As usual, I have good news and bad news. First, the good news is that the supply of freshwater livestock is steadily increasing and it shouldn’t be long before severe shortages become a thing of the past. Also, there should be a much larger variety of species and strains available, both captive-raised and wild-caught.
Now that COVID is gradually being eradicated, or at least controlled to the extent that many states are opening back up, the question is: how long will it be before everyone emerges from their private cocoons (we know them as houses) and reinsert themselves back into society? The writing is already on the wall since animal shelters are being flooded with pets that ended up as nothing more than temporary diversions.
Let’s hope this scenario does not play out in the tropical fish hobby. I suspect we have a bit of a cushion since maintaining fish requires a fairly substantial outlay for equipment. At this point, summer should still be better than average and the livestock supply will certainly be adequate to meet the demand.
So, where do we go from here? As a retailer, all you can do is stay well-stocked with fish and equipment, run a few sales (something you did not have to do last year), keep a close eye on your staff to see if they are adhering to any protocols you have established and continue to serve your community for all their fishy needs.
A mid-summer sale would be an excellent idea since people are free to roam and you might need to grab their attention. Cheap fish are probably not the answer. I would go with new items and anything that was in short supply last year. Imports will still be down, so if you want a good selection of exotics, you will need to put in the work to find them.
Wild-caught fish are perhaps the most severely impacted product since many of them come from tropical climates where people have not been socially distancing, health care facilities are substandard and COVID vaccines are not readily available to the masses. Pair this with a major reduction in air travel, and even if the fish have been collected, they can’t reach their destinations in time to arrive alive.
As far as buying fish from Florida, there are still farms doing good business, but the number of farms has dropped drastically in only a matter of 20 years or so. Fields that used to be full of fishponds are now full of houses. Domestic tropical fish farming is on life support and the anomaly that was 2020 is not sufficient impetus to bring about a quantum shift in the industry.
Like so many other products, most captive-raised fish come from other parts of the world. For example, the best koi and goldfish in the world come from Japan. The best Bettas are from Thailand and the best guppies are now raised in Singapore and Western Malaysia.
Tropical fish are a global crop that we in the U.S. would classify as “non-essential.” No one is giving subsidies to the U.S. ornamental fish farms to produce less fish so the market price will remain high. That concept is alien to the aquarium trade and it always will be. Aquatic retailers over the entire country would love to have a larger selection of fish species and varieties produced in the U.S., but the national economy could care less. It’s a drop in the bucket and that is being generous from my point of view. Unfortunately, there are some crops that will only prosper in tropical climes, and ornamental warm-water fish are one of those crops. Our industry will always depend on live imported product.
On a good note, I am heartened to see several new items in the import category. One of them is a Betta species that is indigenous to brackish water. Another new offering is the “Tiger or Cuare Severum that hails from the upper reaches of the Rio Negro in Columbia.” It is a severum-type cichlid with multiple vertical black bars on the body. I can’t wait to see what they look like as full-grown adults.
Typically, new wild-caught species are outrageously expensive. If they have good sales potential, fish farms or hobbyists hoping to make some extra spending money usually snap them up. This has always been the case with cichlids whether they are Old or New World species. This is because most cichlids are easy to breed. That’s not the case with exotics such as L-numbered plecos. Most of these are a real challenge and success is usually limited to a pair or two. It’s difficult to produce commercial quantities of any fish, if you can’t breed them in groups. That technique is called “gang spawning” in the trade. It works best if a select group of adult fish, in the proper sex ratio (variable between species) is injected with hormones that induce ovulation in females and increase sperm counts in males. Yes, believe it or not, there is a lot of science in the field of fish reproduction. It’s much more than throwing pairs of fish together and hoping they breed.
Commercial fish breeding is “no country for old men” as the saying goes. It’s quite easy to burn out from the relentless monotony that comes with the job. As a retailer, you should think about this when you complain about the availability, or the price, or the quality of the fish you buy from Florida or anywhere else in the world.
If you have owned a pet shop or tropical fish store for any length of time, you should be well acquainted with the many variables that can affect the raising of ornamentals. While techniques can be predictable, they can also be very quixotic - fickle like life itself. You should never take your supply chain for granted. It can be as unpredictable as any other aspect of life. Protect your connections and value them as you would any other part of your business.
Remember: aquatic livestock inventory has been under much the same stress as your retail business. You must be flexible and willing to go the extra mile to find and secure the animals that you need to keep your business running smoothly. Show livestock suppliers that you value their product and they will make every effort to prevent a disruption in the supply chain. After all, the answer to surviving during these difficult times is consistency in your purchasing, and in translating that into robust retail sales. Good luck!
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.