Trends in Fish Nutrition

Recommending customers feed fish a variety of foods will help keep fish happy and healthy, while increasing fish food sales.



One day, hopefully in the distant future, the government is likely to announce that a “miracle” food has been developed that can offer virtually everyone a complete and balanced diet so that no other food need ever be eaten. Would that be acceptable? In the aquarium fish food industry there are a number of “staple” or “complete” fish foods that are all fish will ever need. True or not, recommending one can of food to customers as all their fish need does not help increase fish food sales, and do you really believe that most aquarists should only feed a single food to their fish?

Instead, retailers should explain that for most fish a balanced but varied diet will stimulate feeding and ensure that fish remain active and alert in search of food. Many customers also believe fish should only be fed once a day. In truth, most fish are small and have a rapid metabolism that requires an almost constant energy input. In fact, total assimilation time from eating to waste disposal is around two hours for the majority of common community tank aquarium fish, so it is better to feed two or more times a day.

Stocking and Merchandising

There has certainly been an explosion of brands over the past few years. Some companies aim for small niche markets while others attempt to cover every nook and cranny of the trade. Retailers know better than to be fooled by packaging–it’s what’s inside that counts–but how do they get that message across to their customers? Retailers who endorse a specific brand and feed that brand in the store will convince customers they mean business. Still, the store must give people a choice. Price and availability are extremely important factors to consider–but not at the expense of compromising quality. Storeowners must decide what products to stock, and how to merchandise those products.

Most stores do a poor job of merchandising their frozen fish foods, and this may be because they hide them in freezers in the back of the store. The very best location for frozen food freezers is directly across the aisle from the checkout counter. Every clerk should ask customers buying fish if they have an adequate supply of frozen fish food at home. Locating freezers in the front of the store also eliminates pilfering from packages of frozen food. All freezers on the retail sales floor should be upright with glass doors for transparent display. To further promote frozen foods, every day retailers should select one type of frozen food to put on “special.” Retailers can either rotate products or designate specific days for specific items.

Live Foods

And what about the other fish food–live foods? This is the most difficult category of fish foods to stock since each type requires a different approach. Live foods have a definite shelf life, so the store can actually lose money if it doesn’t sell enough, fast enough. Also, live foods can just up and die–sometimes for no apparent reason.

In the old days, live foods were thought of as “customer service” items. Retailers carried them primarily to help customers keep “touchy” species rather than as a profitable product. That concept is long gone and there is considerable profit to be made by carrying live foods. The trick is employees need to know how to maintain each live food to maximize survivability. The storeowner also must know how much of each food to buy. This has to do not only with how much the store sells, but also the capacity of its holding containers. “Carry-over” must also be taken into account. If the store has a lot of live food left over from one shipment to the next, will it survive, and how does it affect how much is ordered the next time?

One example is live feeder fish. The store might carry several different types of live fish for feeders. There are a variety of choices available–rosy reds, shiners, goldfish in three sizes (small, medium and large), guppies, mixed livebearers, etc. This means retailers must decide which live feeder fish to stock. They must know their clientele well enough to know which live feeders will sell the best. Some of these fish are cold-water, others need warmer temperatures; this means retailers need to consider if the live feeds their store stocks can be kept in a single system (in segregated containers) or if must they be split among several different systems. They must consider what health issues might be encountered. After all, these are “feeders,” so retailers can’t count on the best quality of livestock.

Once the store has decided what to stock in terms of frozen fish food and live feeders, it must consider what prepared foods to carry. This is the easiest category of fish foods to stock. Frozen foods require freezers and freezers cost money to run. Live foods take up space and require maintenance–both with high price tags. Prepared foods just sit there waiting to be sold. The shelf space is not particularly costly, so most shops concentrate on this category–their sales efforts focus on cans, bottles, bags and boxes.

There are two ways to merchandise this category. The store can place competing brands in close proximity, which will make stocking simpler. This will also help customers compare brands more easily. Another way to go, however, is to separate major fish food displays by several aisles. This makes the displays look more impressive and gives employees the opportunity to suggest one brand without having to explain the others, but might confuse customers a little. I believe integrated displays sell more SKU’s (on their own) and an employee certainly can’t be there to personally help each and every customer.

Proper Nutrition
Proper fish nutrition is not as simple as many people think it is. Still, everyone can accomplish the goal of healthy and “happy” fish if they follow four simple rules. First, feed fish a minimum of two times a day. Then feed frozen and prepared foods of as wide a variety as possible. Third, know the preferential foods of each species of fish in the tank, and finally, do not over feed. It’s really easy to tell if fish are being over-fed, so this should not be a problem.

There is no maximum number of times a day that fish should be fed–only a minimum. There are many days when I feed some tanks virtually every time I walk by them. This might be four, six, or even eight times a day. About every two hours is certainly not too often unless, of course, the fish are not eating.

People with fish tanks at home should be encouraged to feed their fish often. In addition to promoting healthy, “happy” fish, this will increase the interaction between fish and their owners. The more involved fish owners are with their aquarium, the more interesting it will become. Watching fish on a regular basis will uncover behaviors that they never knew existed.

Fish learn to recognize when they are going to be fed. Some fish even seem to sense the identity of the person doing the feeding. If hobbyists feed their fish at the same time every day, the fish will program themselves to be ready at the designated time. Their internal clock is better than ours. You might think that an automatic feeder would accomplish the same thing, but it is not as efficient as being there in person. The fish tend to focus first on visual clues to know it is feeding time. Of course, once the food hits the water, they will feed, but it’s more of a surprise.

Target or “targeted” feeding is a familiar concept to reef aquarium aficionados. Corals feed in a variety of ways and in a tank full of mixed feeding types it may be necessary to deliver a specific food to a specific animal. This can be accomplished via a feeding wand, a syringe with plastic tubing or even by hand. In a freshwater tank, many, if not most, fish will eat directly by hand. After a little coaxing a wide variety of fish will take food by hand, including most cichlids, all Botia loaches, South American knifefish, mormyrids, arowanas, monos, scats, dats and many catfish.

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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