The Lory Student Center Lagoon is slowly evaporating, and as the water line recedes, questions emerge.
Like, where did all these goldfish come from and will they survive?
The hundreds of fish appeared mysteriously in the lagoon sometime last year. Since then, they've been swishing around in the lagoon and raising families. But now they face danger.
Even if the remaining strip of water they call home doesn't evaporate completely in the next month, it runs the risk of freezing, encasing the goldfish in an icy tomb.
"Some effort needs to be made to get them out of there," said Stephanie Boyles, a wildlife biologist for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
University officials have taken a hands-off but hopeful approach to the fishes' plight. Staffers have different theories as to how the orange invaders got there, and student intervention is strongly suspected.
In hopes of saving the fish, groundskeepers have decided to hold off on the routine draining of the lagoon. They believe the water might be able to sustain the fish until the end of winter, when the flow of undrinkable irrigation water from College Lake begins to refill the lagoon.
"We'd like to see those fish through winter but obviously they're down to a very narrow part right now," said Fred Haberecht, the campus landscape architect. "I think they have a good chance."
In the meantime, the hundreds-strong school of adult and juvenile goldfish can be seen splashing around, sometimes breaching the water's surface or clouding the water as they scrape against the silty floor. From a distance, the school looks like an orange patch against the mud.
Boyles said the gamble isn't wise.
"I don't think they can just hope for the best and have the animals pay the ultimate price if they're wrong. They should do something proactive now," she said. "If (university officials) have any doubts, really, the animals are on their property so they ultimately are the school's (CSU's) responsibility."
The PETA biologist said she has personally waded out into ponds with a net and scooped some fish to safety. The more shallow a pond gets, the easier it is, she said.
Another biologist agreed.
"They need water," said Gordon Mueller, a fish biologist with the United States Geological Survey. "If you have any feelings for goldfish, you would move them to a better conditions."
"Well, I'd suggest you get a bucket and a pair of waders and go out and rescue them," Mueller said.
But that might not be necessary, campus architect Haberecht said. He expects the lagoon to be filled again in the next 30 days or so. At that time groundskeepers dump a batch of big, beige carp into the lagoon.
The grass carp, up to two-foot monsters cared for by CSU fishery biology students and professors, slurp away algae that would otherwise turn the lagoon into a swamp during the warmer months. They are removed before the pond is normally drained for the winter.
The goldfish are related to carp, and don't cause them any problems, experts said.
But while casualties among the goldfish might be high, it's not likely the lagoon will become a mass fishy grave. Goldfish are incredibly resilient and can last for long periods in low-oxygen environments, said Professor Chris Myrick, a fishery biologist who tends to the lagoon.
"It really depends on whether or not the pond freezes completely," Myrick said. "If it freezes all the way, it's pretty much curtains for the goldfish."
Myrick first noticed the goldfish when some were swept up with the carp during their routine removal last year. The goldfish, in the conditions of the lagoon, could probably reproduce at the rate of about one generation per year, he said.
"Based on the number of goldfish (and their sizes) they were stocked in there as adults. … Someone dumped in hundreds of goldfish at some point," Myrick said. "Who knows where they came from?"
He's heard some rumors, though.
One possibility was a residence hall event dubbed "Give a Friend a Goldfish Day," Myrick said. He suspects residence hall-bound fish took a detour to the LSC Lagoon.
Housing and residence hall officials said such an event didn't sound familiar. But goldfish permeate student life at CSU – some halls occasionally hold events where the fish are handed out as prizes.
Even so, Myrick isn't certain if the fish came from the residence halls.
"No one marked the fish that went to the dorms," he said. "They could have come from just about anywhere."
Goldfish were also handed out as prizes at the Ram Welcome Carnival, which was set up in August near the lagoon, students said. It's another possibility that revelers set the fish "free."
But indiscriminately releasing strange fish into a body of water could be dangerous to the fish themselves or worse, the ecosystem, Myrick said.
"If you have a pet goldfish and you put it in a pond somewhere, it can either cause problems for native fish in the pond or the fish may die just because the conditions aren't suitable," Myrick said. "If the pond freezes or dries up, the fish are history."
Students interviewed around campus didn't seem to have taken much notice of the fishes' struggle for survival.
Tom Mueller, a freshman open-option major, didn't seem too upset upon learning of the life-and-death battle against nature taking place just outside the LSC.
"It doesn't really bother me much," he said, "but if there ends up being a bunch of dead fish in there … it would stink walking to class."
Junior math major Andrew Gross worried that the burden of intervention would fall on taxpayers.
"I don't think it's worth spending money on," Gross said. "It sort of sucks for the fish, but…"
He trailed off.
But the campus architect said he's rooting for them.
"I would like to see them survive," Haberecht said. "I'd be curious to see what happens next season."
Brandon Lowrey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.