Retailers can cater to marine hobbyists by building a diverse selection from the wide range of fascinating, functional and attractive invertebrates available.
In many big box stores, and even some larger chains, many of the fish are small and malnourished. Their color is pasty, their behavior erratic and cover is nonexistent. Why is it you almost never see marine livestock in these subpar merchandisers? One of the reasons is that marine hobbyists are typically better informed than their freshwater counterparts. They know junk when they see it. Also, most reef enthusiasts don’t have cost as their top priority. They are more concerned about the general health of the animals they are buying. You have the opportunity to earn the business of these discerning customers by building a varied and robustly healthy selection of marine livestock, and invertebrates are a great place to start.
Your marine invertebrate section should be visibly well-maintained, starting with the tanks they’re kept in. Are you familiar with those acrylic units used by many stores to house small fish or marine invertebrates? I would not use them in your retail space. If you want or need to house excess invertebrates in these units, put them in a room off-limits to the general public. Items such as shrimp and medium to large crabs should be exhibited in 10-gallon tanks with gravel, allowing them to display somewhat normal behavior.
I like to be the store that people visit on a regular basis because they never know what they will find, and the variety among marine invertebrates makes it easy to always have something new. So, what invertebrates should you stock? I like to start with the obvious—snails. Snails come in such a wide variety that you can hardly believe they are all in the same group. (The taxonomic class Gastropoda encompasses all snails, be they freshwater, marine or land-based.)
Carry as wide a variety of snails as you can. Sea snails include all the different animals that inhabit shells—oysters, clams, cowries, scallops, conchs, whelks, turbo, cones, Trochus, Nerite, Nassarius, etc. It is best not to mix species, since many of them are difficult to distinguish from one another.
Snails, like the turbo, are capable of consuming large quantities of algae off of rocks, gravel or the walls of aquariums. The snails you’re likely to sell the most of are members of the so-called “clean-up crew.” These are small, relatively nondescript species that live under or on top of the gravel and are great for cleaning up uneaten food or small extraneous bits of algae. Many stores will sell them by the dozen, sometimes as cheaply as a dollar each or twelve for $10.
Co-mingled with the snails are very small crabs that perform the same tasks. These include emerald crabs and several species of hermit crabs. Hermits are particularly interesting, since they cannot survive without a shell to call their own. If you have hermits to sell, you will also be able to sell customers small empty shells, which the hermits will use for new homes as they grow. Warn your customers that many predatory species of fish will eat regular and hermit crabs, while snails are rarely the object of predation.
So-called “giant clams” in the genus Tridacna are also raised commercially for the trade. They come in a variety of mantle colors and, unlike most snails, they usually settle in one location and attach themselves to the substrate. In this way, they become more like corals. In fact, the mantle requires special lighting, since it contains the communal algae found in many corals. Tridacna are high-ticket items and almost every hobbyist will want at least one. They can be great sellers if you display and maintain them properly. However, compatibility should be theNo. 1 consideration, since many fish will pick at the flesh of these clams.
Starfish, Sponges and More
Starfish, or sea stars, are exceedingly fascinating creatures. They come in a wide variety of shapes, colors and sizes. Some, including brittle stars, serpent stars and some regular stars, can even be added to the list of animals that clean up tanks. Unfortunately, there are predatory starfish that will eat coral and even slow-moving fish. These should be avoided in most reef tank environments. Also be aware, a few starfish are prey for predatory fish, and even shrimp, so be sure to do your research before selling these stars.
Going hand-in-hand with starfish, are sea urchins. These whimsical animals are constantly on the move, looking for patches of algae to scrub from rocks, gravel and tank walls. They come with short, medium or very long spines which may be thick and pencil-like or thin and stiletto-like. Be on alert when handling them, as those long, thin spines can easily pierce your skin. My favorite urchins are the species that collect random debris from around the tank.
How about sponges? They require something very opposite to what most marine enthusiasts strive for. They thrive in a relatively dirty environment with lots of micro-food particles in suspension. This also works well for soft corals such as leathers, clove polyps, kenya trees, etc.
Let’s not forget anemones, in particular the colonial species which look, for all the world, like real corals. Once again, you will want relatively dirty water, so avoid the use of filter socks and use protein skimmers sparingly. With the larger anemones, you must select fish that know how to avoid the stinging tentacles. Anemones are completely predatory, so prepare for a diet composed of animal protein. Carpet anemones, which prefer to live on the substrate, are very deadly for most small fish, with the exception of clowns, which frequently make their homes in the enveloping folds.
Hard or stony corals can make you a lot of money, but beware of local entrepreneurs who frag coral in their garage operations and sell it online, at reef club meetings and even to your competitors. The best way to avoid conflict with these hobbyists is to carry frags that are larger than those sold by most people—three inches or more. When selling these corals to people for their display aquariums, point out that there is a better chance for success if they start with a large specimen.
There are many other marine invertebrates to consider. Snails without shells, or nudibranchs, swim gracefully through open water using their spineless, shell-less bodies in rolling spasms of movement. They appear to be floating or soaring in space. The number of soft corals available for sale is almost endless, but some are much easier to maintain than others. In particular, I do well with octocorals, Xenia species, Ricordea and my favorite, members of the order Alcyonacea, which includes gorgonians, sea fans and sea whips. Many of these look very much like plants in the aquarium, but they are actually colonies of individual polyps living together communally. Spaced judiciously throughout a tank of stony corals, they make a home aquarium look like a wild, living reef. 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.