Marine Livestock Report

Maintaining marine animals requires a great deal more skill and knowledge than keeping freshwater fish–but it is also incredibly rewarding.


With freshwater livestock, a retailer deals almost exclusively with fish. In the case of marine livestock, however, there is a wide spectrum of animals that should be taken into consideration. This complicates the picture, but also gives it a rich texture missing in the freshwater sector. As a retailer, the evaluation of what items to carry in the saltwater department presents a real challenge.

The popularity of “nano-” or “mini-reef” tanks has generated an entirely new category for both hard goods and livestock. While equipment that is manufactured to fit these tiny tanks does not change over time, the livestock does. In fact, most reef animals will outgrow a successful nano-aquarium in a nano-second. This is not necessarily bad, as customers will be forced to buy larger tanks. Most coral, on the other hand, can be trimmed to fit just about any environment. In fact, the nano-coral trade is extremely robust at this time.

Nano-corals serve multiple purposes, since many hobbyists with large aquariums also buy them. People are attracted to small specimen corals because they are cheaper, they are almost always cultivated (no chance for bringing in a problem from the wild) and they are easily positioned in an existing setup (because they are small). Showcase nano-corals in their own tanks–don’t mix them with full-sized specimens or anything collected in the wild (except fish). Shallow, flat tanks with a large surface area will provide adequate light and promote good water circulation around each piece of coral. Use clear plastic stands to support each piece independently. Waterproof labels should be attached to each stand.

Only a few stores will have clientele interested in large “show” specimens of coral. Still, without these truly spectacular pieces, it will be more difficult to sell the smaller versions. At the very least, have several display reef tanks stocked with examples of many common types of corals. And, of course, retailers can use these tanks to help sell equipment, such as wet/dry filters, protein skimmers, light fixtures, UV-sterilizers and chillers. These items should be fully exposed to public view so people can see how they work.

Marine Suppliers
What is the best way to ensure the health of a store’s marine organisms? Make sure the store is using suppliers that provide healthy, robust fish, and then take care of them.

There are two factors to consider when examining the initial health of the animals. First, what effect the shipping had on the animals and, second, if the fish were healthy to begin with. Sometimes a retailer will know a shipment is going to come in “rough” if it is delayed and/or the weather is bad. But if the animals are questionable even though bad shipping can be ruled out, it could mean that the supplier is at least partially culpable for the problems. If this appears to be a chronic situation, find a new source for marine animals.

Many stores prefer to use a single supplier and stick with it through thick and thin. This would seem to be a sound concept, especially if a retailer is satisfied with the livestock they are getting. My problem with this is that familiarity breeds contempt. If this single source figures out they are a store’s only (or main) supplier, somewhere down the line they are going to send better fish to the newer customers in order to impress them. Pretty soon, the store will no longer be at the top of the list anymore because it is willing to accept what is being sent, rather than looking for better animals or a more varied selection.

Therefore, it is always beneficial to have a minimum of two suppliers for marine livestock–three is even better. Don’t use one company for Atlantic livestock and another for Pacific/Indian livestock. Instead, the shipments of Pacific items should be divided between two and three different companies. A retailer may prefer one supplier for coral, another for fish and yet another for exotics.

It is a rare achievement in today’s market to be able to handpick specimens. If the store is located in or near a handful of major cities, a regular visit to the supplier is always worth the effort. And finally, I never buy a single piece of marine livestock from a supplier I have not personally visited at least once.

Marine Retailing
One major problem I see in shops selling marine fish is a lack of care in mixing species. A storeowner who will place different freshwater fish precisely will frequently throw saltwater fish together (except for small specimens with predators). Maybe the philosophy is that the fish will be out the door so fast it doesn’t matter? Maybe they don’t know the fish well enough to tank them properly? Maybe the employees in charge of placing the fish don’t even take the time to evaluate compatibility? Whatever the excuse, it is unacceptable to be so cavalier with wild-caught animals.

For example, if a store buys butterflies, it had better place them in tanks where they feel secure and actually have a chance to compete for food. If a store buys coral-eating butterflies, be prepared to feed them coral and advertise them as such.

Lastly, remember to tell customers that maintaining marine animals requires a great deal more skill and knowledge than keeping freshwater fish–but it is also incredibly rewarding.

Edward C. Taylor has been in the pet industry for over 30 years as a retailer, live fish importer & wholesaler, & fish-hatchery manager.

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