Selling Live and Frozen Fish Food
Selling frozen and live fish food is essential to maintaining a successful aquatics business.
Does your shop go the extra mile? Are you a retailer who cares for your customers, or do you merely want to make money with as little effort as possible? There is no doubt that selling aquatic livestock is a business that requires great attention to detail. The environment that the animals live in is completely dependent on you. If you cut corners on feeding and/or maintenance, your product will suffer the consequences. Even if you are diligent in your husbandry, it will not guarantee you a profit. In addition to keeping your livestock healthy, you must also know how to sell it.
I have discovered that the most successful stores carry a wide diversity of both livestock and the foods necessary to maintain it in good health. Prepared or packaged foods are great, but they are not enough for many species of fish to stay healthy and happy. You need to feed the fish you sell prepared and frozen foods—as a minimum—and live foods when possible. Carrying live food in your store is not only beneficial to your customers, but your livestock as well. There are a vast array of frozen foods on the market, but some of them are not as good as the others. I don’t mean different brands, but rather the identity of the food in the packages.
Selling frozen and live foods for aquatic animals has been primarily a silent part of the trade for many years. By this, I mean that live food suppliers are not particularly large players in the industry, and they may, in fact, be totally transparent to most of the retailers doing business in chain and big-box stores. Even frozen food is a rarity in the multiple-outlet merchandisers. This is largely because aside from the livestock itself, these items are the most difficult to ship. Most retailers don’t have the time, money or personnel to sell and maintain live and frozen foods. As an independent retailer, you can sell whatever you wish, and this is where you can shine.
The frozen part is not that difficult. However, the live food requires some space and a little ingenuity. If you don’t have experience handling live foods, let me be frank. There is a learning curve. Perhaps, if you were a tropical fish hobbyist before you became a retailer, you will have a leg up. In the old days, most of the independent stores were opened and staffed by long-time aquatic lovers. They seemed to have a knack for keeping live foods and—to some extent—even reproducing them. Those times are long gone. It’s hard enough just keeping up with dry good and livestock inventory.
When deciding where to place each product in your store, the rule of thumb is frozen foods near the front counter and live foods at the back of the store. Why? If the register is directly across from the freezers, customers waiting in line will see the foods and be reminded to purchase some for their fish. As an added benefit, your check-out clerks can ask every single customer if they have enough frozen food for their fish.
Retailers should be aware that different frozen foods are needed for different fish. The food requirements change depending on size, feeding habits and composition of the aquatic fauna. In a mixed environment, a fish keeper may have to feed more than one type of food to ensure every animal gets something to eat. This means retailers shouldn’t let a customer out the door without at least two kinds of frozen food.
Frozen or Live?
What food holds its nutritional value best when it is frozen? Well, not brine shrimp. That’s why you should always carry live brine shrimp. Shrimp and scallops hold up well in packages and—if sufficiently minced—can even be enjoyed by small tropical fish. The key to this is the odor. Many fish use their olfactory senses more than their sight to choose what foods to eat. Just because a fish takes a piece of food into its mouth doesn’t mean it’s going to eat it. Its taste buds need to be activated, as well as the olfactory sense. When feeding fish, watch to be certain they are not spitting the food out.
Where a food comes from does not seem to make any difference when determining the likes and dislikes of the consumers. Freshwater fish eat products from the sea, and marine fish consume foods from freshwater and even land sources. Many fish will eat beef heart and many will also eat things like crab, shrimp and insects.
While selling frozen foods is simple, no such statement can be made for maintaining significant quantities of live food. If it’s alive, the rules of shipping are just as severe as frozen, but once you get it in the store, it’s a whole other ball game. Live food is harder to keep healthy than the fish you have for sale. Frozen food just sits there waiting to be sold. Live food keeps doing what live animals do—like eating and pooping. You have to feed live food, especially if you have it around for any length of time. Basically, there is a deadline to get rid of this product—just before the next shipment of the same item. You need time to clean the environment and make parameters good enough to receive new inhabitants.
Which live food sources are the most important to your business? First, feeder fish—like goldfish, shiners or feeder guppies—are essential. Second is earthworms, which will be your easiest feeders to maintain. Just put them containers in a refrigerator set at 55 degrees and forget about them. You might check once a week to see how they are doing if you have any for an extended length of time. Throw in a little cornmeal if you want to feed them.
Since feeder fish are cheap to begin with, your source is probably not doing its best to maintain them properly. They are born to die, but try not to treat them that way. Perform frequent water changes and feed them twice a day. Keep a strong constant flow on a large vat, with the water recycling through a large canister filter. Also critical to success is a massive UV, perhaps one rated for twice the capacity of your system. Make sure to pull out dead fish constantly, not just in the morning or evening.
Next up are live brine shrimp. These are possibly the worst to filter, but you won’t really be feeding them much, so you won’t have a great deal of waste product. It is certainly difficult to remove dead shrimp. Your best bet is siphoning them off the substrate; dead shrimp usually sink to the bottom. In the case of shrimp, water circulation is more important than filtration. There are few ways to clarify the shrimp water without sucking up many live animals. Using a UV with restricted ports may give you a little help. Filter socks must be screened, so that is basically useless. If you can provide a separate space inside the tank where the pump and inlet are housed, you might be able to allow water to enter without the shrimp getting in—think jellyfish environments.
Finally, if anything is more vexing than live brine shrimp, it’s blackworms. They prefer cool water, (around 60 degrees) but, with sufficient surface area, they can live at room temperature (72-76 degrees). They do best if fed, but when sold quickly it usually is not necessary. The key to success is the condition of the worms when they arrive. They should be quite cool, ranging from 40-50 degrees. If they are not maintaining a tight ball, they are not healthy. Cull out dead and dying animals quickly, and by all means do not use any of the shipping water. If you want to maintain them the easy way, keep the worms in trays in a refrigerator set at 55 degrees. The hard way is better, as is anything in life. Set up a series of Styrofoam boxes that flow one into the other via gravity. Keep the water level in each box at no more than 1 ½ in. Dead worms will pass to the bottom box and flow out into the filter. Live worms will stay in a ball but also stage themselves along the entire perimeter of the box—usually away from the drain hole.
You should sell these by the portion, determined by volume, in a small measuring cup. A plastic bag with plenty of air space is best for customers taking them home. For brine shrimp, use a net to catch them and then drain all the water out and pour them into a measuring cup. Use a larger plastic bag for transport than you do with blackworms. Be sure to add plenty of water to that bag.
Other live foods to consider are crickets, glass shrimp and grass shrimp. Don’t confuse the two. Glass shrimp are freshwater shrimp, usually sold out of Florida. Grass shrimp are brackish-water shrimp, usually larger and much hardier than their cousins. Maintain both types in open vats with gravel or sand for substrate. The key is to have plenty of surface area and even live plants that will help to distribute the animals in the vat. Large predatory fishes—both freshwater and marine—love to eat either of these shrimp. 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.