If any one thing could be said about the supply of marine livestock over this past calendar year, it would be the single word: “quixotic.” By that I mean, you never know what to expect in terms of quality, quantity or selection. This puts a great deal of stress on smaller retailers who order more sporadically than larger businesses. An excellent example of this phenomenon was Hurricane Ian that hit the west coast of Florida in late September. As it ran up the coast, it pushed and pulled water, flooding some areas and leaving others high and dry. Once it exited Florida to the north, the water of the Gulf of Mexico was filled with suspended material for well over two weeks. Collecting of marine organisms for the aquatic trade became virtually impossible.


Supply Chain Delays

Now, while this was an isolated incident, it mirrors quite well the panoply of both predictable and unpredictable events that can affect the supple chain of organic merchandise. For those items that must be cropped (fruits, grains, vegetables, etc.) weather is by far the most important factor. But what if the weather is perfect and the transportation infrastructure falls apart. Then how do you get the food to the places it needs to go? This is what happened during the COVID crisis. Aquatic livestock for the pet trade was still being produced or collected, but there was no way to get it to the retailers. Airline flights were reduced to a fraction of their normal levels. Demand was increasing because most people had to stay home to protect their health.


Thankfully, this country is well past the worst effects of COVID, but there are still lingering problems that persist in the supply chain of aquatic livestock. The number of air flights is well below what it was before the pandemic. Smaller cities have fewer flight options and the cost of air freight has escalated dramatically. Even if you live in an area as heavily populated as the Greater New York Metro, you may not be able to obtain items you seek. Competition is more than robust and you might feel obligated to make contractual arrangements with importers offering to buy whatever comes in on specific flights from exotic locations in Southeast Asia. Likewise, if you are interested in wild-caught Caribbean species, then Miami would be your port of entry. Out in California, conditions are not quite so difficult, but remember, many livestock shipments arriving there are only being re-bagged and re-boxed to continue on their way to other locations.

Years ago, a large retail free-standing shop or a small chain of a few locations could virtually dictate what items it wished to buy. Then, the big-box and chain stores came into the market and pretty much played havoc with all the pre-existing stores. I almost want to say that trend has come to an end, but that would be wishful thinking. The corporate stores now restrict their fish selection to a mere handful of species. They have made contractual arrangements with livestock suppliers, so unless the bottom drops out, they will always have what they think they need. This very controlled concept of merchandising is one of the main factors in guaranteeing they will never be able to run good aquatic shops out of business.


Low Availability 

In the marine segment of the trade, the selection of reef species is woefully lacking and prices for what is available have increased a great deal. Gone are the days when you could depend on a steady supply of certain fish. Customers now waiting for yellow tangs or clown triggers might reconsider their options. When and if items such as these do show up, the price may be high enough to change their minds. Captive-raised marine fish are selling quite well, as you might expect, and sustained aquaculture of more than a few species may be only a short time in the future.

While the fish supply is reduced if not sporadic, live coral is selling in record quantities because it is being raised and “fragged” by so many entities, be they large warehouse facilities or hobbyists in their garages. If I were strictly a marine reef retailer, I would be looking very carefully at my competition, for it may well be more than other retailers. But, this is one of the challenges that you face, if you have narrowed your scope of sales to the marine segment of the trade.

If there is a livestock desert out there in this vast country, it would be those locations the furthest from major international airports—or saving that—airports with few flights to/from major hubs. Let’s face it, there are some towns and/or small cities where a specialty retailer is going to have a difficult time making a decent living. If your profile matches this definition, I recommend you diversify as much as possible. 

It is remarkable to me that there seems to be a shortage of items such as invertebrate substrate cleaners. I am speaking of snails, crabs, hermit crabs, starfish, urchins, shrimp, etc. Undoubtedly, this is due to high demand and low supply. A collector gets very little for these items, so he must collect large quantities to make a reasonable return on his effort. Trapping these animals may be allowed in some areas, but not others. Laws regarding the collection of marine organisms vary a great deal around the world. I guarantee you, it’s easy to be in violation of a law somewhere.

At one point, I had a friend who was supplying the shop with grass shrimp. I sold them as feeders for marine fish who were large enough to eat them. The shrimp lived in brackish water with a specific gravity ranging from 1.014-1.018. Actually, if you dropped the shrimp in an African cichlid tank (and they were not attacked) they would thoroughly adapt to the water chemistry in a number of days. At any rate, after a couple of years of selling these, I had a visit from a marine biologist working for the state. He was informed of what I was doing by a competitor who was trying to cause me trouble. We talked at length and I assured him that no traps were being set in state waters to collect the shrimp. All collection was done using large custom-built hand nets. People walked through natural grass beds and the nets were pushed in front of them just above the substrate. No grass was uprooted and only the shrimp were kept. All other animals were released. Since the agent said it was legal to collect any item for bait purposes with a hand net, he said all that was needed was a $10 a year hand-net license. Problem solved and the issue became moot.


Limited Space

Most retailers have only a limited amount of space to display their livestock. This is particularly true when it comes to marine organisms. If you have a location out of public scrutiny where you could house excess livestock, this might be a way to consolidate your marine livestock orders from bi-monthly to monthly. That way you will save on shipping charges, transportation costs and perhaps by purchasing more items you will qualify for a reduction in price. In this way, if there happens to be an item off the floor that a customer is looking for you can bring it to the front or take the person to the off-display room. This works very well when you have the opportunity to obtain unusual quantities of single items.

If you are dissatisfied with the quality or quantity of marine livestock you can obtain, I strongly encourage trying different sources for your fish. Don’t go crazy and order a giant shipment from someone you don’t know. It’s always better to test the waters with a diversified order that covers many different species of fish and invertebrates. If that works out, then you might dip your toes in deeper water. No matter how good a supplier may be, I would never put all my eggs in one basket. Each supplier will have their strong points and their weaknesses. Always let your suppliers know that each one of them is not your sole source of fish and invertebrates. In particular, I believe a supplier in Florida will almost always be your best choice for Atlantic species.

Finally, just getting fish into your store does not sell them. You must know how to maintain and display them properly, or you will lose both customers and livestock. On an upscale note, it seems that Hawaii may soon be opening back up for the collection of reef fish. There are many areas that reef fish may come from, but nothing can beat fish that were collected in U.S. waters. Always keep a close eye on what is happening in the reef hobby around the world and in the countries that supply animals for the aquatic trade. It pays to be well informed and it might put you one step ahead of your competition. PB