Diving into Décor

No fish tank is complete without appropriate, yet eye-catching, décor-and retailers can serve as inspiration for hobbyists customers with well-appointed display tanks.


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Take a stroll with me through the aisles of your aquatic livestock department. There are probably rows of aquariums filled with fish for sale—but is that all you see? Are your tanks bare? When people are shopping for fish, do you embrace the opportunity to create interest in the other things that populate a fish tank besides the livestock? I am talking about décor, of course. The two things go hand in hand—fish and their furniture. Every tank owner needs to decorate their aquarium. With some thoughtful planning, retailers can guide their customers by offering them ideas they would never would have imagined on their own.

Most fish tank owners don’t know how to design a habitat for fish. They may know what they like aesthetically, but most do not know what is best for the care of the fish. That is the first hurdle you need to get over on your journey to the finish line, where there awaits a tank filled with beautiful fish and decorative but utilitarian décor items.

A shopper, exploring the Internet for ideas may find countless things to buy. A retailer’s shelves and tanks need to be more convincing than pictures online. Retailers should go with their strong suit by suggesting multiple ways that décor may be used to spice up an aquarium.

There are several categories of décor that retailers need to offer. First and foremost, the substrate material sets the mood, or ambiance, for the concept. Variables include grain size, color, chemical composition of the material, shape of the material and natural coloring versus artificial. Most gravels are covered with a tinted coating to produce any color that is desired. Some gravels are only covered with a clear epoxy, so they have a natural color.

Sitting on top of the gravel there may be a wide variety of rocks. These are so variable that a full discussion of rocks could fill the entire magazine. Suffice it to say that if you don’t know rocks, you should find someone who does. Believe it or not, this is a very complex subject.

Probably the largest category of décor items is live plants. They are not easy for a novice to maintain, since their survival depends on a variety of factors that are best controlled by maintaining the appropriate water chemistry, as well as adequate lighting. I always tell customers who are setting up their first tank to go with plastic plants, but stick in one or two live specimens to test their husbandry skills. If they are successful, they can gradually change out the artificial for the real thing.

Real wood in the aquarium is beautiful and creates a very natural-looking environment, but it can precipitate disaster if the wood is not aquarium safe. In particular, driftwood from waters with a high salt content can easily kill every fish in a freshwater tank. It is impossible to know what potentially deadly chemicals have leached into a piece of wood. All things being equal, aquarium water is usually clean enough that the transfer of chemicals almost always proceeds from wood to tank, not vice versa. Your safest course is to sell only wood collected specifically for the aquarium trade. Even then, there are no guarantees.

Plastic and resin are the compounds from which most aquarium ornaments are made. Typically, the dyes used to color the material can be more dangerous than the material itself. Ornaments originating from unknown manufacturers should be viewed with extreme caution until they prove to be safe. But, there are other ways that ornaments can kill fish besides poisoning them.

For the most part, plastic will float if it is not full of holes that allow water to flow or seep into the structure. When these holes are not really large, they present a challenge for fish to swim through. Fish need a pathway that will allow both entrance and egress. Sometimes, the coming is easier than the going. In particular, fish with wide bodies or long dorsal and pectoral spines may become trapped inside an ornament. This frequently happens when they swim in through the bottom, try to make a turn inside the structure and become stuck. Even cichlids can become stuck if they can’t remember exactly how to orientate their bodies in order to escape.

There are ornaments that almost guarantee problems because they create dead zones, where water is trapped and may become anaerobic. So, it is best to look for big holes with no convoluted passages. Some of the new cave-like ornaments are excellent, since they are totally smooth on the inside and the entire bottom is open. Other than that, the objects can be as fanciful as you wish. You can go old school with pirate skeletons protecting treasure chests, or totally modern with movie or video game characters in their patented poses.

Displaying specific décor concepts is a great way to stoke customers’ imaginations and boost décor sales. To do this properly, retailers need a series of tanks that are used for display only. I prefer a variety of sizes: 10-, 30-, 50- and 125-gallon tanks. These cover the gamut from small to large for 95 percent of the buying public. The biggest challenge is always the small size, since there is precious little room for error. Make one mistake and all the fish may die.

Notice, I do not use the 20-gallon or 55-gallon tanks since they are, respectively, too shallow and too narrow for large fish to feel comfortable. The 20-gallon is just big enough that people will try to keep larger cichlids in it. These species need at least 30-gallons to exhibit their natural behaviors. If you are dealing with territorial species of fish, only a large, long tank will give fish the flexibility they require. I have saved many fish ensembles by moving it to a 125-gallon tank.

When showcasing rocks, nothing will do a better job than a 125-gallon tank. It allows enough space to create several “rooms” over the length of the aquarium. Three rooms—each about two feet long—would be perfect. Use different backgrounds, and colored acrylic “doorways” can serve as walls from one room to the next. Since this segmentation will reduce linear flow, place a power filter in each room. Also, aeration will help to circulate water, as will strategically placed power heads.

Aquatic gardens should look as natural as possible with terraces formed from rocks. A vertically layered display with higher ground in the back will create the illusion of elevation and separation. In this case, retailers should never mix natural and artificial plants. Instead, they should save that expression for a more modified or hybrid environment in which elements from a variety of categories are brought together. Novices will find this mix-and-match more easy to achieve than the structured appearance of a single concept.

Of course, I am leaving out possibly the single most important element of décor—the fish themselves. As a purist, I always believe that fish should be the focal point of every aquarium. Naturally, there are no rules in selecting fish to match décor. However, retailers can steer customers toward the best possible décor choices to both complement their tanks and keep the environment safe for its live inhabitants.


Edward C. Taylor has been in the pet industry for over 30 years as a retailer, live fish importer and wholesaler, and fish-hatchery manager.

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