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Shipping Fish

How to safely ship a fish by airplane.

By Mike Wickham |

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Q. Over the last couple of years, I have traveled to a lot of different fish shows. Some of the shows I want to go to are pretty far away, and I'm thinking of flying out to them. How do you bring tropical fish home while traveling via airplane? Can you just bring bags of tropical fish with you in your carry-on luggage? Any advice would be helpful.
Trent Gumpp

A. Tropical fish shows are a great way to find cool additions to your aquatic collection. Aquarium society auctions often offer rare species (rare in the stores, at least) that you can buy for breeding or enjoyment. Killifish and rare livebearers are common examples of some tropical fish bred commonly by hobbyists, but are rarely available in the shops.

The price is often right, too! Not all airlines will let you bring tropical fish as carry-on baggage. So, you should check with the airline before you book your ticket. If you change planes on your journey, make sure you also check the policy of any airline to which you might transfer. If possible, have the airline(s) send you a brochure or something in writing that confirms permission, or download the information from their Web site. The person at the gate may not know the regulations, and it may help to show their own materials as evidence.

In checking on answers to your question, I found widely varying information. Southwest Airlines Won't accept live animals. Air Alaska says that tropical fish may be carried on for free. Delta says that tropical fish must be shipped as air cargo. Other airlines may want to charge a fee.

In any case, you must pack the fish securely, and the container should be small enough to fit beneath your seat if you are to carry it on. In these post-September 11 times, the container should also be easily accessible for inspection. I noticed one airline would not accept styrofoam containers as baggage, though that appeared to be for checked baggage (they're easily broken when tossed). You may want to choose a hard container for holding the fish bags. Plastic shoe boxes or something similar might be a good choice.

Hobbyists usually pack tropical fish bags into styrofoam or other coolers to protect from temperature extremes, but that's really only an issue if sending via air cargo. If the tropical fish are with you, and you are comfortable, it shouldn't be a problem for the fish.

Double-bag the fish to prevent leaks, placing the inner bag upside down within the outer one. That eliminates corners where tropical fish can easily jam themselves and spine through the bag. Generally, filling the bag one-third full of water and two-thirds full of air (or pure oxygen) is the rule. The water only keeps the fish wet — it's the air that keeps them alive. Plus, less water is less weight for you to carry.

I've mentioned air cargo a couple of times. This is the term for sending freight via air, and is not the same as carry-on or checked baggage. The airlines will not handle air cargo at the ticket counter. You must go to the appropriate airline's counter at the air cargo terminal to make these arrangements. At tiny airports, the air cargo terminal might be next door to the passenger terminal, and less than a five minute walk. In large airports, it may be miles away.

So, if you want to ship tropical fish via air cargo, be sure you allow time to make the arrangements, and be aware that the fish won't necessarily ship on the same flight carrying you. Of course, you will also retrieve the fish at the destination air cargo counter, not the passenger baggage claim.

Another alternative, assuming the weather isn't too horrible, is to ship the fish via USPS Priority or Express Mail. Many hobbyists exchange tropical fish and eggs safely this way. Post office regulations require that the tropical fish must be securely sealed in a primary enclosure (double plastic bags), that the package should contain sufficient absorbent material to contain leaks, and all this gets packed into a waterproof outer container. Happy fishkeeping!

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Reader Comments

Laura    Peoria, IL

12/28/2012 7:26:04 PM

I called alaska air yesterday to see about bringing a fish as a carry on. They must have changed their rules as they require it to be checked into cargo and charge the pet fee of $100. Just wanted to put in the update.

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