If your aquatics store is not a reef shop, your business can rise or fall with sales of freshwater fish. This means you need to maintain a constant supply of items—both old and new—and display them in creative and appealing environments. How you present fish to your customers is almost as important as the species you carry. Today’s fish keepers are not that different from 20 years ago; they appreciate seeing new items, but they also like many of the old standbys. As a retailer, you have two major hurdles when it comes to selling freshwater fish—acquisition and display/maintenance.
How do you obtain the fish you sell? Most retailers are relegated to having them delivered by air. Not only does this add substantially to their cost, it takes away your ability to control the condition of the fish when they reach you. Your best bet is to buy your fish in person, whenever possible. Of course, this may be impossible for a vast majority of retailers.
There are areas of the country where wholesalers will deliver livestock by truck. Frankly, this is preferential to having them shipped by air. Let’s say your fish are coming from Florida. If they are traveling on a direct flight, everything should work out. If, however, they must make a connection, you’re shooting craps—and we all know the odds always favor the house (or, in this case, the airline). Air travel for livestock is just as bad as it’s become for passengers.
Once your fish arrive, you must evaluate their condition before placing them in their respective tanks. It’s always best to have holding tanks that are off display for new arrivals. However, if you cannot afford this luxury, I highly recommend a slow and almost painstaking process in which you vet the condition of the fish in each bag before placing them in a tank. If you are fortunate enough to have empty tanks, then no prolonged inspection is necessary. I believe you should always empty out 10 percent of your aquariums before a major shipment arrives.
And, of course, there’s the age-old tradition of floating the bags of new fish in their respective aquariums. This is wrong on so many different levels, I can’t even list all of them. Your goal should be to open the bags and add tank water to equalize the water parameters. Then, once you deem everything copacetic, dump the contents into the tank. Never add straight shipping water to one of your display tanks, especially if your tanks are on a system.
So, how should you put away aquatic livestock? Well, I’m glad you asked!
Place the styrofoam boxes with fish in front of their new tanks, whether it’s on the floor or a rolling cart. Open up a box and inspect the fish once you have opened the bag. Pull out any dead fish immediately. Smell the water to check for foulness. If the water smells putrid, net out the fish and put them in a tank immediately. If the water smells clean, it is permissible to add some water from the tank to the bag. Note the behavior of the fish. They should respond to clean water in a positive fashion. Move on to the next box and tank only after you have finished with the previous aquarium.
Netting fish from a bag is perfectly okay, as long as you know how to do it. If the fish are in a full-box bag, merely take a large net and catch all the fish at once. You can have nets handmade to fit standard fish coolers. If there are two bags to a box, use a net that works for that.
Now, what if you are catching fish with lots of spines—dorsal, pectoral, anal? They can get stuck in regular fish nets. You can catch them by hand—which I have done so many times I can’t even count—or use clear plastic nets with a fine mesh bottom. These are commonly used by marine collectors and you can buy them online, customized to your needs. If you know a lot about fish, you realize that at least the male tetras and characoids generally have hooks on their anal fins. Even on a fish as small as a neon tetra, they can get snagged in a net. The solution is two-fold: know your fish and their peculiarities, and use a plastic, marine-style net to catch them.
When displaying your livestock, your first order of business is to exhibit small or miniature species in small tanks. Sure, you can break the rule if you have a large school of neon tetras, zebra danios, pygmy rasboras or cherry barbs. But, for those species that do not school and have a maximum size under two inches, ideally use a 20-gallon aquarium, but nothing larger than 30. If the fish are so small they are lost in the tank, you’re making it more difficult to sell, display and catch them. Remember—size (of fish and aquariums) matters.
Selling fish is an art form. It’s all in the feng shui of fish versus décor. A nice looking tank will sell fish faster than a poorly designed one. Décor must fit the fish, not the other way around. Live plants will sell fish faster than plastic plants, but you must match the plants you use to the fish and the aquarium’s size. Don’t use giant val in a short tank, and don’t employ live plants if the residents of the tank are herbivores. Also, live plants in cichlid tanks are frequently dug up and/or eaten, so that’s not acceptable. In the case of angelfish or discus, however, live plants are perfect.
Décor items can be natural or artificial, but they should always be items you sell in your store. I try my best not to sell décor items from display tanks, but sometimes it’s just the right thing to do. As far as tank size, height or shape is concerned, try to match fish to their needs. Catfish can gut respirate, so don’t place them in tall tanks. Any other anabantoids will benefit from the same consideration. Larger specimens should be placed in larger tanks—60 gallons up to whatever your maximum size might be. As a cornerstone for your livestock department, you might employ a spectacular 300-gallon aquarium full of non-predatory species and live plants. This same look is achievable in smaller tanks so customers can be inspired to design their own special habitats at home.
As far as maintenance goes, you should perform any extensive cleaning or movement of livestock after business hours. Large water changes and gravel-washing cannot be accomplished properly if customers are walking around in the department. The question of whether or not you should employ filter systems in tanks connected to a central core or sump is not easy to answer. It is undoubtedly true that such a system can be more easily maintained than having each tank with its own personal filtration. My preference is to have no tanks interconnected to others through a central sump or filter. This saves money and labor, but it reduces flexibility where fish can be placed.
Regardless of how you set up your freshwater department, be certain to leave room for brackish-water fish. These fish require a totally different environment from either marine or freshwater. Brackish tanks can be as spectacular as you are willing to make them: shallow water with beaches, deep water with live mangroves and sand or gravel flats with anableps and mudskippers. There is nothing to match this in a strictly freshwater habitat.
Bettas, or Siamese fighting fish, are a problem. I don’t like to give customers the impression that bettas can be kept in a bowl. You should sell complete betta set-ups that have filtration and heaters included. Don’t stock hundreds of bettas if you don’t have the space to provide proper maintenance. If necessary, keep some of your bettas off display and replenish empty sales tanks. Fish husbandry begins in the aquatics store. Lead by example. 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.