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The Fishroom Diaries-Shipping Goldfish on a Small Scale in the USA

By Rob Crosby

As all hardcore goldfish enthusiasts will attest, sooner or later, you will have more fish than you can handle, and you will likely be looking for an outlet to offload some extras. Back in the day, we could always take these fish to the local fish store and trade them for store credit, but slowly, the LFS has gone the way of the telephone booth, and the big box competitors won’t usually trade on such a small scale. However, with the rapid expansion of social media and internet auction sites, a new marketplace now exists for buying and selling all sorts of fish. While it’s easy enough to post your pics online and find a buyer, getting the fish to the buyer alive, and at a reasonable price, is a bigger challenge.

While private carriers, such as Fedex and UPS are a possibility, their shipping options are much more expensive and require you to set up an account before you can begin shipping. For the small time hobbyist breeder, the USPS is still your best bet. The USPS offers “flat rate” shipping boxes that allow you to ship your fish for a fixed cost, regardless of weight, so long as it fits in the box. Unless, you are shipping very small fry, the large Priority mail flat rate boxes are your best bet (Inside Dimensions: 12″ x 12″ x 5-1/2″). 

These boxes aren’t always available at every local office, so it is best to go online and order them to be sent to your home address in advance; there is no charge for the empty boxes. The base cost for shipping domestically (US) is $18.85 per box for 1-3 day Priority mail. This also comes with $50 worth of insurance which insures against late arrival or loss, but does not guarantee live delivery of your fish. Don’t be tempted to cram too many fish into one box; when in doubt, just ship two boxes.  If you go online and print your shipping labels ahead of time using the “click and ship” feature, you can avoid the hassle of waiting in line at the post office. You can print the prepaid postage labels from your home computer, and answer all the declaration questions online and avoid the suspicious looks you get when the postal clerk hears the sloshing water inside your package. Most post offices have a separate drop off window for postage-paid packages, so you will not have to wait in line for drop off. However, if the line is not too long, it is somewhat advantageous to get an actual drop off receipt with tracking information. This way, the package is sure to be “scanned in” to the tracking system at drop off time, and you won’t have to worry if you do not see the tracking information showing up on the USPS website. The online tracking is very “iffy” and is generally only updated about once daily.

Having had some failed shipments and some successful ones too, I can offer some advice on how to navigate the system. First off, there is a question on the USPS click and ship site that asks whether you are shipping “live animals”. While goldfish are technically live animals, they don’t require any special handling as do day-old chicks, lizards, and honeybees.  By clicking the “live animals” box, you will essentially void your online process and be instructed to take your package to the post office for assistance, so I would leave that one blank. You may also encounter an overly concerned postal employee who will doubt whether they can accept live fish shipments. I have found it necessary to print the rules from their own website and bring these with me in case of any objections- Exhibit 526.6 Small, Harmless, Cold–Blooded Animals ( Once you have your local post office trained, it may be helpful to add notes such as “live fish, handle with care” on the outside of the package. If your post office is unaware of their own regulations, then these notes might also cause them to refuse your shipment due to misplaced concerns about the welfare of the fish. If this is a problem at your post office, then you might be better off opting for the stealthy click and ship drop off with no further questions.

Before sending your shipment, it is a good idea to first check the expected delivery date by entering the destination zip code into the USPS postage calculation tool on their website. Some locations are as fast as next day, but others are 3 days. They tend to provide very conservative delivery estimates, and many times, the three-day guaranteed deliveries will actually arrive in just two days. You should also check the forecast for any expected severe weather events, and try to avoid shipping when storms or extreme temps are predicted. There is also a “hold for pickup” option on the click and ship website, but be forewarned that this is not an option for Priority mail flat rate shipments (only Priority Express), and the Express mail is much more expensive. One possible way around this is to simply write “please call recipient for pickup” on the shipping label and instruct the recipient to call into the post office as soon as the package arrives. Although this is not a formal option, most of the smaller post offices will accommodate this request with no extra charge, and this can save up to one day on the delivery time.

It is very important to fast all adult fish a full four days before shipping to ensure that they do not pollute the water in their shipping bag en route. Fry should be okay with only a two or three day fast. I use floating plastic strainers from the Dollar store to separate fish that are fasting, so that I can continue to feed the others in the same tub.

I do not recommend shipping fish without pure Oxygen unless you are using a Breather Bag by Kordon. With Oxygen, it’s best to only use enough water for the fish to move around and remain submerged, and the rest of the space should be filled with Oxygen. With Breather bags, the whole bag is filled with water, and no air is included. Check your local welding supplies dealer for a small Oxygen canister.

It is best to avoid the medical grade canisters, because it is illegal for suppliers to refill without a prescription, and it is also illegal to fill a medical Oxygen canister with industrial grade Oxygen. A good source for East Coast residents is Robert’s Oxygen. I also recommend using at least 3 mil 12” wide plastic bags with elastics bands to tie off (see for supplies). I like to double bag, and be sure to tie off both bags separately.

By inserting the first bag upside down into the second bag, you can avoid corners. In hot or cold weather, I also like to line the box with cut pieces of Styrofoam insulation to form a box within a box.

 To take up extra interior space, you can also include smaller size bags with air to act as cushions and keep the fish bag from rolling around. I hope these guidelines will help you on your way to successful fish trading!

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