For several years, the marine segment of the aquatics trade has been growing while the freshwater division has been shrinking. Stores that carry products for both disciplines do not typically discriminate when it comes to items such as tanks, filters, glass canopies, stands and heaters. Other products are easily allocated to the marine trade–sumps, overflow kits, protein skimmers, halide and other high-tech light fixtures, chemical supplements, marine salt and food supplements. While these products are important to stock, the way the industry is right now, retailers will make the most money by stocking a variety of livestock.

The Importance of Livestock

Right now, the average pet shop with a marine section should focus primarily on livestock–in particular, fish. This may come as a surprise, but my reasoning has to do with observations made over the past six months. First, more and more coral is being cultured, so it is more readily available than ever. Second, except for a few fish that are being captive-raised, the majority are still caught in the wild, and the areas where fish are being collected from seem to be shrinking, making them more rare. Third, fish are shipped from exotic locales around the world, while many corals come from domestic sources, making them less accessible.

In addition, even though more and more people are setting up reef tanks, they are purchasing their high-tech marine hardware online, at prices most retailers cannot match. Unless a retailer can strike a deal with firms specializing in acrylic products, light fixtures, and pumps and/or motors, they will not be competitive in this arena. So this is another reason that selling livestock–especially fish and non-coral marine invertebrates–is the way for retailers to make money.

There is no doubt that a great deal of money can be made selling marine livestock. The majority of sales will come from new hobbyists and people still learning how to maintain a marine aquarium. The key here is to become the expert in the field, so these customers feel comfortable coming to the store with questions and needs.

Housing of Livestock

The proper housing of marine fish is critical to their display, maintenance and sale. In terms of display, retailers need to know things like if they order five different species of Anthias, they should be placed in five separate tanks. In addition, carrying five species is usually not necessary–one or two is probably more than sufficient. Know that schooling fish should be stocked in groups, while singular species in ones or twos, at the most.

So-called “starter fish,” such as damsels, can be stocked in large numbers, but give customers a wide variety of species to choose from instead of only one or two types. Clownfish, and other fish that display sexual dimorphism, are best sold in pairs, with the hope that the two specimens are a male and a female. These include all the swallow-tail (Geniacanthus) angels, some wrasses, gobies, blennies, cardinals and a few Anthias, butterflies, angels and damsels.

There is one group of fish retailers should give special attention to, and they are called the “reef-safe” category. Many customers do want fish in their tanks– fish encourage the growth of corals by eating algae and keep the nitrogen cycle on track–but they want fish that wont eat the coral. Therefore, it's a great idea to have a reef-safe section in the marine department.

However, I do tell customers that while 99 percent of the individuals of any given species will not eat coral, a few might, especially if they are not fed properly. The only fish they can be certain will not eat coral are the predatory ones, such as lionfish, scorpion fish, moray eels, stingrays, groupers, snappers and jacks. Unfortunately, these fish all have large appetites for the types of food that are protein-rich and, therefore, produce massive quantities of ammonia. Still, many people prefer this to taking risks with species that might decide to develop an appetite for coral.

Selling Corals

While a store's competition for fish sales will pretty much be restricted to local shops and a small amount of online sales, corals are a different story. Customers may be reluctant to have fish shipped to them, but this is not the case with corals. So when it comes to selling corals, retailers are competing not only with other local fish stores, but also local and national coral growers and online stores.

Another thing to keep in mind before deciding to stock corals is that while they can bring in some money, they are very difficult to maintain. Retailers must provide complex lighting, adequate water flow, exacting water chemistry and proper feeding. Storeowners have to be certain they know what they are doing before making any significant investments in these items.

Other Invertebrates

There are many other invertebrates for the marine aquarium that are highly popular with reef tank enthusiasts. These range over several different groups. Retailers should carry a good selection of the animals that are useful in controlling the growth of unwanted algae. These items must be kept in tanks (or containers) devoid of fish that might prey on them. Consider stocking at least a few representatives from each of the following groups:

Sponges—many types, shapes, sizes and colors

Zoanthids—colonial anemones (some can be harmful to true corals)

Anemones—short tentacle, long tentacle and carpet

Corallimorphs—mushroom anemones, Ricordea, Discosoma and elephant-ear

Cerianthids—tube-dwelling anemones

Mollusks (with and without shell)—sea slugs, sea hares, nudibranches, turbo snails and many types of living shells and clams

Cephalopods—octopus and cuttlefish

Worms—feather dusters

Arthropods—crabs, hermit crabs, shrimp and lobsters

Echinoderms—sea urchins, sea cucumbers, sea stars (starfish), serpent stars and brittle stars.

When it comes to catering to marine hobbyists, the invertebrates are the way to go. Consider stocking a healthy variety of these non-coral animals. Many of them can be easily maintained in small acrylic cubicles until they are sold. 

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.