As many areas throughout the country are beginning to ease restrictions put into place because of the COVID-19 pandemic, my guess is that summer sales of tropical fish will be better than usual, but it’s difficult to say with certainity what the remainder of the year will bring. We could pretend that fall will have its typical uptick in sales, but if summer is headed for unusually high sales, then it would be difficult to imagine that fall will record even better numbers. Should that happen, it might be due to a reinvigoration of the virus.
Right now, "be careful what you wish for" might be applicable. Think of this dynamic: high fish sales coupled with a greatly restricted ability to get the fish to where they need to be. Air travel, and, therefore air freight, has been reduced to a trickle of its normal volume. Around the world, there are fewer flights to and from everywhere outside the U.S. and domestically.
Let’s see—the rainy season just started in South America, so the collecting of wild-caught fish is beginning to wane. These fish were making their way to us until the airlines had to drastically curtail their flights. Fewer planes flying mean less planes to carry fish. With the increased demand and reduced availability, wild-caught tropicals are becoming much more difficult to obtain. This applies to fish from all over the world—South America, Africa, Southeast Asia and India.
Fish farms in Southeast Asia breed many hundreds of species and genetic varieties of fish, and their production requires extensive personnel to keep operations running. Were those people still working during the height of the pandemic? Maybe, but even if they were, can their products reach us here in the States in a timely fashion? In this case, Florida may be our ace in the hole.
Livestock inventory at Florida fish farms is starting to ramp up with warm weather already enveloping the state. Typically, this is when demand is low and supplies are high. But this year is different, and if you don’t already order from Florida, now is the time to make a connection. The trick may be finding the flights necessary to get the fish to your location. If you are close enough, you could always drive—if not to Florida, to the closest large airport. I highly recommend using Florida as, at least, a supplemental source for your fish. The selection is not as broad as that from the Far East, but quality is just as good and the freight charges will certainly be less.
The problem with Florida is that while it still raises large quantities of fish, its number of farms has been cut in half over the past 20 years. I used to work in the industry, and it is a shadow of its formal self. There are many reasons for this diminution. Competition from the Far East has certainly cut into sales of domestically-raised tropicals. Many farms have been sold and repurposed into residential communities. The ponds are filled in, the land is graded and the contractors move in. It does not take long before you cannot even recognize where a farm used to be.
In the old days, most metropolitan areas had at least one tropical fish wholesaler. Now, they are as rare as hen’s teeth, if you’re talking about tropical freshwater fish. Marine fish and corals are another matter. If you think the supply of freshwater livestock is depleted, you can double that problem for wild-caught marine reef fish. Coral is still in fairly good supply because there are so many people and companies growing and fragging pieces in captivity.
Reef fish supply is extremely low. There were fewer people collecting—due to the virus. There were fewer international flights—due to the virus. Demand was higher—due to the virus.
Still, there are some specific areas of freshwater livestock sales that are spiking. In particular, Bettas and fancy guppies are more popular than they have been in years. I attribute this to the size of the fish in conjunction with their bright colors. People without tanks were buying small aquariums just so they have one more thing of interest to do while they are stuck in their mundane at home. Unfortunately, most Bettas and fancy guppies are raised in the Far East, so supplies have dwindled.
Equally popular are ornamental shrimp, which are easily maintained even by novice aquarium keepers. They feature small tanks, small animals, are simple to clean, easy to feed and endlessly fascinating. If you have not embraced the "tiny shrimp" phenomenon, there could not be a better time to do so. Hopefully, you can find a reliable supplier for these miniature crustaceans.
While this might be a good time for you to run sales on tanks and/or set-ups with the hope that it will expand your customer base and sell more livestock, it is NOT the time to run sales on the livestock itself. Hesitate on that scenario until you feel certain your supply chain is stable and not likely to experience an interruption. There could be nothing worse than an aquatic store running out of livestock.
Back in February, while I was at Global Pet Expo in Orlando, I gave a talk on the many different fresh- and brackish-water fishes that could be merchandised by aquatic shops. Much of my emphasis was on the oddball species that both retailers and hobbyists are relatively unfamiliar with. I suggested that a good way to reinvigorate your sales in freshwater would be to stock rarely seen items, most of which are wild-caught.
This is still a great idea, but right now, the exotic or unusual species (or varieties) may be in very short supply. If you can still obtain such fish, I highly recommend you doing so. They will sell quite well, but don’t neglect the bread-and-butter species in your quest for the Holy Grail. Right now—when money might be tight for many customers—it might be easier to sell 50 $2.00 fish than one $100.00 fish.
Finally, as a parting thought—we are all in this together, including the fish you sell. They are depending on you for their survival until they reach their permanent home. Do your best! 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.