Freshwater Fish 101

Having livestock expertise in a pet specialty retailer’s freshwater fish department is key to ensuring that customers leave armed with the right assortment of fish and the knowledge necessary to house them successfully.


Today’s modern pet specialty shop is a far cry from stores of the past. It is loaded with merchandise, boasting a variety of product categories that no mom-and-pop business of old could ever carry. Unfortunately, particularly in the big-box chains, there is often no mom or pop around to pass on valuable information to customers. Instead of wisdom and sage advice, you get fresh-faced sales associates who can point you in the direction of the goods on the shelves you might be looking for, but know little else. 

If there is one department where experts are crucial, it is the livestock department. When customers seek advice on what fish to select for their aquariums, and all they get is a sales pitch or, even worse, misinformation, no one wins—not the customer whose endeavor is likely to fail nor the store that set the customer up for failure. On the other hand, pet retailers that offer shoppers sound, reliable and accurate advice and guidance not only foster long-lasting customer relationships, they help customers become successful hobbyists. There are several ways for stores to accomplish that goal. Here are some ideas that will make your establishment stand out from the crowd.

First and foremost, hire “fish” people. The world of freshwater fish is a large one and there is much to learn. Imagine having an employee who has little or no knowledge of the types of fish, species of fish, behavior of fish, water requirements, food requirements, reproductive strategies and compatibility. There is no way a novice could possibly help a customer other than to catch fish in the stores’ tanks for them—and even that act may require some very specific skills. With this in mind, seek individuals who have some background in keeping fish even if their retail experience is minimal, and train them to meet your standards. It should not be difficult if they already know the product. 

Also, keep in mind that fish-room manager is a skilled position that should be paid accordingly. It is extremely difficult to find personnel who can adequately handle a large fish department.

Next, cater to the experienced hobbyists in your area by always having something new for them to see. Don’t buy the same species over and over and place them in the same tanks. Also, don’t buy your fish from a restricted list of suppliers—explore, branch out and look for new sources that will hopefully sell fish you have never carried before. Keep your selection fresh and exciting, so customers will return on a regular basis to check your inventory.

Aquariums housing fish for sale shouldn’t resemble an assembly line of sterile identical cubicles. It’s best that no two tanks in a row should look the same. Décor should both match the fish’s requirements and permit customers to see the product. Occasionally, it may be necessary for an employee to reach into the tank and expose fish hiding in caves or under rocks. You can’t sell what people can’t see, but the fish need to feel comfortable or they may not prosper.

It’s best to have tanks with mixed species, but this may not always be possible due to behavior or special requirements of certain fish. Almost every customer will have a community tank in which species are housed together in peace and harmony. This is a goal that is not always easy to achieve, so you need to show people how to do it. Species compatibility, water chemistry and décor selection are three major factors you must control in order to be successful. Your tanks are role models for fish husbandry.

School is in Session
Let’s get down to some specifics when it comes to freshwater fish. There are many species that beginners should not attempt to keep, but plenty that they will have little or no problem maintaining. Community fishes tend to be schooling species as well. An aisle dedicated to these selections is a must. In this circumstance, you are competing with national chains, as these make up a vast majority of the fish sold in big-box outlets. But honestly, it is easy to outperform these competitors. Buy and sell fish that are not small but medium in size. These are better representative of most species anyway, since the fish will grow larger if properly cared for. Certainly, the bigger fish will cost you more but we are talking pennies, and the visual difference is dramatic.

Of course, fish can’t look good if their environment is substandard, and nothing ruins a display more than poor or inadequate lighting. The type of illumination should be identical over every display aquarium. More light is better than less, but you never want to overpower a display with light. If fish need hiding places, be certain to provide them. All décor items should be selected from those you sell, so customers can purchase them.

The water requirements of many schooling species are similar, but not perfectly identical. This should be made clear to customers. For example, you would not keep cardinal tetras in the same water as Australian rainbows even though, behaviorally, they would do fine together. Differences can be small or large, and that’s one reason you should have experts working in your fish department. Neon tetras usually do quite well with the common rainbow species, but a beginner usually can’t distinguish cardinals from neons.
Catfish are a bit more complicated since some species are predatory and others are not. A common pleco would seem like a great choice for a community tank at the two-inch size it is frequently sold, but not once it reaches its full potential of over a foot in length. Corydoras catfish from South America are perfect for the average-sized mixed-species tank since they stay under three inches. Good fish-room employees will intuitively know which catfish can be maintained in a customer’s existing aquarium. They will also know that the best catfish for most cichlid tanks are members of the genus Synodontis.

In the old days, livebearers were a staple item in mixed-species tanks. Really, only platies and swordtails are perfect, with mollies a distant second due to their water chemistry demands. Even further off the list are guppies. This is not due to their hardiness, but rather their long, flowing caudal fins which many fish cannot resist chewing. So, while you might think that since guppies and cardinal tetras are the same size and have the same water requirement, they would be a good mix, but they are not a good fit. Tetras have teeth and will be attracted to the guppies’ fancy tails. 

The other thing about livebearers is the fact that they give birth to free-swimming young and people get freaked out trying to keep the fry safe from harm. This usually does not happen with an egg-layer, except in the case of mouthbrooders. Many cichlids, especially Rift Lake species, hold the eggs in their mouths until the fry can swim on their own. They are larger than livebearer fry, and some of them will survive by hiding under rocks near the substrate. 

Your employees should be knowledgeable when it comes to identifying fish and their relationship to one another. For example: tetras, barbs, danios, rasboras, catfish and loaches are all Ostariophysian fishes with certain internal structures in common. Likewise, cichlids all have an array of characteristics that identify them as evolutionary cousins. Understanding just how different or similar fishes are helps define their needs both behaviorally and physiologically. 

Compatibility is a problem both at home and in your shop. Sometimes you can place very different types of fish together, and it works quite well. Other times it does not. Employees with either hands-on or academic knowledge will usually make the correct guess, should it come to that. 

Finally, when feeding fish, it’s always better to group them according to food preferences. A tank of mixed types of fishes is at least a little more compatible if they all prefer the same foods in their diets. This will prevent over-feeding and give every fish a chance to eat what they like. In fact, it makes life a lot easier for both the fish and the fishkeepers.

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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