Braeside Aquaria Goldfish Breeding

April 2015

Murray Barker breeds thousands of goldfish for pets in his 100 breeding ponds each year

In the late seventies, young Murray Barker was helping out in a Te Aroha grocery store when a customer offered him a job working on a goldfish farm. At first he thought it was just to be weekend work but no, the owner wanted him fulltime. So in 1978, he joined the business and he and the owner shared labour, costs and profits. Three years later the owner wanted out, so in 1981 Murray and his wife Sally decided to buy the business.

“But we were laughed out of every financial institution so we had to take on a couple of silent partners. I was very aware that the market at the time was screaming out for goldfish so we just went for it,” says Murray.

“We had somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 gallons in an assortment of containers — Para pools, a large concrete lake and so on and it was a really a very small volume of water. To be successful at goldfish farming you have to have adequate space to grow the fish, so we expanded rapidly.”

Murray went to a local manufacturer who made circular haybarns from corrugated iron and got him to make a complete circle using just one width of iron. These were lined with plastic to form out-of-ground ponds that, conveniently held close to 10,000 gallons. Other ponds were formed in-ground and similarly lined.

Today Braeside Aquaria has about 100 ponds of various types and sizes on the home site and another 35 at another site – a total storage capacity of over 4 million gallons, which is used in the breeding of around 400,000 goldfish of 25 different varieties each year.

“Our main markets are pet shops, veterinary practices, plant centres, landscape gardeners, and aquarium hire companies that put goldfish in waiting rooms for dentists and other murderous practices,” says Murray.

“We send them in double plastic bags of water in a cardboard box by either same-day or overnight courier. If someone were to phone up from Invercargill at 3pm, we could have the order down there at 8am the following morning.”

Roughly half of their sales involve the “Comet” variety, the quintessential bright orange goldfish one to two inches long and with a straight tail. This fish is a descendant of a mutant Asian carp. Legend has it that it was discovered in China about 1000 years ago amongst domesticated carp and bred especially for ruling families. Modern goldfish need to be bred from the same coloured variation otherwise they will revert to the original copper colour of carp.

Murray breeds 24 other variations and species but this number is unlikely to increase. Imports of goldfish species have been essentially banned since the 1970’s. In theory, says Murray, breeders could import new stock but the cost and paperwork are prohibitive.

“Within NZ there is some exchange of breeding stock between key industry players and I have good contacts who will supply me with anything they think would interest me. That way I have been able to save some species from extinction and have been successful in propagating them,” he says.

“A couple of years ago we lost our stocks of ‘Bubble Eye’, fish with fluid sacks under their eyes. They are particularly susceptible to predators. I had to buy breeding stock for $80 each but I managed to multiply them successfully and we now have 100 breeders and many thousands of Bubble Eyes swimming in ponds.”

Selection of fish for breeding is a very careful process with stringent protocols. Murray chooses on the basis of the different qualities that are required for a particular species, such as colour, shape, mobility and “finnage” and avoids undesirable traits.

“Ideally, there would be two males with one female but because we want volume – many thousands of eggs – we select the best males and females and generally have 30 males to 20 females and let them take their chances,” he says.

“At the end of the spawning period if any of the fish haven’t spawned and the females are still releasing their eggs we will examine each breeder and if something really desirable has not spawned then we will hand spawn them.”

These fish will spawn at any time but the main season is early August up until late February. Murray can also induce spawning by raising the temperature of the water in the spawning tank by about 2° C. Feeding the fish well and taking good care of them also helps.

In the spawning tanks manuka fronds are layered over each other for the eggs to attach to. Underneath is mosquito mesh that is weighted down in the bottom of the tank to catch any eggs that don’t adhere to the manuka. During spawning if there are sufficient eggs on the media they are removed and replaced periodically until the fish stop spawning, which is usually over a three-day period.

“They usually spawn prior to sunrise so we have to be there early because goldfish have no qualms about eating their own eggs so we have to get the spawning media out very quickly otherwise the fish will start enjoying a meal of caviar,” says Murray.

“We put the media into separate stainless steel vats and the temperature of the water is raised close to 22° C for five days after which the baby fish start hatching. They have a little yolk sac on their stomachs, which enables them to survive the first few days, and then I feed them emulsified boiled egg yolk for two days.”

“After that they are fed brine shrimp for a week and then we transfer them into large, specially prepared ponds that have been stocked with Daphnia water fleas. We continue feeding the Daphnia so that they continue multiplying while these baby fish are feeding on them and that gives the fish the absolutely best start in life. When Daphnia numbers start to diminish we start to feed the fish a commercial product that we purchase from Australia.”

Not surprisingly, after 35 years at the top of the industry Murray is thinking of hanging up his goldfish net.

“I have done my fair share and it has been a wonderful lifestyle, and Sally and I through hard work and application have done OK. I have heard it said that people should look at changing their careers once every seven years, so I am about due for a change,” he says.

“There are two key things to breeding goldfish: if you do not have a feel for stock you can’t be successful. It’s the same as with cattle, sheep, poultry and pigs – if you haven’t got it, you are never going to get past mediocre. And the other one is Winston Churchill’s ‘never give up, never give up, never give up’ if you are having a problem.”