Investing in Invertebrates
To see success in the marine invertebrate category, retailers need to look beyond just corals to the wide variety of fascinating animals they can offer their customers.
While aquatics hasn’t seen as much growth as other pet industry sectors in recent years, one bright light in this watery world continues to be the marine segment. Growth in both saltwater products and livestock seems to have no limits. Much of this enthusiasm is driven by technology, which has given aquarists the equipment and materials they need to reproduce the animals themselves. The single category of animals that has benefited the most from this surge of popularity is marine invertebrates, especially corals.
With a little hard work and a lot of expensive equipment, it’s possible for virtually anyone to maintain and grow corals, both the stony reef-building species and the “soft” (tissue) corals. For the most part, these animals grow largely by fragmentation, be it natural or man-made. The “fragging” of corals is an up-and-coming cottage industry around the world, with hobbyists trading and selling frags among themselves.
Since corals are increasingly being grown and traded by hobbyists, cutting retailers out of the loop, some merchandising efforts should be redirected to the marine invertebrates that almost no one can reproduce but plenty of people keep. Additionally, while corals are undoubtedly beautiful, they are also mostly sessile, meaning they do not move around. To me, this is boring—I prefer animals that can be a bit unpredictable. You walk up to your aquarium and say, “Okay, Mr. Tiger Cowrie, where are you hiding?” Or you watch transfixed as herds of Nassarius snails emerge from under the substrate like submarines, breaking the water’s surface and gliding along in search of food. I like action in my tank, not just a pretty, stationary face.
Retailers might want to create a few display aquariums that showcase some motile invertebrate species, of which there is an impressive variety. There are crabs, hermit crabs, shrimps, mollusks (better known as snails, sea slugs and octopuses), lobsters, sea urchins, sea stars (starfish) and serpent stars. There are also some interesting sessile invertebrates—clams, feather dusters, the very popular sea anemones (which are technically coral-like animals) and tunicates.
A really good invertebrate section will take up a good deal of space. Corals can be destructive to one another, but you can stack them vertically to reduce conflict. Water quality for invertebrates is not as demanding as that for corals, so you rarely have health issues with them. I also find it judicious to place only not-for-sale fish in coral tanks, which prevents you from accidentally destroying the coral just to catch a miscreant fish.
While fish are susceptible to a variety of maladies, especially parasites, this almost never happens with invertebrates. Feeding is easy, since most of the animals are detritus feeders—eating the “leftovers,” so to speak. A few inverts are specific feeders, and I would avoid these since their dietary requirements are too severe to be easily managed. In general, marine invertebrates are hardy and you will lose very few during shipment or once they are in your store tanks.
One thing that makes selling coral easier is that it doesn’t move around. You can always find a piece of coral right where you left it. Motile invertebrates, on the other hand, can be just about anywhere—hiding under a rock, in the gravel or wedged firmly into a piece of décor. Many invertebrates must be placed in escape-proof enclosures. The worst offenders are octopuses. Some retailers resort to octo-balls to house these clever creatures, but I don’t like this practice, for it seems a cruel way to maintain a living thing—much like chaining dogs. Perhaps holding an octopus in this manner briefly for a special order would be acceptable, but otherwise, be creative—surely you can outsmart an octopus?
Snails can and will crawl out of tanks, and I have found live snails crawling along the floor at the base of an aquarium stand. If they are still moving, they are usually fine. Snails that crawl on hard surfaces are always potential escapees, while substrate dwellers rarely leave the sanctuary of their gravel beds. Some snails are attracted to water currents and, if they can work their way up or down a hose to a sump, they will do it. Tight-fitting glass or screen tops will prevent most escapes, but never place snails in cubicles. The flow from one section to the next is just too inviting for them to resist.
Animals like crabs and shrimp are notorious for fighting with one another, so you need to be knowledgeable about species behavior when building your display. Shrimp are territorial and many males will fight to the death, so they are best off isolated in cubicles. You will, however, want to create a display tank just to show how interesting shrimp can be in a fully set up environment—just remember that many fish like to eat shrimp. Some of the smaller species of reef fish (usually gobies) are symbiotic with shrimp and share the same burrow. If you can obtain matched pairs, it is always a guaranteed sale.
In general, you must be vigilant in matching invertebrates with fish. While it is usually the fish that eat the invertebrates, the dynamic can certainly go the other way. Octopuses can kill almost any fish, but mantis shrimp are equally aggressive toward specimens of fish smaller than themselves. Anemones will eat fish, although they leave most clownfish alone. Plenty of fish will turn over a starfish and eat it, but there are also predatory species of starfish that attack fish that live on the substrate. Reef lobsters will catch and eat small fish, and even some of the larger crab species will do the same.
While shrimp frequently fight with one another, smaller crabs typically get along fine. I can’t imagine keeping larger crab species—they are too predatory and destructive to the décor. Your customers will certainly appreciate species such as porcelain, Sally lightfoot, arrow, decorator, spider, emerald and the best of all—hermit crabs. Just be careful, several hermit crab species get too large and aggressive for most tanks.
Shining a Spotlight
The way you display marine invertebrates is critical to your success in selling them. If they are an afterthought, pushed into a corner and available haphazardly, they will not be a significant factor to your bottom line. These crawly creatures need to be front and center and advertised as major focal points for most marine tanks. Not every customer will be familiar with the many diverse types of motile marine animals, so you need to be their mentor in this almost secret world. And don’t worry that selling invertebrates will cut down on your fish sales. Getting people hooked on them does not mean they will neglect their fish. In fact, you will most likely end up selling many new set-ups primarily for invertebrates and the small fishes that are compatible with them.
Customers who visit your store on a regular basis looking for new fish or corals will learn to check out your selection of reef invertebrates once they realize you are dedicated to maintaining a healthy supply and selection of these animals. I recommend heavy use of signage on site and on your website and/or Facebook page. Some of my favorite slogans are: Not All Shrimp are for Dinner, Our Escargot are Too Cute to Eat and Anemones are the Flowers of the Aquarium.
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.