Freshwater Fish Livestock Report
Retailers can use the latest trends in freshwater livestock to their benefit.
The vast number of chain and big-box stores are supplied by a handful of both domestic and international companies whose quality and selection is limited, so retailers savvy enough to know what to buy and where to shop have a decided advantage. To reinforce this, it’s a great idea to visit your suppliers at least once a year. If you are a steady customer, it is quite likely you will receive a warm welcome. You can learn a lot about your livestock suppliers by actually going to their facilities. Such trips are, of course, business, so the cost can be written off on your taxes.
In general, it would be fair to say that the freshwater aquatics segment is relying on farm-raised items much more than in the past. It’s not that wild-caught fish are not available, it’s the rising cost of collecting, housing and shipping these items. For example, a farm-raised Synodontis catfish will be much cheaper to purchase than one collected from the wild. Collecting wild fish is an undertaking that can be quite expensive. Of course, unless some farmer knows or learns how to breed a certain fish, it is never going to make it to a list of husbanded species.
Another issue affecting both the price and the availability of what I like to call “boutique” species is the global economy. As the world gets richer in places like Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, many countries are stagnating at a relatively fixed income level. For hobby items, such as tropical fish, this means that more and more of the unusual, exotic or expensive fish are going to the countries with expanding economies. This does not really include the middle class in the U.S., which makes up the majority of customers for the freshwater aquatic hobby.
In the 1950s to the 1990s, the U.S. was at the forefront of the hobby and the number of retail aquatic specialty shops was at its zenith. I have seen these retailers disappear at an alarming rate. A relatively modest suburban metro is now fortunate if it can support two such stores. Of course, I am totally discounting those shops that call themselves “Reef” or “Marine” specialists. That segment of the trade has expanded exponentially with the advent of the live coral propagation technique known as fragging. Remember when the captive breeding of marine fish or coral was merely a dream? When I first started keeping marine organisms in 1966, it was only three years before I had my first spawning of a marine fish. It was Dascyllus aruanus, the white-tail damselfish. Of course, I knew nothing about how to raise the thousands of fry that were produced from each of seven spawns my pair presented me with. But, today, even a modest setup for rearing fry of numerous non-pelagic species can succeed.
The same is true for freshwater species as well—but let’s face it, very few people are trying to breed their fish. They only wish to keep them alive and enjoy their interactions in a classic community tank environment. To be honest, 90 percent of your customers are dooming themselves to failure by selecting the wrong size aquarium for their first tank. And the people who are shopping at the big-box or chain outlets are compounding the problem by buying the tiny specimens so commonly available in those retailers. Take, for example,, rosy barbs which can be spectacular at 2.5 in. or larger, but don’t look like much at the 1.25 in. they are at most retail stores. I fill a 50-gal. tank with a school of 2.5 in. rosy barbs, and I can sell them all day long—if the customers have large enough tanks. Beginners should never start small when it comes to the size of their tank. Small tanks restrict you to small species and/or very few fish, and this is not what makes a tank interesting. If I can sell 50-gal. or even better, 55-gal. tanks—all day long at a modest profit, that is what I would do. It’s better for both the customers and the fish.
Now, there are some very nice smaller species of fish coming in from exotic locales such as India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Myanmar. These are mainly wild-caught and they can be maintained in environments as small as 10 gal. if you don’t mix species. The freshwater shrimp craze—which gained its first foothold in Japan—is doing quite well in the U.S., but you must sell the appropriate equipment and food for these tiny creatures. You will be successful with mini-shrimp only if you carry everything a customer needs. And you must display them prominently. It’s all or nothing when it comes to exotic shrimp.
Break it Down
African Rift Lake cichlids began their rise to prominence in the mid-1960s. Today, they are still very popular, but perhaps not the shooting star they used to be. While wild-caught specimens are still available, the new emphasis seems to be on cross-breeding many of the species. In particular, the peacocks (genus Aulonocara) of Lake Malawi are being extensively hybridized to produce some spectacular fish. Remember, only male peacocks display the color. Females are drab, even though they carry the genes as well. As is typical, the new varieties are sold only as males—since the producers don’t want anyone having the proper females. Add to that the fact that for males to flash or show their best breeding dress, they must have females of some ilk to display for. Barring that, you end up with nothing more than two male bettas going at each other because they are deprived of having any females to court. I tend to be a bit of a purist; I prefer to sell peacocks mainly in pairs, and then, only stock that is pure-bred from wild-caught ancestors.
Discus fish are as popular as ever, and the strains are starting to rival guppies in sheer numbers. It would seem every major discus breeder has his own boutique or house specialty when it comes to discus. Wild-caught discus and angels are becoming very uncommon in pet shops.
What about something as common as livebearers? Well, Florida still has great livebearers, but they are available from fewer and fewer farms. When a fish farm in Thailand can pay a worker the equivalent of 40 cents an hour, it’s difficult for Florida to keep up. Fish farms are disappearing in Florida every year. Entrepreneurs fill in the ponds, level the ground and build tracts of houses that seem to go on forever. Given my preference, I would buy domestic livebearers over the imported specimens as much as possible. Still, there are many genetic varieties produced only in Asia.
Angelfish are a staple and, thank goodness, they have yet to go the way of the discus. Common angels still look as they did 50 years ago. I was right at the cusp of the gold angel craze in 1969, and this variety is still as elegant and beautiful as ever. Black and black-lace angels are hard to come by and always demand a premium. If you can find a good supply, you will be lucky.
What about glowfish? There are so many varieties available now from a vast array of species. I can’t bring myself to carry them, but don’t be stubborn like me; you are in the business to make money and this is a sure winner. The only thing is you must display them properly. You need a dark room with no overhead lighting and certainly no extraneous light from any source. Use only the fixtures over each tank. Don’t mix species in your sales tanks—leave that to your customers. Be honest with your clientele and let them know these are transgenic organisms. They are fish that contain genes from other species of animals. Many people will not eat GMO food. I will not sell GMO fish.
Aside from breeding, my favorite fish are the schooling species: barbs, danios, Rasbora, tetras, rainbows—and, to some extent, gouramis—as well as swordtails, platies and mollies. Yeah, the last three are livebearers, but they will school if you have a large enough tank. Throw in a few Corydoras catfish, and maybe a loach or two, and you have everything a person could ask for. You have fish that like to swim near the surface, swim in mid-water and swim near the substrate. A tank with fish like this will be teeming with life—movement from bottom to top. And if you select the species carefully, they will not try to eat each other.
My final group of fish to discuss falls into that ubiquitous category known as oddballs. To throw a few names out there I will say the following knife fish, lungfish, arowanas, ropefish, bichirs, stingrays, scats, monos, datnioides, Anableps, mudskippers, gobies, leaffish, spiny eels, Ctenopoma, comtails, loaches, half-beaks, killifish, ricefish, and pike characins are just some examples. There are over 30,000 species of fish known to science and new ones are being discovered almost every day. Over 12,000 of these are freshwater or brackish. That should give you plenty to think about when you see a name on a list you don’t know. For example: have you ever sold pikeheads (Luciocephalus species) or crazy fish (Butis butis)? Maybe you should. 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.