Next time you're mesmerised by the tiny fish glittering in the aquarium in your accountant's office - wonder for a moment where they came from - they could well have been bred in the ponds at Te Aroha's Global Goldfish.

Global Goldfish is a family business run by Murray and Sally Barker along with son Tim, daughter Megan and long-term worker Dean and is New Zealand's largest producer of goldfish, producing between 200,000 and 400,000 fish a year for the domestic market.

A Waikato local Murray, now 71, has been in the goldfish business for more than 40 years, taking it over from a long-time neighbour.

"Stan Gover ran the business. He lived nearby. One day he asked me ''why don't you come up and give us a hand,?''. I thought I'd just be helping-out but he made me an offer to come and work full-time in the business and split the expenses, profits and time-off.''

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Fish farmer Murray Barker with some of his stock in trade. Photo / Geoff Lewis
Fish farmer Murray Barker with some of his stock in trade. Photo / Geoff Lewis

Goldfish, Carassius Auratus, are part of the same family of fish as carp. In the early 1970s the Government halted the importation of new goldfish breeding stock for fear of the spread of pathogens that could affect salmon and trout.

"Stan was allowed three more importations so he brought in breeding stock. You can import now, but the quarantine conditions are very stringent and expensive.''

The history of goldfish can be traced back to the Sung dynasty (960 - 1279AD) in China and maybe earlier, where legend has it, a worker clearing a drain came across a bright red fish - which would today be described as a genetic mutation. The emperor loved it ordered more and so goldfish were bred and developed.

''Goldfish are a mutation and the tendency to revert to the ancient carp is so strong that if left to themselves that is what they would do. Every spawning we will get rogue examples which have to be removed. That's the whole goldfish game, trying to control the environment and maximise successful spawning.

''We select our breeding stock from what we consider to be pretty. We can put two or three breeders together and they can 'throw'.

The aim is to breed desirable traits and this requires constant attention,'' Murray said.

Males are kept in one pond and females in another. The spawning season is between August and mid February. Goldfish are a cold-water fish but can stand a wide range of temperatures.

Spawning can be triggered by slight changes in temperature. Global Goldfish has dozens of large tanks and ponds filled with water purchased from the local council.

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Murray and his crew send goldfish all over New Zealand in plastic bags of water inflated with oxygen and packed in boxes. The booming courier industry has made transporting goldfish far easier but they still need to be very aware of what is happening in different regions.

"We are very careful about when we send consignments. Just prior to the Christchurch earthquake we sent a large consignment of around 2000 fish to Canterbury and they weren't delivered for seven days.

They can be safe for a week but in summertime, if left in the sun, they can overheat very quickly and pathogens developer faster when the temperature is increased.''

Global Goldfish is a busy outfit as the courier calls twice a day during the weeks. The ponds hold between 10,000 and 15,000 fish each and the business packs out 30 to 40 cartons a day, three to four days a week and over the years has bred and shipped-out more than $20 million worth of fish.

''If it wasn't for couriers we wouldn't have a business. Before couriers we'd start packing fish at 2am and there was a lot more energy spent keeping track of things. Today a customer can ring at 3pm and the fish will arrive (for instance) in Invercargill by 7am the next morning.''

Global Goldfish has two areas totaling about 9ha in tanks and ponds, one on the slopes of Mount Te Aroha with a view over the Hauraki Plains and another further along the Kaimai range.

In town, surrounded by residential development, all the ponds are covered in netting.

''Paradise for cats,'' as Murray describes it. Then there are the roving eyes-in-the-sky in the form of native falcons, also keen for an easy feed.

The ponds hold between 10,000 and 15,000 fish each. Photo / Geoff Lewis
The ponds hold between 10,000 and 15,000 fish each. Photo / Geoff Lewis

Hatchling goldfish or 'fry' are fed on Daphnia, a water-flea and brine shrimp. Popular varieties include 'Comets' which make up about half of production.

Despite its name Global Goldfish currently only supplies New Zealand although it has had approaches from overseas buyers.

''We used to supply the east coast of Australia but there was just too much red tape and the prices were not good enough. It was simpler to supply the local market and now fish are coming from China we can't compete in the overseas market.

However, the world of goldfish is changing along with societal changes, Murray said.

''There are fewer aquarium societies and pet shops in general are not as common as they used to be. I don't think we'll see a disappearance but people are more pre-occupied with digital things today.''

Outside of Goldfish Murray tries hard to keep fit and visits the local gym. ''These days Sally and I focus more on what we want to do. Quite a lot of people my age are no longer working. I try to keep fit and healthy.''

Murray is also one of those unsung workers in the community. He is president of the Piako Hearing Association and president of the Waihou Historic Pioneer Church society which helped restore the more-than 100-year-old Anglican church in the nearby settlement.
He's on the board of the Te Aroha Community Hospital and has had a long association with St John.

''I really think it is important if you can do something to help. A lot of people do a lot of good work.''