Shipping / Transporting Koi Fish

Shipping / Transporting Fish
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Shipping / Transporting Fish
Dr. Erik Johnson
Shipping fish

Professional wholesalers have methods of shipping fish so far advanced to this that it’s not funny. I don’t propose to suggest anything to those guys. They ship tens of thousands of fish a year and their lives depend on it. This article is to orient and inform the ‘regular guy’ on how to move fish from place to place under a variety of conditions.

There are six kinds of trips:

  • Long hot trips
  • Long cold trips
  • Medium hot trips
  • Medium cold trips
  • Short hot trips and
  • Short cold trips.

They’re all handled differently. Cold water carries more oxygen and makes the trips safer. Hot water is low in dissolved oxygen and so this situation is tricky under any travel length. When moving fish any further than you can get in an hour or less, packing them in bags of water under PURE oxygen is very helpful, if not just plain necessary. Whenever possible, fish should be spared visual shocks, so black bags or dark boxes are ideal.

Long duration / distance hot trips should be handled by air freight using ice packs. Air freight minimizes the length of travel by covering the greatest amount of distance in the shortest possible time. Insulated boxes, double thickness bagging and probably anesthesia in the bag also help. The amount of ice packs you use needs to be sensible.

Long duration / distance cold trips should also be handled by air freight but your car is okay for it too, since the water is pretty cold. You’d still pack the fish under pure oxygen.

Medium duration / distance hot trips probably would be best in bags, with ice packs, and pure oxygen on top.

Medium duration / distance cold trips arefine in your car, with pure oxygen. Use dark bags so the fish don’t receive alarming visual stimuli in transport.

Short duration / distance hot trips at the consumer level are dangerous. People seldom use pure oxygen and they rarely aerate the buckets or coolers but they should. For best results, you’d still pack the fish in bags under pure oxygen and do the ice packs.

Short duration / distance cold trips are the easiest of all. Put the fish in a bag, sizeable bucket or cooler, and travel the twenty to thirty minutes it takes.

Shipping Guidelines and Insider Tips.

Shipping KoiYou need a styrofoam cooler. If you don’t have one, you can use a regular plastic cooler (but they cost more). UPS will charge you an extra fee for styrofoam coolers that are not also in cardboard boxes. This is because they cannot throw your styrofoam cooler overhand onto the truck or it will break, they also miss out on the Drop-Kick loading process and the end zone Ball Spike just before they hand you the box. ….and so the extra care it requires, is about ten dollars more. So, you need a styrofoam cooler that fits into a cardboard box.

Shortly before “air” time, put the fish in a plastic fish bag with a little tank or pond water. Use pure oxygen in the bag with the fish. You should be able to beg, borrow, buy or steal a strong plastic fish bag from the local pet shop. Double bag the fish because the inner bag always perforates. Murphy’s law. Put packing peanuts around the bag. Put a black plastic trash bag around the packing peanuts. Put ONE ice pack in the cooler with the fish if it’s warm out. The ice pack does NOT go in the bag with the fish…If it’s cold out, there’s nothing to do. Then put the bag into the cooler.

So, you’ve got the fish double bagged, and it’s in packing peanuts with an ice pack. That whole shenanigan is in a black plastic trash bag so the fish has a sedate trip, and the whole thing is in the cooler. Box the cooler in cardboard, label it well, and ship it as close to close with UPS or Fedex as possible in the evening.

Lately, everyone’s been shipping well. The only thing they mess up is putting crappy, weak rubber bands on the packages. The bags are fine but the rubberbands let go and the bags drain. So use BIG HONKER rubber bands when you send fish and maybe even back yourself up with two bags, individually rubberbanded.

There should be enough water to provide ONE INCH of water over the fishes’ back when the bag is in the shipping position. For small fish, the bag will likely be upright, so there should be one inch of water over the fishes’ back. If the fish is a 30″ lunker, then the shipping position of the bag will surely be sideways in the box and there should be just enough water to cover the lunkers’ dorsal fin.
You might ask; “But more water would carry more oxygen, right?” – – NO – Less water carries more oxygen because A smaller amount of water has less depth and mixes more, mixing more of the pure oxygen into the water and allowing the fish to have more to “breathe”. You should have more oxygen than water in the bag.

You can get pure oxygen from some better quality pet shops. If they don’t have any, your vet does. If he doesn’t have any or won’t give you some, you can go to the local drug store or apothecary and say your elderly grandmother has emphysema, and you need a small oxygen cylinder for home use; from the drug store. They charge forty dollars a month to rent the cylinder to you, and about 12 dollars to fill it. After you use it, you say your grandmother passed on, “here’s the cylinder back”. The cylinder is usually about twenty four inches long and five inches in diameter, not real hard to carry.

So, your vet has some pure oxygen and is even willing to give it to you. But he won’t be around to fill the bag when it’s seven oclock and time to take the fish to UPS. So you go to the pet store and get the biggest dang plastic fish bag you can find, and you have the vet fill that bag tight with pure oxygen. Rubber band it good and tight. A couple hours later (not a day), you carefully squeeze that bag of oxygen into the fish bag immediately prior to shipment. It works marvelously.
Someone asked me if they could keep bags of pure oxygen around for later use. The answer is no. The physics of the plastic bag is that it’s water impermeable. They are not necessarily gas impermeable and, like a helium balloon, eventually the oxygen in the bag normalizes to 21% like atmospheric air. God knows how. Probably there’s someone out there who knows about the gas permeability of polyethylene bags but who really cares? Use bagged oxygen within 24 hours.

Koi International Shipping
Shipping fish in a plastic bag should be relaxed and not-tense full of oxygen.

Bag tension is everything. When a UPS plane takes off, the air in the bag is under a certain atmospheric pressure. And so the bag would feel somewhat tense. When the plane gets to thirty four thousand feet, even though the cabin may be pressurized, because the air is so thin up there. But even still, the pressure in the cabin is not quite as great as it was on the ground, and so the bag gets even tenser. Finally, the bag bursts and water pours out and the fish dies in the UPS plane. Now, when you bag the fish where the bag feels “smushy” on the ground, when the pressure gets rarified in flight, the bag only then becomes somewhat tense, and the bag does NOT burst. Fish arrives alive.

I remember flying one of Kaz Takeda’s fish home on the plane. We packed it “tight”. And in flight, I got up to see about this fish, and the bag was so tight it made that squeaking noise that balloons do when you rub on them. It did not burst but that was only bcause I was dumb lucky.
So, “smushy” bags are desirable. Don’t take that out of context.

Shipping Container Koi PondIf it’s real hot out, you will be relying on the cooler to keep the fish cool, and an ice pack is recommended in the cooler (but not in the bag) with the fish. In winter, when it’s bitter cold, there’s not much you can do. Putting more packing material around the bag in the cooler will reduce the fluctuations in temperature but chilling is a definite possibility. A great ice pack: Take a 16 ounce diet coke bottle and drink it. Save the cap. Fill the bottle with water, cap and freeze it. Viola! Free freezer ice pack. Works like a charm. Betty Roemer taught me that one.

I would not recommend feeding the fish just before shipment, in fact, three days off food will have the digestive tract empty. This is good, because the water will remain more desirable than if you let the fish eat up ’til shipment. We don’t want “shitment” in the shipment. In Japan, they even want the biological (non solid waste) ammonia excretion to be minimal, so the fish are fasted for seven days!!!! No wonder they arrive so stressed. If you can’t fast the fish, fine. What are we talking about in most cases, twelve hours in a bag? They’ll be fine.




Dr Erik Johnson is a Marietta, Georgia Veterinarian with a practice in small animal medicine. He graduated from University of Georgia with his Doctorate in 1991. Dr Johnson is the author of several texts on Koi and Pond Fish Health and Disease as well as numerous articles on dog and cat health topics.