Pond owners know the fight is never-ending. They have to battle nature at the same time they are trying to embrace it. They work relentlessly to maintain that small body of water as their own little natural wonder.
What happens is we move a bunch of dirt around and we sculpt this large hole in the ground to hold water. We line the edges with stone, seal and compact to prevent leaks, and then wait for nature to help us fill it. We put some fish in, and then foolishly expect to kick back and endlessly enjoy the soothing quality of water.
Soon we realize nature has something different in mind. Rich organic material makes its way into the pond, algae starts to grow and spread like crazy, and soon we see where this is all headed. Left alone, the pond is charging down the path of eutrophication, where plants will eventually fill it and turn the pond to swamp.
This is where the battles lines are drawn. We can use a variety of methods to slow the process, control the vegetation, and keep the pond a healthy, open body of water. Many pond owners prefer to accomplish that without the use of harsh chemicals that tend to indiscriminately wipe out the good with the bad.
The natural pond management approach has involved using aerators to keep the water oxygenated, using friendly microbes to do a lot of the work cleaning up the organic matter, and then adding the physical removal of plant growth by raking.
The results have been mixed, because achieving the perfect balance in a pond that is constantly exposed to the elements is much like shooting for the bull's eye on a moving target. But now there's a new weapon in the pond-owner's arsenal, and it's caused quite a stir.
It's not a synthetic chemical, an expensive piece of equipment or a five-gallon tub of snake oil. It's a fish. The blue tilapia, which is native to northern and western Africa, is an algae eating machine that is now being used to help control plant growth in ponds here in northwest Ohio.
Don Schooner runs Inspired by Nature, a cutting-edge pond management company located in Wood County, and he was very much the skeptic when first approached about introducing blue tilapia into his pond care regimen.
"When I first heard about using tilapia, it was one of those things that sounded too good to be true," Schooner said. "I had a lot of doubts and a lot of questions. But I've been pleasantly surprised by how it's gone. All of my questions were eventually answered."
The fish are stocked at breeding size in late May or June, and immediately start consuming algae, and producing young. Schooner said the adult tilapia tend to work in a school, eat a lot, grow very fast, and they leave the swimmers alone.
"All they want to do is eat, and they are very efficient eaters. They feed like piranha on algae," he said. Schooner's no-nonsense assessment of the tilapia as a pond management partner was a hearty thumb's-up.
"This isn't a magic bullet, but you could call it a very good janitor," he said.
Schooner tested the tilapia in around 100 ponds last year, and about 95 percent of those pond owners came back this spring, wanting to use the "janitor" fish again.
Since this is an exotic species, it might initially seem dangerous to stock them in your pond. But fear not, Schooner said. Tilapia are a tropical fish, so they can't go into the pond until the water warms, and when Ohio decides it's time for fall and the water temperature drops, the work shift ends for the tilapia, and they die.
"When the water hits 45 degrees, they are toast," Schooner said. He recommends harvesting the tilapia in August and September on hook and line, before October arrives and signals the end of their algae-eating fest. Tilapia offer a thick, meaty and mild fillet served in many restaurants.
Some pond owners seem to want a million gallon, crystal clear swimming pool with fish in it. That is a pie in the sky. But with solid information, the proper tools, and the help of experts, achieving that backyard paradise can come a lot closer to reality.
Matt Markey is th A-T outdoors columnist.
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