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The gold standard 

Raising goldfish by the numbers in Lonoke County.

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If you got a goldfish anywhere in America in the past 10 years, Danny Pool figures, there's about an 80 percent chance it belonged to him first.

No, that's not a typo. Eighty percent. And yes, when we say anywhere, we mean anywhere: Phoenix, Key West, Bangor, Juneau, the pet store down on the corner or a goldfish in a bag won by tossing a ping-pong ball into a bowl at the county fair.

With his brother Ronnie, Pool runs Pool Fisheries, just outside of Lonoke. There, on 1,150 acres of ponds cut into the cardboard-flat earth, the third-generation fish farmer rides herd over one of the largest goldfish ranches in the world, shipping, trucking and air-freighting between 3.5 million to 5 million tailfins per week depending on the season. Pool Fisheries is FedEx's largest customer in Arkansas, flying out 50,000 to 60,000 pounds of fish every week to cities in the West. They're the exclusive supplier to the more than 1,000 stores in the Petsmart chain, and — via wholesalers — they supply the vast majority of the fish found at big retailers like Walmart.

Looking into one of their holding tanks is to see life on a massive scale, and is maybe even a little stunning for someone used to seeing a solitary goldfish in a bowl. Pool has every part of it down to a science.

It was Pool's grandfather, Ruben Pool, who started the company. One of the early pioneers of the fish farming industry in Lonoke County (along with men like I.F. "Fay" Anderson — who Danny Pool calls the grandfather of aquaculture in Arkansas — Euell Nixon and Tony Carruth), Ruben Pool helped build the first state fish hatcheries in Arkansas during the Great Depression.

"That's where he learned," Danny Pool said, "as far as putting in the drainage system, putting in the water system and building the levees."

After a stint building submarines at a California shipyard during World War II, Ruben Pool came back to Arkansas and worked building grain dryers. He eventually bought a 40-acre farm outside of Lonoke and started digging fish ponds, utilizing the chain-driven bucket pans that had been brought in to build levees for the rice industry.

The video above was produced by Little Rock film production company Mindful Media Productions in conjunction with the Arkansas Times.

By then, the fish farming industry in the area was already becoming established. Though Danny Pool's account is bound to be controversial among the fish farming families in Lonoke County, he pins the credit for creating the minnow industry in Lonoke County on Euell Nixon, a rice farmer and avid fisherman who eventually became one of the county's largest minnow producers. At the time, Pool said, Nixon was just looking for more lively bait.

"Back in that time, most of your fishermen would trap wild minnows out of the river," Pool said. "They weren't very good. They wouldn't live very long. Euell Nixon, being a fishing enthusiast — he loved to fish — he heard that the minnows at the hatchery that they were using were much better than the wild minnows out of the river ... they were the best fishing bait you could find."

One day, Pool said, after a hatchery had drained its ponds and left a school of minnows in a ditch, Nixon drove there, dipped up a bucketful, and put them in a rice field irrigation canal on his property. They spawned there, and anytime he wanted to go fishing, Nixon would net out a few. Word soon got around about Nixon's tough, hearty minnows, which had spawned by the millions in the rice canals, and he started selling them. Soon, he was making more money from fish than he was from farming.

"In Euell's mind," Pool said, "he thought, 'Instead of growing rice, I need to build ponds.' " Soon, Nixon was selling his minnows as far away as Memphis. Others soon moved to the area, convinced it was the Promised Land for fish. It may well be. Pool contends that Lonoke County is to fish farming what Kentucky is to thoroughbreds.

"This is the best hatching area as far as water, soil, alkalinity, PH," Pool said. "It's perfect — conditions are perfect right in the middle of Lonoke County. That's why all the fish industry is here. If you go too far east, it's not as good. Too far south, it's not good at all... weather has a lot to do with it. We're at the perfect [place] as far as longitude and latitude."

Pool Fisheries officially started in 1959, raising mostly minnows and catfish. Eventually, Danny Pool said, a lot of other farmers got into the minnow business in the area, saturating the market. Ruben and his son Lon (Danny's father) decided to try farming something else, focusing on raising goldfish and Israeli carp. By the 1960s, the Pool Fisheries ponds were supplying about a third of the goldfish market in the U.S. — around four to five million fish a year, with most of those being sold as pets.

The market was fairly steady until the 1970s, when things took off in a big, big way. The jump, Danny Pool said, came with the advent of modern saltwater aquariums, which provided Northern city dwellers both nighttime entertainment in an age of three television channels and — due to expensive and rare varieties of reef fish — a very visible way to show off their wealth to houseguests.

"People up there can't have dogs and cats," he said, "because they're in real small apartments. So you have a choice: bird, snake or fish."

How do saltwater aquariums have anything to do with selling more freshwater goldfish? If you ever loved a goldfish in your youth, you might want to skip over this next part. "They were going for live food to feed these saltwater fish," Pool said. "They were selling these people really fancy aquariums, selling them fish for $100 or $200 apiece. They'd take them home and put them in their tank, and guess what? [Saltwater fish] won't eat fish food. There's no fish food in the ocean. The only thing these fish will eat is another fish."

The cheapest food in any given pet store was one-to-two inch goldfish, which sold for around a penny apiece. Within a five-year period in the 1970s, Pool Fisheries went from eight ponds of goldfish to 50, and went from selling around five million fish a year to 350 million a year just 10 years later. Around 75 percent of those went for fish food, with a luckier 25 percent becoming pets.

After booming throughout the 1970s and '80s, the goldfish market began to taper off in the mid-1990s. Pool blames the slowdown on the same thing that's been blamed for the decline in sales of everything from daily newspapers to trampolines: the personal computer, and the rise of the Internet.

"During the '80s, most people only had three television stations, they only had maybe four or five radio stations," Pool said. "So, at night, they enjoyed watching their fish. That was part of their entertainment. Then computers came out. You got AOL, and the computers started getting faster. As the computer technology got better and better, people started spending more time on computers and less time messing with their aquarium ... Now, if they want to see fish, they just put it on their screensaver."

Currently, Pool Fisheries ships around 5 million fish per week, but gets down as low as 3.5 million some weeks. They've also diversified, raising not only goldfish, but also albino fathead minnows (as the name implies, more white than the standard silvery-gray fathead), rosy red minnows (a slender, pinkish-white breed) and other species. A whole wing of their warehouse is dedicated to growing "fancy" fish and other species, like tadpoles (for schools and research), fantail goldfish (with fat bodies and blousy, flowing tails), Black Moors (a bug-eyed, charcoal-colored variety with sweeping fins), koi (the larger, multicolored, carplike fish seen tranquilly swimming in Japanese paintings) and other specialty breeds.

For his part, Danny Pool has diversified as well. For the last three years, he's been running a music publishing company in Nashville called Blue Guitar Music. Once on his way to an early grave, he said, due to too much stress and a bad diet, he became something of a health nut, and now helps market a vitamin supplement. He's an avid scuba diver. He also runs a duck club management service, planting feed crops around duck clubs and maintaining the wetlands there in the off-season for out of town landowners.

While Pool said the market for fish is still fairly good, it continues to trend downward. He insisted that his son — now on track to be the fourth generation owner of the family business — get a college degree as buffer against hard times.

"I tried to talk my son into doing something other than farming," Pool said. "He's got a business degree, and he could be a CPA, he could do a lot of different things. He loves farming. He wants to farm. That's OK. My agreement is, you get a degree just for backup and I'll let you farm."

Many local fish farmers are branching out into different species. Pool himself has looked into growing something like tilapia or crawfish. Still, he's a realist, and has prepared himself for a time when Pool Fisheries might not be what it once was. "I think the next generation will be fine," he said. "But I think after that is probably going to be it. It might support one family, but I don't know if it'll support two."

In addition to the cooling market, another thing working against Pool Fisheries is the warming climate. Arkansas doesn't have the cool springs it once enjoyed, Pool said. The gradual warming is a phenomenon he has watched happen over decades, and it becomes a choke point when you have to spawn and grow 300 million temperature-persnickety fish a year.

"I definitely believe in global warming," Pool said. "I've seen it change over the period of my lifetime. You can ask anybody who is a farmer who has been farming for years. The weather is totally different than what it used to be." This year, Pool said, Lonoke County spent a total of two days at a temperature that a person of his grandfather's era would have considered "spring."

"Our water went from too cold to spawn at about 68 degrees to almost too warm to spawn at 76 degrees in a matter of 48 hours," he said. "We used to have six weeks of spring. Now we have less than a week on average."

Since 1993, Pool Fisheries has been preparing for a warmer world. That year, they started pumping well water through their ponds in the spring to keep them at the 72 degrees required to get goldfish to spawn. In 2000, they built an indoor hatchery where water temperature could be controlled. In 2002, they built concrete spawning vats for the same reason. It's enough to make Pool worry a bit about the fate of the planet.

"Fish are kind of like the canary in the mine," he said. "They're the warning. When they don't have a long enough spring to spawn, that tells you the climate is changing tremendously."

For the time being, things are on a fairly even keel for Danny Pool. He spends a lot of time away from the farm with his other pursuits, including travelling to far-flung places around the world to scuba dive. If he doesn't have a lot of time to kill, he generally doesn't tell people what he does for a living.

"People ask me what I do," he said, "and when I tell them, generally there's 15 to 20 people in a circle asking me questions. I don't care where I go, anywhere in the world, it fascinates people. I'm not bragging or anything. I'm just telling you: If I'm not in the mood to talk for an hour or two, I don't dare tell people what I do, because it's an hour and a half conversation."

See video from Pool Fisheries at arktimes.com/goldfish.

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