Are you tired of having those cyber stores run roughshod over you when it comes to selling packaged and prepared aquatic fish foods? Do you wish there was a way to take back a share of the market that historically belonged to independent brick-and-mortar pet shops? Well, if you let me upgrade your marketing strategy when it comes to selling live and frozen foods, you can do just that.
The easy part is the physical act of selling the food; the hard part is keeping the food alive long enough. If you’re selling live tropical fish, cold-water ornamentals (goldfish and/or koi), marine fish and/or coral, your skills at keeping animals alive are good. Live fish food should not be a problem for you, except for the fact that not all these foods will be aquatic.
You’ll be dealing with animals from several different taxonomic groups and their maintenance will be equally diverse. So, let’s start with something you are already familiar with—fish (feeder fish, to be more precise), including feeder guppies, feeder goldfish and a variety of so-called bait fish, the majority of which are native North American species.
Now, when it comes to warm-water feeder fish, guppies aren’t the only choice—there are also mollies, platies and even so-called mosquito fish (Gambusia). All of these should be available from fish farms in Florida, and are typically sold in quantities of 500 or more. You will need tank space for these that is maintained virtually at the same level of care as the ornamentals you sell. In this case, while the cosmetics do not require the same level of attention, the filtration needs to be superior.
You see, feeder fish are not always maintained in the same efficient manner that farms keep show fish. Your filtration must be intense and water changes should be massive between shipments. Also, a UV-sterilizer is absolutely essential to cut down on bacterial infections and hopefully curtail parasitic outbreaks. All of this detail applies to feeder fish that come from typical fish farms.
There are other types of fish farms and fish collecting stations, however, and these concentrate on feeder fish used in the “live bait” industry, which primarily service bait shops or fishing tackle retailers. While these shops are scarce in some parts of the country, they are ubiquitous to the point where you can usually stop in and buy the fish you need along any of the coastal areas in the U.S. If you’re lucky, there may even be a wholesaler supplying these stores that you could buy directly from.
Another item common to bait shops is worms. Not the giant bloodworms that can bite the fool out of you if you don’t handle them properly, but earthworms. From a bait shop, you should be able to obtain red wigglers and night crawlers. The red wigglers are perfect for smaller predatory species, such as cichlids and catfish, while the night crawlers are frequently over six inches long, so they are best reserved for the big predators like arowanas, giant catfish, characoids, bichirs, cichlids, etc. Either type of worm can be cut up by the consumer to fit their needs.
Being that the worms will come prepackaged, try not to repackage them—that takes time and extra containers. And, don’t forget, the worms should come in peat, so the customer should purge their guts before they are fed to fish. Otherwise, the peat can—and frequently will—clog the intestines of any fish that eats the worms. I recommend keeping these worms in a refrigerator maintained specifically for live foods. Set the thermostat around 55 degrees.
Not So Shrimpy
So far, we have only discussed the “feeder” animals that are relatively easy to maintain. Next, we tackle brine shrimp, blackworms, grass shrimp and ghost shrimp. Honestly, the grass and ghost shrimp can be kept in almost the same type of habitat—a shallow aquarium with a massive surface area.
If you hang a typical aquarium light over the tank, you will be able to grow live aquatic plants. Grass shrimp are brackish-water species, but they can survive in fully marine environments or, if slowly acclimated, alkaline freshwater habitats. Keep them at a specific gravity around 1.012-1.015, and you will be able to grow Calerpa algaes in the same tank. The shrimp will eat this, but should still be fed micro-pellets.
Now, for the glass shrimp, you will want exactly the same set-up, but the water must be freshwater (slightly alkaline is best). Duckweed or other aquatic floating plants, such as water wisteria, will give the shrimp a place to hide and food to eat. Still, feed them micro-pellets. If the tanks are big enough, filtration can be kept at a minimum. You could use large sponge filters that will clarify the water and add aeration. It’s a learning curve, but you’ll get it right with a little experimentation.
The final two items, brine shrimp and black worms, have been available for many years. We can thank fish hobbyists in the San Francisco Bay area for discovering just what a great fish food brine shrimp are. For many years, most of the brine shrimp sold in the U.S. were grown in salt flats around the Bay, until the rest of the world discovered this tiny crustacean was found virtually world-wide in one species or another.
In your store, these animals require a good bit of care to stay healthy. First of all, they are hyper-saline animals, occurring in environments with a specific gravity of 1.040 to 1.050. I have collected them myself around San Francisco Bay, the great Salt Lake in Utah, Mono Lake in California just outside the back entrance of Yosemite National Park and my favorite location: brine lakes in far northern Canada, near the city of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
Filtering For Feed
After you get the salinity correct, you need to provide plenty of surface area in a large tank with a roiling motion to the water. Still, you can’t use a power filter or the shrimp will get sucked in. Even covering the intake with mesh will only create a clogged filter in almost no time. The shrimp don’t swim too well, so fast-moving water is not their friend. One solution is to lower the water temperature so the metabolism of the shrimp slows down. This works, but there are only two ways to accomplish this: using a chiller on an open tank with the in-coming water well-filtered so no shrimp can get into the chiller, or putting the shrimp in flat pans in a dedicated refrigerator and set the thermostat at 55 degrees.
As for blackworms, these animals are native to cold-water streams with a fast-moving current, which brings them large amounts of oxygen. As it turns out, however, entrepreneurs around the world (initially in California) have figured out a way to farm these worms in very large, open-water artificial ponds (called tanks in Asia) with only a bit of water (12 inches or so). The first locations that were successful at this were in the Central Valley of California, where it’s hot.
In your store, it’s a lot easier just to put them in cat litter pans in a dedicated refrigerator set at 55 degrees. You will, however, need to weed out the dead worms (use a turkey baster) or they will foul the water in the pan. As an alternative, I have been successful with black worm habitats that were created using a series of styrofoam (or plastic) boxes with a steady but slow current passing over the worms. The dead worms are flushed out of the balls by the current. I feel certain there is a better way to do this if you are feeling creative. Good luck with that project.
Okay, that was a condensed primer on live foods. But, what do you do about frozen foods? In this case, you will have more competition since the only skill required to keep these is to be able to afford several glass-fronted display freezers. Actually, the category of frozen foods is a bit more diabolical since finding a source for the foods may be a bit of a challenge.
Let me say up front, there are frozen items sold for human consumption that make great fish foods. The problem is you can’t resell these items, as it’s illegal in most states. Perhaps, even if you could, your customers would figure out that it would be cheaper to buy them directly from a grocery store. Now, if you repackage them and sell them, that’s even more illegal.
Once upon a time, when I owned a retail shop, I processed beef heart bought from a slaughterhouse and sold it in my own packaging to my customers. It was a lot of work, but I was making money… until a state inspector for weights and measures came in and asked me a bazillion questions about the beef heart. Needless to say, to comply with all the laws necessary to keep selling “my” beef heart would have made the process a money pit. I went back to selling the pet industry version, much to my chagrin. But this won’t happen to you because of the COVID-crazy atmosphere we have today. It’s a challenge just to find enough livestock or live food, much less frozen food.
If you can get a consistent supply of frozen foods, they will sell quite well if merchandised properly. Most customers prefer to feed prepared fish foods because they are cheaper and less messy to feed. Thus, it will take a little salesmanship to convince customers to mix up their feeding regimes.
After years of experience, I find that frozen foods are best fed in the evening and prepared foods in the morning. The philosophy here is that fish will search assiduously for every morsel of a frozen product. Not so much for the prepared or manufactured foods. Why? It’s got to do with taste buds—fish don’t have them the way we do. Instead, they have cells that detect chemicals in the water that they are attracted to or are repelled by. Hence, liquid sold to fishermen as “bait enhancement” oil. Sure, it works on a lot of game fish, but the fish you sell are a bit more mundane.
To tell if a frozen food is attractive to the fish in your tank, use your hands to break it apart and swirl it through the water—don’t just dump it in one spot. Then, once you’re done, put your hands up to your nose and smell them. If they smell awful, that’s perfect! That means it smells great to the fish, and you just can’t get that kind of smell in a prepared food. I have spoken. PB
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.