Handling Freshwater Livestock

A knowledgeable staff and healthy livestock display setups are key to building a robust freshwater fish business.


The husbandry of aquatic organisms is a science, not a game, and when it comes to selling or exhibiting freshwater fish—both tropical and pond species—there is much to consider. Pet specialty retailers need to follow a strict regimen of care and maintenance of their livestock, or be prepared for the worst.

fishHaving come from a background of hatchery management, I am particularly aware of the significant role that proper care plays in the health and well-being of fish. If not given all the elements they need to survive and thrive, fish will neither look good enough nor live long enough to sell. The key to providing the best care for livestock is to have knowledgeable, well-trained employees devoted to the task.

Customers are not always the best judges of fish health. Many people will have no idea whether the fish that are for sale in a store tank are prospering or faltering. They may buy specimens that are not healthy because they don’t know any better.

The important question is: will your sales associates tell people when fish are substandard or otherwise lacking? Unfortunately, in many stores, employees are not forthcoming about the health of the fish. Sometimes that is because they are focused solely on making sales, but it is just as likely that they themselves are not competent judges of fish health. This is often the problem in big-box or chain stores, where employees may have less training and knowledge. Either way, the customer loses, and ultimately, so does the store. And worst of all—the fish suffer.

Every person who handles tropical fish needs to understand that they are responsible for the animals in their charge. Selling a fish to a customer should require the same level of concern as selling them a dog or a cat. For example, would you knowingly sell someone a giant breed of dog if they lived in a tiny studio apartment? At the very least, the customer should understand the challenges they will be up against. Yet, what about the dog? How happy would a Great Dane be in a two-room apartment? The same would apply to selling a juvenile oscar to a customer who only has a 20-gallon tank. It’s just not the right thing to do on several levels. Employees should have an internal moral compass that prevents them from making ill-advised sales.

The best approach for retailers to take is to hire employees that truly care about fish and have a solid understanding of fish husbandry. Any time I interview a potential employee, I always let them dig their own hole before I start my inquisition. Prospective employees who actively keep multiple tanks are likely to have at least a rudimentary understanding of husbandry. People who breed fish are usually the best informed. They also tend to actually care about fish; they do not just want a job.

Retailers that sell pond fish, particularly ornamental koi and goldfish, will need employees who have strong knowledge in this area, as well. If you think it is difficult to diagnose problems in an aquarium, try doing it in a pond. This is a skill set that few people possess. You must learn to evaluate livestock when viewing it strictly from above, rather than straight on.

I earned my stripes working at a Florida fish farm and observing hundreds of concrete vats full of fish. The average pond enthusiast has only one example to draw all his experience from. So, it is important to have someone on staff who has experience with pond fish.

Most stores are likely to face their worse pond-fish maintenance problems when they first start to load up at the beginning of the pond season. Fish are being subjected to crowding for the first time in their lives, and they need to be at their healthiest in order to fight off any infections or parasites that may attack them. Two things that you need to help keep water in good chemical balance will be UV-sterilization and biological filtration. I highly recommend seeding your pond system with a massive dose of live surfactant bacteria before introducing the first shipment of the year. If you do this, you may need to artificially feed the bacteria until the fish arrive. After that, cut on your UV-system to knock out any bacteria or algae spores that may be hitchhiking on or in the fish. When it comes to pond fish, massive filtration is your best prophylactic to promote healthy animals.

During the year, you may receive numerous pond shipments from a variety of suppliers. This is problematic, as far as introducing vectors, since almost every farm will have its own strains of both fish and problems—more specifically, pathogens you don’t want. Buying from various geographic regions can be particularly thorny. If you choose to purchase pond fish from sources in cooler regions of the country, such as Pennsylvania or Washington state, and then buy from warmer climes such as Florida, Louisiana or Texas, be prepared for an entirely new set of problems. Vectors from different regions can be very different. Try not to mix livestock from cool and warm sources, if possible.

It’s almost inevitable that you will find it necessary to sacrifice a specimen or two for observation under a dissecting binocular microscope. If you don’t have one, get one. If you train yourself well, you will be able to solve problems with the appropriate drugs or prophylactic treatments, rather than using a shotgun approach. No one wants to spend vast sums on medication when a little bit of examination may save you considerable money and grief. Also, if at all possible, keep koi and goldfish in different systems. Finally, never mix domestically sourced pond fish with imports from other locales, such as Japan, China, Southeast Asia, etc.

Retailers should also give considerable thought to how they exhibit tropical freshwater fish. There are two distinct techniques. The first is to segregate fish by type, keeping fish of one type in one tank. The other is the all-in-one technique, meaning almost all species can be kept in one tank. This community approach serves as the best choice—by far—since it is the way most people keep fish. You want to show people the possibilities.

Now, even though a single-species tank may not be a good marketing tool, there are many cases when it is the safest route to follow. Let’s say you purchase 500 jumbo cardinal tetras, which are most likely to be wild-caught. Are you going to mix them with other species, like most hobbyists do? I think not. You don’t want anything to happen to these fish, so give them their own special environment with low water-flow and soft, acid chemical parameters.

Another example is wild-caught discus, which are always expensive and relatively touchy when it comes to water chemistry. Discus must always be the focal point of any tank they are in. If they are challenged by other fish—except their own kind—they frequently cannot compete and slowly deteriorate. So, wild discus are best kept with other wild non-aggressive South American species.

Line-bred or genetic discus strains are typically not restricted to soft-acid water, but they are still sensitive as far as behavior is concerned. They need to dominate their tank environment to prosper. The bottom line is that both types are expensive, and if you are not going to make them the focal point of a tank, there is little point in keeping them. 

In general, however, tropicals should be exhibited in mixed-species groupings, so customers can see for themselves what is and isn’t possible in a community situation.

A final note when it comes to handling fish: they can be as different as day and night, both in behavior and physical structure. For example, virtually all catfish have large pectoral fins that consist of at least one really sharp spine. These spines can easily become stuck in regular netting. I recommend most catfish and any other spiny fish be collected with plastic nets that have netting only on the bottom. Such nets are always box-shaped, not V-shaped. This means the fish will rarely become stuck in the netting. The fish, your customers and your employees will appreciate this convenience.

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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