Goldfish in aquarium with green plants

We’re currently in a time that tries men’s souls—and puts a big strain on brick-and-mortar retailers. As I write this, the COVID-19 situation over most of the U.S. is becoming progressively worse. Just as we start to enter the holiday shopping season in earnest, there may be restrictions on in-person shopping over much of the country. 

Fortunately for us retailers in the pet trade, we should continue to be classified as essential services, meaning we can keep our doors open, even if there are some restrictions to hours of operation, customer load and capacity. But here’s the hard part: maintaining a consistent and diverse inventory of live animals. In this month’s column, I am looking specifically at marine livestock.

If you are a reef shop or a retailer that offers a large marine department to your customers, you already know the news—there’s short supply and heavy demand, which should continue for the foreseeable future. As long as people are stuck in their living quarters, they are going to keep buying pets. 

For you, this is a double-edged sword. If demand is high and supply is low, it is essential that you explore alternative sources for livestock. You can’t be complacent just because sales are good. It’s time to get creative. Start doing your research on where to get the items you need. 

Begin with the basics, such as fish that can be spawned and raised in captivity: clown-fish, dottybacks, gobies, cardinalfish, seahorses, blennies, damsels, dwarf angels, pipefish, etc. There are hatcheries in the U.S. and around the world working with fish in the groups listed above, as well as many additional families. 

Success in breeding does not always mean there is product available for the retail trade—that usually takes a bit longer. Breeding facilities must accumulate sufficient brood stock to ensure their first-time breakthroughs will translate into commercial production. By far, the bulk of marine fish in the trade are wild-caught and this should continue to be the status quo for many years to come.

 

Fishing in the U.S.

Well, we are in the U.S., so it goes without saying that it’s easier to obtain marine fish from the Atlantic and Caribbean than anywhere else. Reef fish from the Pacific and Indian Oceans, the Red Sea and the Australian Barrier Reef are going to be in even shorter supply since these bodies of water are further away from us and the rest of the world is closer. 

There is a great deal of international competition for the limited supply of reef fish, especially during these times. And then there’s the airline situation (as if we didn’t have enough problems already). Due to COVID-19, the airlines are experiencing major slumps in ridership. This means there are less flights available to carry passengers and what we’re interested in—cargo. Mind you now, not just cargo, but live cargo. And, yes, the U.S. still has Department of Interior (DOI) checkpoints for livestock. 

Marine fish and invertebrate shipments must be inspected by the DOI when they enter this country. This makes it virtually impossible for any pet shop, aquatic retailer or reef store to import items on their own. You need a representative at the specific airport to handle that for you. Even if you’re able to pull that off, the animals must be shipped from the port of entry to your location. This frequently requires re-bagging and reoxygenation, which means you need a facility near the airport where this can be done. Honestly, it’s amazing that we get anything aquatic into this country alive and in good shape. But I digress.

If you are not well-connected, it’s probably too late to do anything about it. In this day and age, the marine retailer must be constantly searching for a reliable source of livestock. Without that, fish will become a rare commodity in short order. Coral frags, however, are a different matter for garage breeders have sprung up much like mushrooms on a damp forest floor. Now, how do you guarantee that the people who sell their coral frags are not selling them to other retailers or every curious person who checks them out on “Neighborhood Marketplace” or other such local cyber sites? 

There’s no doubt that times are weird and only the strong will thrive. If you are an aquatic retailer in this business for the long haul, you must find reliable sources for your livestock, and it’s doubly difficult as far as marine fish are concerned. I have some tips that might help you weather this storm.

 

In it Together

Right off the bat, you must realize that you are not alone—the vast majority of retail marine livestock sellers are in the same boat. Only a lucky few who operate close to DOI-designated airports will have multiple sources from which to obtain their livestock. 

You must search for wholesalers and transshippers who operate near these facilities and try to convince them to sell to you. Yes, I said convince them because they already have too many stores waiting in line for shipments. There are ways to move to the head of the line, if you can manage it. 

First, if you can pick the fish up in-person, that would be great. Second, you must be willing to pay a premium for the fish you want, over and above the price you are given. Third, pre-order the fish you want and pay for them before the fish actually arrive. Fourth, show a willingness to accept substitutes as long as they are reasonable.

The COVID-19 crisis is not just affecting wholesalers and retailers, though—it’s affecting collectors, as well. Locations around the world where reef fish are captured are not exactly urban centers. Many collectors live in remote areas where the availability of shipping materials, such as plastic bags and styrofoam coolers, is not a given. Even air compressors for filling SCUBA tanks (that must produce Grade E breathing air) might be in short supply. And what about the fuel needed to run these air compressors? Basically, they use gasoline, diesel or electricity. COVID has greatly restricted the demand for two out of three of these, so they should be available for commercial diving. 

After that, the question is, can the collectors get their living product to market? This is typically a holding facility near a large international airport. You can see it was not simple before COVID-19, and now it is a much more complex chain of events that must take place in a precise manner if your livestock order is to arrive at your doorstep on time and in good shape.

A lot of marine retailers are concentrating on coral sales rather than reef fish. Since coral is now extensively farmed in captivity, it has proven a more resilient retail product than fish. Even other types of invertebrates can take up the slack when fish are in short supply, such as crabs, shrimp, starfish, sea urchins, anemones, lobsters, hermit crabs, tube worms, thorny oysters, flame scallops, giant clams, sea hares, nudibranchs, sponges, and a wide variety of living shells (snails, etc.).

Most customers will not care where these members of the supporting cast are found in the wild. This gives you more flexibility in the livestock category, so use it to your advantage by showcasing motile invertebrates in their own aquariums throughout your marine department. Scatter invertebrate tanks around so people can see just how diverse and interesting these animals can be if they are given “star” billing.

 

Combating Cost

Perhaps it has crossed your mind to raise prices on marine livestock, particularly fish, since availability is much lower than during normal times. If you have kept adequate records on what prices you have paid in the past for key species in each group, you will be able to check and see if you are still paying comparable prices. Should this be true, customers might find a significant price hike a bit alarming. 

As a way of making your customers more comfortable with paying slightly higher prices, you could put up a notification explaining what effects COVID-19 has had on marine livestock availability. This should not come as a surprise to anyone since, by now, people are used to dealing with shortages of everything from fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, cheese, fresh bread, beans, soup, toilet paper, rice… the list is endless. At any rate, taking customers into your confidence will de-mystify the rise in prices you may have already instituted.

What about the future, especially as it applies to the aquatic hobby? Well, assuming a COVID-19 vaccine is finally produced, shortly after most people have been inoculated things may begin to return to normal. This should mean that supplies of wild-caught marine organisms will experience a renaissance and there will be substantially more available. I would not expect this to affect the move toward balanced captive environments with coral leading the way. 

Marine enthusiasts are drawn to living coral like moths to a flame. It mesmerizes them with its cacophony of colors, panoply of patterns and catalogue of scintillating shapes, but a coral reef does not look real unless there are fish swimming around, over and through it. The market for marine reef fish will always be strong, but the ability of nature to supply these animals may be on the wane, primarily due to pollution and climate change. 

If the coral reefs die, all the supporting cast will go with them. Mankind is running out of time to fix this upcoming Armageddon. If anything brings the marine aquarium hobby to its knees, it will be climate change. Think about this as you go about your business as an aquatic retailer. See if you can do something positive to help the cause.  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.