Goldfish endangered as Iran marks New Year

While the fish are a holiday-time symbol of happiness, they later die from neglect, bloggers charge.

goldfish in a bowl 370 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
goldfish in a bowl 370
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
It’s difficult to make heads or tails out of this fish story. As Iranians this week celebrate the Nowrooz, or the Persian New Year, a call has gone out across the Internet not to grace festive dinner tables with … goldfish.
According to some bloggers, millions -- some say as many as five million -- goldfish are destined to die, not because they will be eaten but because they are inevitably neglected or thrown out once the holiday passes. Even if it’s scaled down a bit, that’s a lot of fish to fry.
The Persian calendar enters the year 1391 this week, and Iranians celebrated it from March 26 through 29. Nowrooz, or “new day,” is a highlight of the year marked by spring cleaning, visiting friends and family, and setting a table with seven symbols of life, health and beauty. These include candles, colored eggs and goldfish in a bowl, which are considered a symbol of a happy life.
“Fish merchants and most buyers are unaware of the meaning behind the use of goldfish at the holiday dinner, and only purchase them for their children to play with for two days. The trade and killing of fish are at odds with the tradition of Nowrooz, which symbolizes the rebirth of nature, and should therefore be avoided,” wrote Nasim Saba, an Iranian blogger who advocates animal rights.
She added that those involved in this “deadly trade” had actually adopted it from the Chinese who came to Iran in the early 20th century with the first tea imports.
Joining this school of thought, blogger Sepehr Salimi, is pushing the save-the-goldfish campaign even further on his Greenblog to include the salamanders and turtles that have begun making their appearance at the holiday dinner, too. Both species are less common than goldfish and their deaths constitute a more severe blow to their populations.
But Salimi said he opposes a ban on buying goldfish. Instead, he suggests educating the public on how to care for goldfish and imposing stricter controls over how they are bred and sold. “Just as no one is saying that traffic should be stopped during the Nowrooz vacation to keep thousands of Iranians from dying in car accidents, we should not boycott buying goldfish.”
This may be a load of codswallop, but the campaign to keep goldfish off the holiday dinner table appears to have a sole mate with health experts. In recent years the custom has come under increasing criticism due to growing awareness of animal rights, as well as health and economic reasons. Two years ago a top official in the Environment Department of the Tehran municipality claimed that the fish were held in improper conditions and could spread disease.
“I have heard some make such suggestions for years," Potkin Azarmehr, an Iranian blogger, told The Media Line. “There are plenty of debates as to what should be on the Nowrooz New Year table. After all, put 10 Iranians in a room and you will get 11 different opinions.”
Still, he doesn’t believe in carping on the issue.
“The goldfish debate, however, is at the bottom of my priority list,” Azarmehr said. “I have kept my goldfish for seven years now and they are still very much alive and kicking. To those whose goldfish die after Nowrooz is over, I suggest they should feed their goldfish every now and then. It doesn’t cost a lot.”
Azarmehr said he doesn’t believe goldfish suffer from being cramped up inside a small bowl, although he concedes he has never looked into the matter.
In fact, the popular myth that goldfish have such short memories that they forget they have already been on one side of their fishbowl by the time they have returned seconds later is not true. Scientists say they can remember things going back for months, which is long enough for them to understand their limited opportunities. On the other hand, it is short enough to prevent them from holding grudges, which may be why they have come to be a symbol of happiness.
But Iranian humans have far more serious rights issues to worry about than the fate of the country’s goldfish, said Azarmehr. Amnesty International on Tuesday cited the country as employing the death penalty ore than any other country in the world apart from China. It estimated that more than 600 people were killed in 2011, including in several cases minors.
“To worry about the life expectancy of a goldfish, when there is so much human rights abuse going on in Iran is just beyond me,” he added.