Little Fish, Big Profits

Micro-fish are one of then newest and fastest-growing trends in the fish category.


Let’s say you are a retailer who has a tank full of juvenile convict cichlids about 1.5 inches in length. A customer wants to buy six of these, at $3.99 each, for his 30-gallon tank. Do you know what’s going to happen down the road? The fish are going to grow and eventually start fighting. As a result, the buyer may try to bring back some or all of the fish. Why not suggest that it would be a better choice to purchase six tiger rasbora (Inlecypris auropurpureus) at $3.99 each? These beautiful schooling fish will only grow to 2.5 inches and never cause problems.

A new trend in freshwater livestock is buying mini-fish for the 10-, 20- or 30-gallon community tank. There are many mini-species available, and they are not cheap like most domestically produced schooling fish. For example, a common zebra danio may sell for as little as a dollar, but the Burmese goldring danio (Danio tinwini) should go for at least twice that much, and the glowlight danio (Danio choprae), which only reaches 1.25 inches, sells for $3.99. Each of these little fish brings a big profit.

Creating a Habitat
Most micro-species come from habitats where the water is slow moving, such as swamps, lakes and even seasonally flooded areas of the jungle. This means water parameters include low pH, reduced dissolved minerals and a stained brown color. Even though few plants typically grow in such habitats, it is best to employ dense thickets of vegetation in the aquarium. These will give the fish areas in which to hide and reduce the light reaching the substrate. However, open swimming areas should also be provided for the fish.

While there are very few species of micro-fish that come from rheophilic environments where the water current is rapid, some minnows, loaches, catfish and hillstream loaches require such habitats. Even a few anabantoids prefer this type of biotope. These species do not build bubblenests; they are mouthbrooders.

Some of the micro-species are anabantoids, including betas and gouramis. These betas are not as aggressive as Betta splendens and they can be kept together in small groups. The same is true of the gouramis, such as licorice and chocolate species. Live floating plants are critical for all labyrinth fish, both small and large. The same can be said for most killifish, which are certainly the original “micro-species.” Unfortunately, the variety of killies available to the trade has not increased appreciably, even though the popularity of small species has. Retailers that decide to stock killifish may have to look long and hard for a supplier or breeder.

Retailers should be certain they understand the requirements of any new species of fish they plan to carry, and this information must be passed along to customers. Do not sell micro-fish to people who are not willing to maintain proper water conditions for the fish.

Equipment Concerns

One of the drawbacks to small species is that their maintenance requirements are a bit different from most fish commonly carried in pet shops. Few retailers have setups that are automatically acceptable for micro-fish. Micro-fish require numerous tanks, 10 - 20 gallons each. If at all possible, retailers should avoid mixing species for sale together in the same tank unless they prefer different strata. For example, while any tetras, barbs, danios or rasboras may mix well with small species of Corydoras such as C. pygmaeus or C. habrosus, putting two danios together is going to greatly diminish the visual effect of seeing a school of a single species. Remember, these fish are so small that people may have trouble distinguishing one from the other when they are mixed together. In the home aquarium, mixed schools are perfectly acceptable. But, since the fish are so small, it is highly advisable to keep many individuals of each type together while in the store. If six zebra danios are enough for a school, then you would want at least 12 glowlight danios.

Micro-species that are not substrate dwellers are adept at finding tiny holes to jump through. This means tanks must be tightly covered, especially around filters or heater cords. It is preferable to leave the water level down a few inches from the trim, but this look does not appeal to most people. Also, contrary to common reasoning, internal filters are not generally a good choice for small tanks (and small fish), since servicing them can greatly disrupt the aquatic environment. Instead, recommend hanging power filters, for which maintenance can be performed outside the tanks. This may mean covering the intake strainer with mesh, to prevent small fish from being sucked up. Aeration in any small-species tank can be kept to a minimum, since most species do not require it. Its greatest value will be for decorative purposes.

Limited Time Only
Many of the new species of miniature fish are coming from countries that have only recently been opened up for commercial collection–Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos and China, for example. When China first opened up to the trade a few years ago, many new items were showing up. The supply of these seems to have dried up, and I am seeing very few Chinese fish in general. This is unfortunate since many Sino-species are extremely unusual and make excellent aquarium residents.

If you wonder why a new fish appears only for a short while and then vanishes from the trade, the answer is probably simple: supply and demand. If demand falls short of expectations, no one will continue to collect such an unpopular item.

There is, of course, a reverse scenario that also narrows supply to virtually zero. A perfect example is the zebra pleco, Hypancistrus zebra. This beautiful little fish proved so popular that it was over-collected, almost to the point of extinction in the wild. The original wholesale price was $200, but it quickly fell to $100. It stabilized at this level for a while, but it wasn’t long before collectors invested enough time, effort and money to increase the supply. At one point, the trade was offered the fish for as low as $10. This was great for the average hobbyists who could finally afford to buy the fish. But it turned out the zebra pleco had a very limited habitat and it soon became hard to find in the wild. The Brazilian government stepped in and stopped the collection of this fish. Today, it is rumored that “black market” zebra plecos are coming out of South America, priced at about the original level of $200. I only hope they are not wild-caught specimens.

One of my favorite new groups of fish are grunters in the family Teraponidae (there are alternative spellings for this family). There are representatives in marine, brackish and freshwater habitats. The target fish, Terapon jarbua, has been the only species available until recently. Now, several species are included on the lists. Most of these are freshwater and native to Australian rivers and streams. In particular, look for the coal grunter, Hephaestus carbo; it is beautifully marked with bright yellow stripes and spots on a jet-black body. They behave like Datniodes; they prefer live items and become tame enough to take food from their owner’s hand.

With the national economy improving but still depressed, you might think that sales of high-ticket items have decreased. The reverse seems to be the case. People are looking for unusual or oddball fish and they are not afraid to spend a little extra to obtain them. This means the store’s livestock selection needs to expand in order to stay healthy. It’s really difficult to make a lot of money on bread and butter items that sell only for a couple of dollars. Think big, and add the element of surprise to the fish department.

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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