Fish in an aquarium

Let’s set some parameters from the start of this discussion. There are things you add to tank water to treat the livestock (which should be all fish) and then there are things you add to tank water to treat the water. These are two different types of products but, hopefully, they both produce the same results. 

Since I started off my professional career as a hobbyist, let me assure you that the very best treatment for tropical fish is a water change. Sure, as a retailer, if your customers perform frequent partial water changes, they will probably require less of the products that treat the fish. But, they will require more of the products that treat the water. Is this a win-win situation? Their fish are healthy so they enjoy the hobby more. They buy more fish, or even better, they set up additional aquariums. 

The cornerstone of success in the fish hobby is to have a balanced aquarium that has the right mix of decor, plants and fish. The products you sell as water treatments should only be the best—anything less and you are cheating your customers and yourself. 

In other words, this is a category of products in which there should be no comprises. You should not be worried if your water treatment department has grown smaller over the years, because it has. The primary reason for this is the lack of diversity in fish medications. You can thank your Food and Drug Administration for that. In its infinite wisdom to protect the public from themselves, it has banned many drugs for use in the aquatic sector that worked quite well to cure and/or alleviate parasitic and bacterial infections. One drug that was still available was the now infamous chloroquine, which was taken by people when COVID started to ravage the country. Subsequently, a few people died from taking a medication meant primarily for use in ornamental ponds. With this in mind, some aquatic stores have started to place their medications in locked glass display cases. I believe this is an acceptable and reasonable decision.


On Display

So, now we discuss the question of how to display fish medications. My choice is on the aisle with water treatments, but they are secured in a glass-fronted, locked cabinet. You can have them segregated by use if you wish. 

Pond products should be in a separate case, preferably in the pond department if you have one. Putting medications in a locked case accomplishes several things in one fell swoop: first, you insure that people must ask for help to obtain the item they wish to purchase; second, you do not sell them the product without determining that they are buying the correct product for their needs; and third, you take the product up to the front counter yourself and give it to the person who is working the register—the customer is to inform that person of the item when they are ready to checkout. In this way, there are no five-finger discounts, which is a common occurrence with small items in a large store.


Asking the Right Questions

One of the most important questions to ask a customer who wishes to medicate his fish is: “Is every fish infected or is the problem selective?” If you discover that only some of the fish are sick, then you must become a bit of a detective. Ask the person what the sick fish are (hopefully, in this modern age, the customer will bring in photos of his tank and the fish on his phone) and what other fish are in the tank. 

A question arises as to whether test kits fall into the category of water treatments. I answer this with a resounding YES. How can you diagnose a problem unless you know the parameters of the water? 

The very first thing is to check the water temperature. These are tropical fish; the water needs to warmer than most people like the ambient room temperature to be. I recommend nothing lower than 76 degrees and 80 degrees is actually much better. Average air temperatures in the tropics are 77 to 82 degrees. 

Assuming lack of heat is not the problem, move on from physical to chemical parameters. Check the pH and the levels of ammonia, nitrite and nitrate in both freshwater and marine environments. In a freshwater tank, the alkalinity (hardness) should not be low unless you are keeping wild-caught fish from blackwater habitats. Now, if this is a marine tank, you must check the specific gravity (or alkalinity) of the water. Sea water ranges from 1.020 to 1.025 with the exception of the Red Sea which is 1.034. In a marine tank, check the calcium and phosphate levels if it is strictly populated with fish. 

If it is a coral or mixed invertebrate habitat, the list of parameters to check is exponential. If you are a reef store, you should stock all the essential test kits. Items like these are best kept in glass-fronted display cases that are locked. To go along with the test kits, there are reef supplements to replenish any chemicals that are testing lower than normal. These include calcium, magnesium, strontium, iodine and assorted trace elements.

The concept of checking water parameters is to rule out or in any cause of problems. If you can look at a fish and say, that fish has ich or velvet or fin rot or a bacterial infection, you still probably don’t know what caused it until you have checked water quality. Remember, tank owners are not necessarily experts. That’s you—and your customers are coming to you much like they would visit a doctor if they were sick. By the way, it’s almost never a good idea for a customer to bring in a sick fish. It will just make the fish worse.


Selling The Basics 

The ultimate water product is water itself. It’s a fact that in some parts of the country, tap water or well water is so bad that it’s safer to use RO/DI water— even in a freshwater tank. Now, if customers choose to do this, they must reconstitute the water they buy by adding trace elements. You, of course, will have these products setting on your shelves in the water treatment aisle.

Most of your water customers will be buying water for use in marine and/or reef aquariums. This will be the same water you sell for freshwater use, unless, of course, the person wants “salted” water. It has been my custom to sell two different types of salt water. If a customer has a fish-only tank with no live corals, a less expensive (but not less effective) brand of salt is used. 

Just as water is a water treatment product, so is marine salt. If you are a reef store, it may be the most important product you carry. No matter what the situation, you should give customers a choice of salts that range in price and efficacy. Most expensive salts use higher grades of chemicals to formulate their product. Reef keepers are frequently adamant about the brands of salt they use. You probably can’t convince everyone to try the salt or saltwater you sell, but that’s one of the quirks of the hobby. 

You can’t please all of the people all of the time. The best recommendation I can make to build a successful aquatic business is to always have an expert on duty to answer the more difficult questions.  PB