The mystery of the disappearing koi fish in Howard County

Published 5/15/2023 5:30 a.m. EDT, Updated 5/15/2023 1:52 p.m. EDT

As winter continued to ebb away one late March morning, Steve Steurer, a Columbia resident, was anticipating the koi fish in his backyard pond would emerge from hibernation and went to check if they were swimming.

Instead, he was stunned to find all 30 of his koi fish, plus numerous frogs, missing.

“How did that happen?” he said. “They just don’t get out and walk.”

Steurer’s experience is one of a small spree of recent alleged koi fish thefts in Howard County reported to police. Including Steurer, Howard County Police have received three reports of stolen koi fish this year, said Seth Hoffman, the department’s public information officer. At least one other incident has not yet been officially reported.

While animals can also feast on koi fish and police say there is no suspect information so no way to really know what happened to the fish, Steurer and others affected say they have reason to believe theft because of many factors, including the large number of fish taken at one time.

Hoffman said it is rare for koi fish to be stolen, but it is not unheard of. Cases have been reported across the country and the fish can sell for thousands of dollars.

The earliest report of koi fish thefts in Howard County was made on Feb. 15 from a resident of Glenwood, in western Howard County, who reported 18 missing koi fish. The other two reports were made in the Hobbit’s Glen neighborhood of Columbia, and the residents reported 50 missing fish and 20 missing fish on March 30 and April 7, respectively.

In 2013 in Fairfax County, Virginia, The Washington Post reported that police responded to a report of 400 stolen koi fish at a pond that was part of the landscaping outside of a business building. The koi fish were enjoyed by employees who frequently ate lunch by the pond. The stolen fish were part of an organized heist in which two men claimed they were part of an aquatic care company and were there to treat sick fish. Over four days, they stole 400 koi, which were worth around $20,000.

More recently, across the country on May 3 in San Jose, California, $4,000 worth of koi fish were reported missing from a public park, The Mercury News reported.

Koi fish can be sold at a range of prices. At PetSmart, koi fish start at $9 and go up to $17, but koi fish from breeders can reach thousands of dollars, which could be an incentive for people who want to sell koi.

Steurer has lived in the Hobbit’s Glen neighborhood since 1992, and some of his koi and goldfish had been around for 25 years in front and backyard ponds.

Sign Up for Alerts
Get notified of need-to-know
info from The Banner

He said he has no way of knowing what happened because he did not have cameras set up in his yard, but he did notice the net covering his front yard pond was broken in a way that looked intentional — something that has never happened. Ironically, though, he was in the process of installing motion-sensitive lights around his house when he discovered his empty pond.

But he said he has reason to believe that it was theft and not the work of a hungry animal. Over the last two decades, Steurer’s ponds flourished with aquatic life. He said despite the occasional raccoon or blue heron trying to grab fish, he has never seen every single one of his fish disappear before, especially because he has nets designed to keep predators out that cover both his ponds.

In nearby Hanover, Pennsylvania, is Hanover Koi Farms, one of the largest koi retailers in the area. Farm manager Chris O’Brien said that in many cases, people think their koi fish have been stolen when the real culprit is the fish getting eaten by another animal. He said he gets at least one call a day from a koi owner who thinks their fish were stolen, but nine times out of 10, it was a predator that ate the missing aquatic life.

O’Brien said the most likely culprit is a Susquehanna mink, a predator that’s not uncommon in Pennsylvania and Maryland. Even with nets over the koi ponds, a mink can slip under them, dive for the fish, drag them out and eat them away from the pond, never leaving a trace that it was there, he said.

During the winter, koi fish hibernate and do not need to be fed, O’Brien said. Because they are hibernating, there is no need for the owners to check on them during the winter months, which could introduce the possibility of predators, such as minks, sneaking into the ponds to eat fish without being detected.

But how could one small mink eat dozens of fish from one pond? O’Brien said they could eat a few dozen in one sitting, but the predator would probably make a couple of trips to the pond.

“Once they find a food source, there’s no reason that they won’t come back,” he said. “They’ll come back until that food source is gone, especially in the dead of winter, like March, February, when they are starving, and they find a pond full of big fish, they’re not going to just take one fish and never come back, they’re going to keep coming back until there’s no more food.”

Steurer’s neighbors, Steve and Mary Helen Sprecher, said they had more than 100 fish in their backyard pond, 20 of which were koi, and overnight, all but a few fish went missing.

Steve Sprecher went out to feed the fish at 7:30 a.m. on Thursday, and there was only one fish in the pond. Just the afternoon before, he said, all of the fish were there.

“It’s just devastating, who would do that?” he said.

The nets over the pond were not moved at all, and the vegetation around the pond was not disturbed either, he said.

Because their neighbors’ fish were stolen, Steve Sprecher said he ordered a camera for the backyard, but the camera arrived the night his fish went missing and before he set it up. The Sprechers are the fourth set of residents in their neighborhood to find their backyard ponds completely barren, and they plan to report it to the police, he said.

A neighbor who lives down the street said their Ring alarm system recorded four vehicles that came into Hobbit’s Glen the night the Sprecher’s fish went missing between 12:44 a.m. and 5:30 a.m., Steve Sprecher said.

About a month before their fish went missing, Mary Helen Sprecher said some of their pumps and pond supplies were also stolen. The pumps had been in mesh bags that had a clean slit down the middle.

Although she doesn’t know for sure, she thinks the person who stole the pumps also stole her neighbors’ fish. She’s been searching Craigslist to see if anyone is trying to sell fish, but she’s had no luck in finding koi yet.

The going rate for Koi fish is more dependent on the quality of the fish rather than the size, O’Brien said. He said to think of it as almost like buying a yellow lab from an ethical breeder, which could cost thousands of dollars.

Although koi fish are sold at high prices, O’Brien said there is no black market that he knows of. People who buy expensive koi fish would go to a trusted retailer, so “there’s not a whole lot of incentive to steal them,” he said.

To steal koi, it would take someone well-versed in the koi fish world, O’Brien said. Margaret Koogle — president of Lilypons Water Gardens in Adamstown, Maryland — echoed what O’Brien said.

Koogle said she has never heard of someone stealing koi fish, but if they were to, they would have to drain the pond and have the proper equipment to handle them.

“It’s not an easy task to take koi, and it’s not an easy task to not show disturbance,” Koogle said.

With fish like koi that can grow up to 36 inches, it would be a multiple-person job because of how heavy they would be.

Koogle did say she was puzzled to hear of fish that went missing under a net designed to keep out predators because she had never heard of that happening in Maryland.

Another set of Columbia residents whose fish went missing, even with nets, were Steurer’s other neighbors, Angela and Roy Mitchell. Their backyard pond was wiped clean of any animal life.

Angela Mitchell said that they switched to a new pump system this year, and ever since swapping, she said she noticed more algae in the pond when it should not be present in the winter.

In March when she noticed the algae growth, she asked her pond servicer to hook up their waterfall pumps to get the water flowing. At the time, she didn’t see her koi fish, but she also didn’t think anything of it because they would still be hibernating that time of year.

At the end of March, Mitchell said she still didn’t see her fish emerge, and that’s when she realized something was off, so she asked her pond servicer to drain the pond and see if the fish were there.

“He said he didn’t even see a bone in there,” she said.

For more than 20 years, the Mitchells had around 20 fish in their pond, which are now all gone.

Steurer, who had both ponds cleared out by someone or something, said a friend of his has a koi pond and offered to give him some to refill his pond. The two spent an hour fishing for koi, and they only caught four.

He also bought 10 baby koi from a nearby retailer, and now with his 14 new fish, his pond is showing signs of life again.

On Thursday, Steurer is hosting a meeting with Howard County Police officers who work in community outreach to discuss the matter of missing koi fish.