Raising Live Fish in Stores
Though the availability and quality of marine livestock is decreasing, captive-raised specimen are keeping the business alive and well.
When the President of the United States gives a State of the Union address, it is rarely filled with bad news. The concept of the State of the Union is a good deal similar to the message of this particular column: What is the state of the marine livestock that aquatic retailers can purchase?
Let me start with the good news. Captive-raised specimens are taking up an ever-increasing percentage of the available inventory. There are several producers in this country and abroad who have developed great skill at raising reef fish in hatcheries. Some of these come from captive spawning, while others are captured in the Plankton and selectively separated out to raise. These are complicated and precise procedures carried out by scientists and professionals who have honed their craft for many years.
Hatchery fish rarely carry any dangerous diseases or parasites. However, they also may be more susceptible to introduced pathogens due to the almost sterile environment they are raised in. As more species are selectively raised, they may lose some of their natural or innate abilities to ward off diseases or parasites. I am thinking, in particular, of the clownfish, which now rivals guppies in its genetic diversity of patterns and colors.
The new trend, if you can call it that, is signature clownfish—in much the same way that signature corals are created. To me, these are not very appealing, but that does not mean that the general public will not gobble them up with gusto. As a retailer, it may be difficult to resist selling percula clowns, which are black and white instead of orange and white. Spots instead of stripes, blotches in place of stripes, no stripes, more stripes, orange and black—virtually everything is possible. Would you rather sell a wild-type clown for $30 or a Picasso variety for $100?
Perhaps it is a great thing for the natural environment that more reef fish are raised in captivity. This should mean that fewer wild fish are sold in the trade, and that is certainly a good thing, right? The total number of fish removed from the wild by the aquarium trade is infinitesimal compared to the fish removed as a food source for humans and their pets. The locations around the world that remain available for legal collection by the pet trade are growing fewer in number. That puts more stress on the places that are still “open for business.” I don’t see anyone worried enough about over-collection of food species to make any real effort to change things. As we all know—either intuitively or through scientific research—as the pressure on fish destined to be eaten increases, there is a chain reaction that will diminish the number of many other species—dependent on the human-preferred proteins.
Even though the aquarium hobby has been experiencing a major reduction in popularity over the past 25 years, that doesn’t mean it is happening over the entire globe. As money has streamed into countries that were once somewhat restricted, the hobby is vibrant and growing. I refer to the Middle East, much of Southeast Asia and China.
Both Japan and Europe remain major consumers of marine organisms—for both the aquarium and consumption. As the economics of countries around the globe are changing, along with cultural influences, so is the availability of disposable income. Meanwhile, in the U.S., things like cell phones, smart TV’s, video games and an endless stream of time-consuming electronic media garner most of the free time of the public. This leaves precious time for a hobby originally started as a way to get in touch with nature, alongside the additional benefits of being educational and calming after a long day at work.
Producers and collectors of marine organisms prefer to sell their better products to places where they can get the best prices. Unfortunately, that is no longer the U.S. We are edging even further downwards on the totem pole. Today, the rare fish go to countries willing to pay the price. Certainly they show up here as well, but in much smaller numbers and for higher prices than ever before. This has a domino effect, reducing the number of importers and wholesalers to a handful compared to what it used to be. Competition is diminished and that raises the prices of the livestock, which makes it even more imperative that retailers keep the fish they have purchased for resale alive and healthy.
Have you noticed how difficult it is to obtain medications to treat disease and parasitic infestations in fish? We are up against an uncaring bureaucracy when it comes to fighting back. As our numbers dwindle, our power to resolve these dilemmas also decreases. There are drugs, familiar to me, that could save many species of fish, both salt and freshwater, but they are no longer available to the trade and certainly not to the consumer. With this in mind, I need to suggest the best way to handle your marine imports.
Back to Basics
Never mix new fish with specimens you already have in your store. This is an extremely difficult thing for 90 percent of retailers to do. Space is at a premium, and basically I am suggesting you have at least four systems, independent from one another. First, keep coral in its dedicated system and only add fish you know to be healthy and don’t intend to sell. Second, house your fish for sale in several segmented, but small, systems. Try not to mix fish from the Atlantic with those from the Pacific or Indian Oceans. Never keep Red Sea fish with species collected in the wild from other locales. The Red Sea has a specific gravity of 1.034, and you should keep its fish at 1.030 or higher. This will reduce losses. It will also mean you need to feed these fish frequently, and don’t be stingy with the quality or quantity of food. The high salinity requires the fish to maintain a high metabolic rate as they struggle to expel salt from their bodies. Remember, all fish must maintain the same blood serum levels.
If you have been in business long enough, you know that certain countries and/or locales collect fish in any way they can. Avoid such fish by always asking your supplier where a fish came from. By putting your supplier on notice, he will be more reluctant to lie to you, hopefully.
In the back of your store where customers are restricted is where you should house all newly imported fish. That way, if problems occur, you can treat them without prying eyes. Every single tank, from 10 to 100 gal., should be separately filtered with no water exchange between these quarantine aquariums. If you catch any employees touching the water without gloves on, fire them on the spot. All nets or other pieces of equipment must be sterilized between tanks. This is serious business. On public display, however, such severe measures are not recommended since it will freak out customers.
Fish are hard to get, but corals are a dime a dozen, and they’re being sold and traded by “coral heads” all around the country. Frankly, if you play the frag game, you cannot compete with hobbyists who know what they are doing. They are passionate and will spend endless hours attending to their stock. I recommend carrying medium to large heads of coral and leaving the frags to the amateurs.
If they make a few dollars, they believe they can open up a retail spot and become rich. Leave them alone in their fantasyland. You are in business to make money
and serve the public, not play games with colored rocks. Even though they are beautiful and fascinating, do it the professional way. Displays that impress can make you money on a consistent basis.
If you want healthy fish, you have to feed them the right food twice a day. Remember my comment on metabolism? Use lots of UV-sterilization on wild-caught fish, even though prevailing philosophy is that it doesn’t help that much. I am a firm believer in a large sump for any tank or system, and it should have a refugium which houses live Caulerpa algae. If the algae seems healthy, there is a good chance the fish will be equally so.
Use power heads, but don’t blow the fish out of the water. Lights on sumps with refugiums should be good, but on the tank itself, I suggest a low level of lighting. Most reef species live several feet below the surface and light is not as bright as you think. Once you go scuba diving, you will know exactly what I mean. Use LED lights, but subdued. You want the fish to come out, not hide in the rocks all day. The fish do need cover, especially the active swimmers. Leave the substrate as open as possible and make low and high caves—like duplex apartments. To sum it up, aquatic stores can still get healthy marine fish, but you may have to look harder, pay more and be very cautious once the livestock is in your possession. Good luck! PB
Edward C. Taylor has been in the pet industry for more than 40 years as a retailer, live fish importer and wholesaler, and fish-hatchery manager.