times then a rubber band placed around it with one end pulled through the other to secure it. The twisted end of the bag can now be doubled over and secured by wrapping the elastic band around it. Excessive stretching of the band isn’t necessary, stretching it to about twice its length and wrapping it around the neck several times will be sufficient. [picture series here]
The outer bag should now be pulled up over the inner bag, twisted and sealed in the same fashion as the inner one. With the double sealed bag now in the box it is ready to load into the vehicle for the journey.
Loading travel bags
The boxes containing the bags should be loaded so as to be parallel with the axles, i.e. across the car, so that the fish in them won’t injure its nose or tail by being jolted forward or backwards each time the vehicle brakes or accelerates. If ice packs are to be used on longer journeys on hot days they should be separated from actual contact with the bag or they may cause the water to chill or to cool too quickly. They should be in the box with the bag but separated from it by several thickness of newspaper and positioned in such a way as to ensure that vibration cannot cause them to slip and come in contact with the bags. The purpose of an ice pack is to cool the air in the box rather than directly cooling the water itself. After adding ice packs if appropriate and any additional packing to ensure that the bags cannot roll around in the box, the lids should be closed in order that the koi are in the dark. Cars can become hot, especially in direct sun, so once the boxes are loaded, the journey should commence as soon as is possible and continue as quickly as is safe and legal, without unnecessary stops.
Transporting koi in a transport tank
The water in a transport tank should come from the pond if practical or, if it has to be filled with fresh water, it should be dechlorinated, aerated and its temperature should be close to the pond temperature. Ideally the pH should be adjusted too.
Unless advised otherwise by the tank manufacturer, it should be filled almost to the top in order to avoid the water in it from excessively splashing around as the vehicle changes speed or direction. Avoiding excessive splashing and water movement in the tank will prevent the fish inside from being dashed against the sides or into each other during the journey. A zippable lid will ensure that water loss is minimal. The tank will need to be continuously aerated during the journey using a low voltage air pump or by using an electronic adaptor that will allow a normal mains voltage air pump to be powered from a vehicle battery. (Note some of these devices can run down a car battery if left running for long periods without the engine running).
Koi can be transferred from their pond into the tank by first guiding them into a bag as described in “Netting and bagging” above, twisting the open end and holding it to seal it, then carrying the bag to the tank and allowing the koi to swim out of the bag into the tank. There will be no need to inflate the bag for such a short journey but it should be carried with two hands horizontally. If the koi is large, the combined weight of it and its water may mean that a second pair of hands is required to help support the weight of the bag, by also gripping it at its top, to prevent the bag and the koi inside it from excessive bending which might damage its backbone.
Alternatively if preferred, if the koi is guided into a bowl, it can be scooped from the bowl into a bag and carried to the tank as above or, if the tank is close to the pond, it can be transferred from the bowl to the tank in a sock net. Again, it should be carried horizontally and care should be taken to avoid excessive bending.
There is little to say about the journey from the old pond to a new pond or from the exhibitor’s pond to a koi show apart from keeping the time as short as possible and remembering to change speed or direction as gently as possible whilst staying safe and legal.
If the owner is moving a collection of koi from an old pond to a new pond that doesn’t already contain fish, there will be no need to quarantine the new arrivals, but if new koi are to be added to an established pond, the importance of quarantining the new arrival(s) cannot be underestimated.
Where travel bags have been used, in order to avoid an abrupt temperature change when koi are released from their bags into the new pond/quarantine facility or into the show vat at a koi show, the bags should be removed from their boxes and floated in order to equalise the temperature of the water in the bag with that of the new water.
At a koi show, the exhibitor should contact the benching administration team in order to ascertain their vat number. To preserve the best biosecurity possible, the travel bags should be taken directly to the correct vat and floated, taking care that any water that may drip from the bags cannot contaminate any other vat. Bags should not be floated on the first available vat before putting them into the correct vat after obtaining its number from the benching team! (I’ve actually seen an exhibitor do that).
Floating travel bags on arrival
If the correct amount of water has been put into the bag, the likely temperature difference between the water in it and the new pond or show vat will equalise in 10 to 30 minutes of floating. Only in extreme circumstances will it require longer than this. Floating time shouldn’t be extended unnecessarily. A fish floating on the surface of a pond or show vat is likely to try to struggle to escape so that it can swim to deeper water which, again, will subject it to more unnecessary stress. It will also be in a higher than usual concentration of ammonia and probably a lower than normal pH. Fish should be released from their travel bags as soon as is possible after the temperature has equalised.
Adjusting the pH in travel bags
There is no purpose in trying to help a koi adjust to the new pH of the new pond or show vat, by opening the bag and adding small quantities of the new water, for three reasons.
- The changes in blood chemistry that have to be made in order that a koi can adjust to a different pH cannot take place in a few minutes, they take time. Unless the fish is kept in the bag so that the “adjustment” period can be made very slowly over an hour or more, the time will be too short to have any real effect.
- As new water is introduced into the bag, the pH will rise and the toxicity of the ammonia in the bag will increase dramatically. For example, for every 0.5 rise on the pH scale, the toxicity of ammonia rises by more than three times, and for every 1.0 rise in pH, ammonia becomes ten times more toxic. (Those values may look wrong but they are correct – it’s a logarithmic relationship).
- A fish that is being held captive for an extended period whilst someone splashes water into its bag will struggle to escape and will be subjected to unnecessary stress by the procedure.
Adjusting the pH in a bag is, at best, pointless and carries the risk of doing more harm than good.
The larger volume of water in a transport tank and the fact that it will have had the cooling effect of air bubbling through it will mean that its temperature is likely to be close to the temperature of the destination pond or show vat. If this is the case, the koi can be transferred directly using either a sock net or double bags with the same precautions that were taken to avoid the risk of harming big fish as were taken when they were transferred into it. Where a bag is used, no water from the transport tank should be transferred into the new pond or show vat, see “Releasing fish from bags” below.
If there is a significant temperature difference, the koi may be transferred using a double bag which is then sealed and floated to allow time for the water temperature to adjust.
Releasing fish from bags
Whether a fish has been in its travel bag for the entire journey or whether the bag has been used to transfer it from a transport tank to a pond or show vat, there will be ammonia in the bag. The aim when removing the fish from the bag should be to remove it safely but without emptying any water containing ammonia into the destination pond or especially into a show vat where the volume of water is considerably less so it won’t be diluted to the same degree.
An effective method to remove the elastic bands from both bags, if they haven’t been put on too tightly, is simply done by holding the neck of the bag in one hand and pulling outwards the doubled-over free end with the other so that the elastic band slides off. Both inner and outer bags should be rolled down to make a cuff which will help keep the bag afloat and prevent the contents from spilling out. Float the bag in the pond or show vat then with one hand, hold the top of the cuff and tilt the bag as far as is possible without spilling the contents. Then with the other hand, reach down under the koi and, if it can be safely turned in the bag so that its head faces the open end, lift its rear end to encourage it to swim up and over the open end. If the koi can’t turn or it won’t cooperate and struggles to try to swim deeper into the bag, it will have to come out backwards but, in this case, particular care should be taken not to damage its fins or scales since fish were not designed to travel backwards through water or more especially backwards out of bags.
When the koi is swimming free, the bag can be removed and the water in it discarded. Fish in a new pond or in a show vat at a koi show may take some time to settle and may show a tendency to jump. In a pond, netting or some other means to prevent them jumping out should be considered.
In a show vat, the standard water depth has been chosen so as to reduce the possibility that there will be enough depth for koi to be able to jump. To make certain of this, during the process of booking in koi and benching them, all the show ring staff will be looking out to ensure that all koi are settling in. In reality, this is a very busy time in the show ring so in addition, it is the exhibitor’s responsibility to stay with their koi until they have been benched and entered into the show. If there is any sign that the koi in it may jump, a vat can be temporarily covered until it is time for the benching process to begin.