For the last few years when traveling I’ve tried not to spend too much time in aquarium stores. I’ve always known that if I see a fish (or a shrimp, or a crayfish) that I can’t get at home it will only lead to heartbreak; Presumably carrying fish on an airplane would surely run afoul of a dozen agriculture, Homeland Security, and anti-poaching laws and result in awkward conversations with border guards and the fish being unceremoniously deposited in a garbage bin, bag and all. The one time I made an attempt (many years ago, when airport security was less strict) I was turned back at the last minute by baggage handlers who wouldn’t check my box full of shrimp, and wound up having to reschedule my flight.
But, I’m not made of stone –I still find myself peering into shop windows from time to time and idly googling the latest baggage restrictions. Some of the clearest information about importing fish to the US is in an article written by Randy Carey in the 90s ( http://badmanstropicalfish.com/articles/article15.html ), but it is mostly about shipping fish internationally, which is modestly different from carrying fish in personal baggage – and, I found his conclusion generally discouraging.
Then, a couple of years ago this page showed up in my browser:
...and my hope was rekindled.
Domestic US Travel
For a trial run I bought a bag of not-very-expensive Endler’s livebearers at The Wet Spot Tropical Fish in Portland, stuck them in an insulated lunchbox, and nervously lined up for airport security. As advertised, the TSA agents pulled out the fish, peered at them for a minute, and then sent me on my way. Success! Upon arriving at my home airport I immediately left the bag on a bench at the train station which resulted in a bit of rushing around and a quick conversation with a policeman, but that’s neither here nor there – the fish are now happily swimming in a tank in my fishroom and reproducing like mad.
I wouldn’t hesitate to repeat this process (minus the train-station abandonment) with a rarer/more expensive fish – it’s quite straightforward. I’m not entirely clear on what the checked-baggage ban is about, but it felt more secure to have the fish out where I could see them anyway.
International Travel to the US
I spend a fair bit of time in Singapore, where shrimp-keeping is a great deal more popular than in Minnesota. There are multiple shrimp-only retail shops, and even a random pet store in a shopping mall is likely to have a few tanks full of BKK or painted fire shrimp. Planted tanks hobbyists here will keep their algae under control with Yamato shrimp if price is no object, but on a budget they’ll buy a pre-packed bag of 100 ‘malayan shrimp’ for $10.
Having kept and raised a range of wild-caught Caridina shrimp, ‘malayan shrimp’ have become a bit of a white whale for me. They were briefly available in the US (Mustafa at petshrimp.com raised and sold them for a few years in the early 2000s) but they generally don’t show up on importer lists because they don’t have the bright colors of other domesticated varieties. What species are they? What is their lifecycle like? No one in Singapore seems to really know or care – they’re just cheap workhorses; in order to answer those questions I’d need to get some home to a tank where I could watch them and get some close-up photos.
Transporting livestock internationally is a whole different story from doing so domestically! There’s a whole list of reasons why bringing these shrimp home is going to be complicated: US Fish and Wildlife, US Agriculture, the TSA, Singaporean export laws, etc. Nevertheless…
US Fish and Wildlife: I’ve contacted Fish and Wildlife officials a few times and they’ve been shockingly responsive and helpful. To my surprise their response to my inquiries about bringing shrimp into the country was not “Don’t do that” but rather “Fill out this form and it should be fine.” Their main concerns were 1) CITES and other endangered animal laws (for better or worse, Caridina shrimp haven’t made it onto any lists, so this wasn’t an issue) 2) Commercial vs. personal use. I needed to write a note explaining that my interest in the shrimp is non-commercial, which is to say I don’t plan to sell or trade them, or sell or trade their offspring. Commercial importing would still be possible but require an expensive license. In the unlikely event that I’m buried in shrimplets I’m happy to keep them or give them away to other hobbyists, so I opted to dodge the license fee.
USFW has designated ports of entry that have staff on hand to inspect shipments. Fortuitously, my travel plans already included a long layover in SFO, a designated port. If I had been flying straight home to MSP (not a designated port) everything would’ve been much more complicated, or maybe out of the question altogether. Because I planned to travel on a holiday, there was also the possibility that I might have to pay a wildlife inspector to show up on their day off and inspect my goods – fairly expensive (around $100) but I decided to take the risk.
USFW has a mostly-functional website for submitting the required forms, so after a few minutes of work (and a couple of days of waiting) I got a tentative thumbs-up.
US Department of Agriculture:
I emailed the department of Agriculture and they, too, were responsive and helpful. Their response was, essentially, “We don’t regulate freshwater shrimp, you can ignore us.” They also suggested that I get a veterinarian certificate for the shrimp but that that struck me as highly unlikely, and since they didn’t say I needed to get a certificate I opted to ignore this suggestion.
TSA: After changing planes in SFO I’d need to clear US security again. This shouldn’t be different from traveling domestically, so not much to worry about there.
Singaporean export restrictions: Singapore has a ‘personal pet’ quota for leaving the country with non-endangered pets. It has a personal quota for fish (many) and a personal quota for marine invertebrates (no more than 5 pieces) and no real acknowledgement of freshwater invertebrates. 5 shrimp is only barely enough to establish a colony, so I decided to risk it and pack a couple dozen shrimp, argue that they were ‘fish,’ and hope that the customs agents weren’t zoologists.
Singaporean airport security: Changi airport has a US-style liquids restriction for boarding planes, but no explicit volume exception for ‘fish in transparent containers.’ I emailed the security help desk, and their response was curt: “… each passenger may hand carry up to 10 of the 100ml bottles (Total: 1000ml). Hence, we regret to inform that it is not advisable to hand carry the aquarium live fish to the aircraft.” That rule presented a problem and a solution both at once.
How it went
I didn’t want the shrimp to sit in a bag for a week before I traveled, but availability of malayan shrimp is quite sporadic in shops. Fortunately, Louis Law at Aquatic Glasselli was amused enough at my ambition that he ordered a tankfull of shrimp, held onto them for me, and then helped out as I packed them up for shipping. I handled the ‘100 ml’ security restriction by packing each shrimp in its own tiny bottle, which was a lot of trouble.
As a hedge, I also packed some shrimp in water bottles in my checked luggage. This might have been in violation of airline rules but I was counting on no one noticing or caring. I also printed out multiple copies of my conditional permit from Fish and Wildlife and prepared to brandish them when challenged. Fish and Wildlife notified me that they wouldn’t be coming in on the holiday and that the shrimp were ‘conditionally released’ pending further approval.
Getting through security in Singapore was a non-event – they treated my tiny bottles of shrimp just as they would bottles of shampoo, and my traveling companion graciously offered to carry half of the bottles, so the 10-bottle limit wasn’t an issue. Once on the plane there was nothing to do but worry about the upcoming challenge of clearing customs.
On arrival at SFO I filled out a standard customs declaration at the kiosk and clicked ‘yes’ for the option about declaring live animals or wildlife. The machine printed out an admission form with a giant X over my face and a note to see a passport agent, which was not especially encouraging. After a long wait in an immigration line, the passport agent took my passport and did not return it. Alarming, but he promised that someone at the Agriculture desk would return it.
Next was collecting checked luggage and locating the Agriculture desk. There wasn’t one, but there was a generic customs inspection desk with another line behind it – after another wait, I chatted with a friendly agent and showed her my Fish and Wildlife form. She seemed mostly unconcerned but ‘freshwater aquarium shrimp’ was definitely a new one for her so there was a long delay while she shopped the form around among her colleagues; eventually she returned and told me I was free to go.
The rest of the trip was easy – no comment from security or baggage handlers, and the shrimp arrived at home alive and swimming. Puzzlingly, the shrimp were not officially ‘released’ by Fish and Wildlife until I filed a few more forms (a flight plan, a receipt, and a personal letter professing my lack of commercial interest) but apparently it was fine to file these after the fact because a few days later the shrimp were ‘released’. Of course by that time they were already zipping around my aquariums so it’s not clear what alternative the officials really had.
Conclusion: should you try this?
Hand-carrying fish on a domestic US flight went just fine, and I wouldn’t hesitate to try it again or suggest it to someone else.
The international trip went fine but it’s not entirely clear that I could reproduce the success. Singapore has especially lenient import/export rules, so traveling from e.g. someplace in Europe might be a whole other story. In addition, I don’t know if it was just good luck that I got on the plane without incident or if it was a sure thing.
Also, shrimp were maybe easier than fish. USDA might well care about fish, and most fish would be unhappy being crammed into a 100ml bottle for a day and a night.
That said… I did see a Macropodus honkongensis in a tank in Singapore, and if they’re still there the next time I’m in the region I may not be able to resist. I suspect that (despite the official rules) packing things in luggage is a safer bet than hand-carrying for an international trip. And, for ethical reasons I would want to have flexible travel plans so if I got turned away at the gate the fish end up back in a local aquarium rather than tossed in the trash.
Here are my suggestions for someone else who wants to try an international trip with a pet fish or other aquarium animal:
- check in early with USFW and USDA. They are shockingly helpful and indulgent of eccentric desires.
- read and re-read local rules about exports before setting out
- leave the airline out of it. My inclination is to make sure that everything is above board, but airlines are notoriously risk-averse and are likely to say ‘no’ to any question they haven’t heard before.
- be ready to assert that your livestock is not for commercial use, and mean it. I would hate for people to abuse the non-commercial license exception such that the rules wind up getting changed.
- this is all probably possible, but plan for failure. Failure might mean getting turned away from your flight, or it might mean being permitted but missing a connecting flight due to long customs delays.