Nathan Hill considers what could be the rise of the focused fish seller.
How did we reach this point where the general consensus — assuming it is the consensus — was that bricks-and-mortar shops were somehow ‘good’ and ‘right’ while anything else was an abomination? What is this misconception of the online marketplace that people have?
Some of it is obvious stuff, for sure. We’ve probably all had experiences trying to buy something from a self-professed ‘expert’ over the web, only to find that they had all the expertise of a lobotomised chimp.
And there’ll always be that *insert online marketplace* trader who is doing everything below board, trading livestock without a pet shop license, bringing in anything willy-nilly, and ready to go into liquidation at the first sniff of a refund. But there are brick-builds that do that as well. It’s by no means exclusive to online trading.
I sense a certain elitism attached to bricks-and-mortar. It’s as though they’ve somehow ‘arrived’ at a better place. Well yeah, I guess in some cases that’s quite true. Some companies have built up quite an empire based on their skilled negotiations of the marketplace. Years or decades of hard graft have allowed for expansion, to the point where any outsider must be thinking ‘they’re doing something right!’, and usually they are. Or at the least they were, as it still remains to be seen if all brick build retailers are ready for the ever shifting dynamics of modern trade. Let us not ignore the fact that some brick-builds have not had the mettle, or the evolutionary skills to keep up, and have vanished.
Then there are the bricks-and-mortar sites that started elsewhere. There are properties I can think of that began online only and now have magnificent physical, cash and carry stores.
But here’s a thing. Online transactions have allowed an entirely new genre of store to appear on the scene that was quite limited before, and I’m fascinated by it.
Imagine a retailer ten years ago who wanted to stock and sell nothing but their absolute, all time, favourite ever fish species. Base them wherever — Nathanville, say — and stock their shop with nothing but Corydoras. Nothing else, no dry goods and no other fish at all. How long do you imagine they’d last? Would there be enough traffic for them to make a living from that alone? You bet your sweet breeches there wouldn’t. If you tried making a living that way, chances are you’d be getting all Kung Fu with debt collectors on your driveway within a month.
Now, though, I could easily set up a business importing, breeding, raising and caring for any one of the (reasonably popular) fish varieties available and make a career out of it. I already thought about it as a potential venture, but then I remembered how cushy my job is here.
Point in case, I went on a recent visit LJB Aquatics, and I was inspired. Now, to clarify, it isn’t exactly pretty inside, but then it doesn’t need to be. Reclaimed fish racks from old retailers line the walls, and warehouse shelving takes care of the rest. It’s rusty, crusty, damp and stuffy, in every way that a retail premises shouldn’t be. But its owner, Lisa, isn’t trying to be high street boutique — it’s not a cash and carry retailer. No, instead, Lisa has cultivated a vast online presence and a loyal following, and simply needs to display her wares via Facebook for people to throw money at her like they’re lobbing rocks at an attacking bear.
What does she stock? Mainly Betta. There are other fish on the sidelines, but the core of this business revolves around one fish; the humble Fighter. Hundreds and hundreds of them, in every colour and fin shape imaginable. More than I’ve ever seen in one place.
Given that the fixtures were a little ‘shaky’, would I knock the livestock? Jeepers, no! Those fish were perfect. Could I knock the owner as being not as knowledgeable as a bricks-and-mortar employee? Ha ha! Lawd a mercy, no! Lisa has forgotten more about Betta than I’ll ever know, and she could put many an ‘expert’ straight on their care and upkeep.
After my visit down there, I came away feeling invigorated, albeit the exhausted, blind-in-one-eye after a day of photography kind of invigorated.
I know the debates between the fans of the many different camps will go on and on. There’ll be brick-build haters, online-trader haters, lovers, fighters, apathetics and whateverers.
But for me, the bigger picture is that the hobby could be about to hit a wonderful epoch. As well as having our local stores providing our staples, we’re increasingly seeing the rise of the focused seller. If that means in five years I can get a single fish from someone who has no other distractions but that one species, and is passionate about it beyond compare, then I’m real excited. Bring it on!
What's your weakness when it comes to fish? Are you a catfish fan — or mad about cichlids or oddballs? Whatever your passion, you should run with it and turn it into something special, says Nathan Hill.
Remember the first time you went to buy fish? Chances are you were like a whirling dervish (derfish?), frenzied as you ran from tank to tank, working out what you wanted.
That first set up probably ended up like a million others; a total mish-mash, like some miniature multicultural experiment carried out with fish. I can picture Asian barbs rubbing shoulders with Mexican livebearers, while South American cichlids looked on aghast.
You might still be in that place, with a finger in every fish pie. And why shouldn’t you? A well-assembled community is amazing, which is why they’re the most popular tank the world over. Even so, with that cornucopia of assorted life, I’ll put money on you having a favourite.
C’mon, admit it. Every hobbyist I know (and that’s a lot) has a soft spot for one thing over all else. What’s your weakness? The brightness of a rainbowfish, looking like it got itself covered in superglue and then fell in to a pot of pastel shavings? Maybe you’re a shrimper, watching those little swimming squirrels scraping away and then scurrying through aquascape jungles.
Catfish seem to be the most popular, by no small measure. That, or the catfish crowd are just a hundred times more active than everyone else. I can’t peruse social media sites without someone wedging a colour-morphed Hypancistrus zebra down my digital throat. It’s great.
The thing with catfish fans is that they strike me as the perfect example of a fishkeeping paradox. We primarily buy fish to look at them, right? I set up a tank, fill it with whatever I’m working on that month, get a nice hot cup of Chai and park myself in front of it to enjoy the view.
But catfish folks. Some of them will splash out on a 300cm custom made tank, with welded frame, sump system, and the kind of plumbing that makes my house look like a slum tenement in former Yugoslavia. then they add flow pumps that are just rebranded outboard motors nabbed off a speedboat, stick in a couple of trees and then buy up the world’s brownest, most cryptic loricariids, which hastily park themselves in the first convenient crevice and only expose themselves for about 15 seconds over the next decade. There’s something inherently masochistic there, though I can’t quite place it. Some of them don’t even use lights. Think about that.
Cichlid fanciers seem to have it sussed. If catfish are secretive, then cichlids are pure pantomime. They display like frevo dancers at a Brazilian carnival, they interact, and if you’re lucky (or skilled) they’ll breed and bring you some revenue back. Very few fish have enough confidence to come out and bite their keeper, but cichlids don’t care about old-hat conventions like that. They can take liberties, and people will still keep them.
I never meet many barb fans. Pointing into their community tank, it’s rare that anyone will say ‘that Puntius is my pride and joy’. I’m sure there’s a barb following out there. Of the many cypriniforms, there’s a loach audience, a diehard underground guild of RTB shark fanciers, and an elite Koi collective, but not a barb division. I’m going to confess, they’re often a bit vanilla for me, too.
Characins, though! That’s what I’m taking about! The characin crowd is a reserved bunch, but they’re out there, harvesting oddities. As you’d expect, the piranha scene is pretty strong, but it’s so much more than just tanks filled with Red bellies and comedy skulls. It was a piranha that first lured me to the tropical side of the hobby — a sulky, chubby lump I got for my birthday when I was 12 or 13, which turned out to be the exact opposite of what a young lad would expect of a feared flesh eater.
The thing is, whatever our fetishes, we should embrace them. Most of the advances in breeding aren’t coming out of labs and research facilities, they’re coming out of hobbyist tanks. And once a home aquarist has mastered spawning an endangered fish, teetering on the edge of existence in some remote pond in Western Papua, you can bet that in this internet age it’s information that will float up to where it can make a difference.
Look at it this way. Your friends might be calling you a nerd for harbouring so much love for your gobies, but one day down the line, when an academic from a university in Brazil drops you an email to ask how you spawned them, you’ll still be a total nerd, but a nerd who might have just helped save a species.
If you’ve got a passion for a specific fish, run with it, nurture it, and turn it into something special. It’s too good an opportunity to miss.
I feel that I owe an apology to many fishkeepers out there, says Nathan Hill, after losing his favourite fish.
Forget everything that I have written. For years I’ve maintained that we don’t lose fish, but that we kill them. We control their existences, down to the finest minutiae, and our errors are their disasters. Screw up a water change, dead. Add too much food, dead. All of it, a balancing act of life and death, at our fingertips and at the behest of our competence. For too long, I thought that the idea of ‘acts of god’ exculpated the true villains — the tank owners. ‘I don’t know why they died’ was not an excuse that drew my sympathy. Rather, it was an irksome deflection of responsibility.
I feel now that I owe an apology to so many. We can lose fish, and I’m doubly chastened about this as it happened to me in spectacular style. We can lose fish, and I’m doubly chastened about this as it happened to me in spectacular style.
Only recently I picked up one of my all time dream species, which some might find to be bland, is the distinctly pretty Nannostomus espei. There’s a picture of one on the right, so you can try to fathom the appeal it has to me.
The fish came home with me from Aqualife Leyland, and went into a well established, Plasticine-soft, acidic set up that has been long matured. In essence, I had what I believed to be the ideal set-up.
Anytime I get fish, I become a paranoid wreck. A single scratch is immediately translated as ‘everything is going to die!’ while a fish lingering quietly at the surface, minding its own business is translated as ‘everything is going to die!’
We’ve all been there, I’m sure.
The following morning, all was good. The fish fed, I went to work and did my thing of ignoring emails and writing waffle. I came home, raced to the tank, and everything looked ravaged.
I did what any self respecting, panicking aquarist would do. I tested, and I tested my water to within an inch of its life. Everything checked out as nominal. No pollutants, no deviant pH value, no lacking or excess hardness. For N. espei, the tank was bob-on. I water changed anyway, some 25%.
The next morning, more had died. I ran another small water change, fled to work and hoped the situation would pass. When I got home another had gone. More of the same. Testing. Small water change. The fish looked boned.
This went on all week. I felt like Icarus plummeting from the sky, unaware of where I’d messed up, but knowing it was going to end badly. I turned over everything in my room trying to find a cause. Fumes from washing my clothes? Unlikely. Deodorant? Given that it was a roll on, applied in the hallway, also unlikely. Were housemates sending up toxic smoke from their diabolical cooking efforts? Possible, but I couldn’t establish the lethal dose of smoke from a cindered pork chop.
Rattling like false teeth
By the weekend, I was down to three pencils, each looking like they sensed the inevitable. I was bitter. I sprawled on my bed and cheered myself with an online WWII dogfighting game, shooting Americans out of the sky at Pearl Harbour in my Mitsubishi.
The sound that came ripping through my room made me think the boiler had exploded. I have skateboards hanging on the wall behind me, and they were rattling like dentures on a corncob. My bed was reverberating. Looking across to the tank, the fish were leaning on to their flanks, or trying to launch themselves, while the water rolled and rattled. Then it stopped. Then it started again.
I ran downstairs, bumping in to a housemate who spends his days indoors. ‘What the hell?’ I asked (I didn’t use the word ‘hell’), and he responded with ‘Yeah, he’s been doing it all week…’
The epiphany was as infuriating as it was redemptive. It turns out the neighbour who had just moved in the weekend before (while I was away from home) was lovingly taking to the wall right behind my tank, every day, with some kind of industrial jackhammer. I smashed his front door so hard my fists were near raw, but to no avail. The tools were just drowning out my knocking. By the time he’d finished and gone, I missed him, and he’s yet to come home again.
I’m down to one pencil now. Through no fault of my own, aside my lack of predicting industrial tool use in someone else’s house, my fish have been ‘lost’.
As I say, I was wrong. It turns out that there are situations beyond our control, and outside of our influence, that can wipe out livestock. Sorry, everyone. Be gentle, I just lost my favourite fish.
I’m going to toss this one out there like a word grenade guaranteed to blow up in my hands and scatter us all with shrapnel, says Nathan Hill. Designer fish. Let me expand that. Morphs, crossbreeds, enhanced — man made fish.
Right now, you’re either in a big pile of ‘meh’ or you’re tearing my picture off the page and burning it. Let me put my own thoughts out there, because I can. We don’t need them. There, I said it.
‘Fake’ fish are a tawdry stand-in for real ones, as though the industry is pulling the teeth out of the entry-level hobbyist, and expecting them to be grateful for the chintzy dentures they’re replaced with. I’m not buying in to it. Naturally occurring fish are great as they are, stop messing them up.
By this point, some of my critics might be whining at such a high pitch that they could shatter glass. But the fancy goldfish, you say, what about the fancy goldfish...
Hold your horses, because that’s not the devastating, punch-in-the-face knock down argument you might expect it to be. I work for a publication that’s impartial about fancy goldfish. But it doesn’t follow that I’m indifferent to fancy goldfish. In the past I’ve rallied to their defence. I’ve kept them. I liked them. It doesn’t mean that I still do now. My views have changed and now I can’t really stand the things. Do we need them? Nope. Do the fish suffer because of their shapes? Sometimes. Would I rather be in a world without fancy goldfish? Probably.
Anyway, back to the matter at hand. When I visit many shops now, it’s foregone that there’ll be some monstrous beacon of unnatural colour slathering at me from somewhere behind a glass screen. Whether it’s a fresh strain of platy, a guppy with a technicolour tail longer than a millionaire bride’s wedding train, or some newly concocted African cichlid, I can be sure that somewhere in the tanks will be a fish so far removed from its ancestors that early taxonomists would have given it a new genus, let alone species name.
Here’s a thought. We don’t have Glofish in the UK. Yet. For the trade, that’s a mixed blessing. In the short term, the revenue they would generate would be like Easter and Christmas combined for shops, all day every day. On the flipside, making space for those bundles of fluorescent vomit would involve shoving out some of the slower selling stuff. So, that’ll be goodbye to all the interesting bits, then. Who needs a Corydoras guapore when you can have a glowing fandango albino instead, with electric blue eyes and a designer anus? While chasing the easy buck, the needs of the old guard could quite easily be neglected, ignored, or outright dropped.
The fact remains that we screwed up somewhat with the fancy goldfish, and we should learn from it. Instead of digging heels in and saying enough was enough, the world acquiesced until it was too damned late. Can we ‘undo’ the Celestial goldfish and fix it? Probably not, no, and as for whether they should be continued as a genetic line, I’m not getting involved. There are certain designer dogs facing similar kinds of welfare woes, with their snort-nosed asthmatic huffs and pelvic bones that shatter at a moment’s notice, and people still defend them as though sacrosanct.
We can, however, stop the same mistakes happening again. I doubt we will, but that’s representative of a wider societal woe. As we wax lyrical about our ‘rights’ to do whatever we please, we seem to forget that we also need to consider how our actions might affect everything else around us.
Bright, manufactured fish seem an inevitability of a consumerist society, where consumerism really just involves finding the next thing to satiate the ten-second whims of the buyer, until another shiny fancy comes along. It’s just a shame that our own hobby has also come to reflect this desire for gimmickry.
Trash vs. quality
There was a time when we were still on the fringe that we were left alone in our curious desires to put fish into tanks. But now there are (big) pound signs attached, and where’s money to be made, it can be easiest to chase the least discerning market. We can all think of examples where something trashy outsells something of quality, I am sure.
So anyway, the point I’m trying to make. Love them, hate them, whatever; it’ll change nothing. Fish so artificial that you’ll puke at first sight are increasingly likely. Some are already here. The people that love them have already devised terrible arguments and absurd logical backflips to defend them, and they won’t be budged. Just get used to it, because they’re going nowhere fast.
Either way, if you’re a true fish fan, then my advice is to get involved with a club asap.
Although they might not be fighting some desperate rear guard action, chances are that they — and a tiny handful of stores across the land — will be the only ones to have the fish you’ll want when the Glofish (or worse — what new chimera is waiting in the wings?) eventually arrive and take over every bank of tanks this side of Singapore.
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You've probably been to your local stores a few times now. Or you might work in one, which could be a good or a bad thing, depending on your personality. That means that you'll have probably spotted a few 'types' of customer who like to shop there, says Nathan Hill.
Now, there’s a whole world of management speak about customer demographics, and whether they are 'price hunters'or 'wanderers' or whatever, along with predictive charts about purchase probability, aftercare requirements, and all sorts of other exciting sales speak. I’m not going to touch on any of that, though, because I find it as interesting as being handcuffed to a radiator in a cellar for ten years.
Instead, I’m going for a good old, out-and-out character assassination. I’ve served my time in the field, and I’m allowed to have a bit of a dig at some of the more abrasive shoppers. So there.
Here are some of the customers most memorable to me…
The bomb dropper
This one used to royally sting my kidneys. The customer who would want to buy lots of fish, only to ruin everything at the end.
They’d be on total form, and come across as totally clued up and faultless. "Has the tank been running for a long time?" Yes, yes it has. Years, in fact. "Is it already well stocked?" Yes, teeming with fish. "Is it big?" Over four feet long. All is good!
Fast forward ten minutes when the shopkeeper has carefully caught and bagged up twenty Cardinals, four Rams, a fleet of Corydoras and a couple of Ancistrus when the customer politely mentions "Yeah, we stripped the whole thing down yesterday morning, cleaned everything with bleach, boiled the gravel, changed all the filters and put it back together with water from the hot tap…"
If you look real close when this happens, you can actually spot the exact moment when the employee’s will to live completely untethers itself and drifts off for a happier life in the cold, dead void of empty space.
The conspiracy theorist
I’ll bet you anything you’ve been caught behind one of these when you wanted to just buy some fish and get home. The conspiracy theorists, aka the slow learner, will just not comprehend that ‘no’ might be the answer to their question.
Picture the scene. They’ve had a tank running for a little while, they maybe have a few 'starter' fish like platies or danios already swimming about. After discussion with the staff about what fish will be okay to add next, and taking in to account things like temperature, water chemistry, age of tank and so on, they’ll be given a dozen carefully considered species to choose from as suitable next additions.
At this point, they’ll casually saunter to the next aisle of tanks, containing the exact opposite of the kinds of fish they can keep — marines, or Malawi cichlids, or whatever, and proceed to systematically ask if each and every one will be okay in their tank. Every. Single. One.
They’ll keep that up until they’ve been through every species in the shop, refusing to accept that the handful of fish advised by the retailer are their only options. Meanwhile, you’re stuck for twenty minutes in the queue, watching this debacle unfold and wary that you really don’t have all this spare time available. If you’re like me, you’ll probably want to just saunter over there with a Warhammer and get medieval on their indecisive behinds.
The professed expert/aka the helping doofus
Quite possibly the single most annoying type here, for both customer and retailer — a customer with three weeks of fishkeeping orientation from Facebook, who is now an unrivalled expert in everything.
This one warrants a bit of unpackaging. Did you know there are four stages of competence? It’s true, I used to teach this stuff (badly) for a living. When someone first starts to learn something, they might do so at the level of 'unconscious incompetence'. That’s to say, they know so little about the subject, that they don’t even understand how little they know on the subject. As they learn more, they become consciously incompetent, which means they start to understand that there’s lots of stuff they don’t know, and that they’re still beginners.
Then you hit conscious competence, where they becoming increasingly aware of what they do know and are capable of, but in effect they actively need to think about what they’re doing still.
After that, they progress to being unconsciously competent. As in, they are so familiar with the subject that they no longer need to think about it. It’s second nature. Think about learning to drive, and the stages of confidence you went through, compared to how you are now (not having to think about indicators, gears, etc.) and you’ll get the gist of it.
Now, the helping doofus is almost certainly in category one – unconsciously incompetent. They honestly have no idea how little they understand the subject matter, but by golly they want to talk like an authority on the subject. To you. At length.
You’ll spot them in retailers, lurking about and doling out the wrong kind of advice to anyone unfortunate or foolhardy enough to stay in their vicinity. Usual gems of insight include 'they only grow as big as the tank', 'you need to soak plants in salt/copper before adding them', and the mighty 'you don’t need to do water changes…'
They might even hit you with the timeless 'We bought *insert name* fish here and it wiped out our whole tank…' But they’ll fail to mention this was a 45cm long tank, running for five days, without prior cycling or maturation, and stocked with 60 fish.
The usual response is that you’ll want to treat them with outright derision, but you can be subtler than that. Just ask for evidence to support their claims. I guarantee you’ll get back to you that 'we did it that way', to which you can just point out that a single anecdote does not constitute data, and watch them squirm.
Note also that they can eventually become very good aquarists once they get past this stage of incompetence. They just need to get on that next level, conscious incompetence, and suddenly they’ll be a lot more fun to be around.
The actual expert
Can go either way. The vast majority you meet are really nice folks. Note the kind of question they ask — how long have the fish been in country for, what are their origins, are they wild or tank bred, what conditions are they being kept in, have there been any health issues in that tank or system…
From a retailer’s point of view, these folks are bliss. From a fellow customer’s point of view, they can be great to eavesdrop. You might even pick up on questions they ask that hadn’t occurred to you.
That said, they can also be the worst kind of arrogant douchebag on the planet. There’s something unsavoury about watching a lifelong, qualified-to-the-hilt fish breeder ragging about a Saturday boy for sport, when it’s clear that they’re only doing it to make themselves look good in front of everyone.
If it happens to you, just remember that there’s someone even more qualified than your aggressor, someone more cerebral out there who knows the subject better. And he or she probably would think the person laying in to you is a complete weapon. So there’s that.
One thing I will say — never rule out young people as potential experts. In my time, I’ve seen staff saunter over to young lads and ladies of maybe 12 years old, ask if they can help with something, and find themselves embroiled in a conversation of such cerebral depth that even Christopher Hitchens would have calmly backed away without making any sudden moves. When those young brains get fixed on a subject, they’ll absorb every nugget of information available on it.
The time traveller
A curious beast, this one. Often a complete newcomer to the hobby, but frequently someone who had 'a' unspecified fish (almost always a goldfish) in their early childhood, and who is adamant that whatever is advised, they could do the exact opposite ten, twenty or thirty years ago. The rose tinted spectacles are strong with these customers.
Typical lines include: "We never had filters when I did it" (which is why all their fish died), "They used to live for years" (maybe one or two years, which really is crap for a goldfish), and "we didn’t have to test before" (and to be fair, if you’re talking the 1970s, that would be a bit of a nightmare).
If you’re a fellow customer, expect them to look at you and expect you to back them up as though what you’re saying is obvious. If you’re the retailer, expect to be polite for the next half hour, but for them to get the right hump and go elsewhere after the fiftieth time you’ve gently explained why unfiltered bowls are a no-no.
Ah, go easy on the newcomers. We all started somewhere, but I still get a flush of inconsolable despair whenever I hear the line "How hard is it to set up one of them Nemo tanks?" by someone closely inspecting an 8 litre pico by tapping at it in the aquatic equivalent of a tyre-kicker at a car showroom.
Noobs are everywhere, and it’s a good thing. More noobs = more hobbyists = more money spent = more R&D = better hobby for all.
Noobs get a tough time, and curiously it would seem mostly from those who haven’t been in the fishkeeping game so long themselves. I used to be a right jobber with newcomers for a while, completely forgetting that I once didn’t know a young Discus from a Severum, or what the nitrogen cycle was, or how to pronounce any of the names.
And that’s another thing. Nowadays, many folks snort derisively at someone who mispronounces ‘cichlid’ as though it’s the worst crime in the universe. Maybe it is, in which case we all have criminal records, but when I hear someone trying to pronounce something difficult these days — and let’s be honest here, getting Uaru fernandezyepezi right the first time takes some skill — I think to myself, 'cool!'
Know why? It’s because it means they read that name somewhere, and if they’re reading about stuff then they want to learn. For everyone I ever mocked for saying 'chicklid' instead of 'sick lid', I apologise. Well, except to the ones that just didn’t want to learn even when I spent day after day correcting them on it.
Usually comes in with a face like they’ve been forced to eat larks’ vomit all night, hovers around the counter making short, frustrated beelines to busy passing staff, then eventually joins the queue.
Notably, they usually fail to provide any of the fundamental basics that you need when making a complaint. "All those fish that you sold me died," they’ll say accusingly, like the shop assistant personally came around and shot their dog dead in the hallway.
That might be the case, but then it all comes crashing down. Got a body? Nope. Got a water sample? Nope. Got the receipt, even? Nope. Nothing. Nada. Niet. Nein.
How retailers maintain composure with this often passes me by. If I buy something and it doesn’t fit me, like a jumper, then at the very least I know they’ll want the jumper back before they’ll swap it. If I just rock up and say 'I bought a jumper here yesterday, it doesn’t fit so I threw it away, along with the receipt and now I want another one,' then I’m sure the staff would smile and keep me occupied by jangling shiny things while the security guard creeps up behind me with a raised baton.
So why are fish somehow different? Yes, the thing has died. Yes, the retailer might be at fault. But if you’re going to expect them to replace it without any evidence, then I say you’ve become fair game for me to demand the same. You sell computers for a living? Great, I just bought one and it broke. I binned it, and I have no proof of purchase, but I’d like a new one right here, right now.
Small retailers in particular seem a magnet for the shameless tightwads of this world. Maybe there’s a sense that the independent retailer is more desperate than a supermarket, and people want to prey on that. I don’t know, but I’d have to concede that I’ve actually seen someone try to barter in a supermarket.
No joke, I watched the man, who used to do exactly the same with me in my own store at the time, when he was in a branch of Tesco. He was heckling, actually trying to heckle over the price of his groceries, and he was being deadly serious. The girl behind the counter was entirely unprepared for it, flapping about all clueless, and for a moment I was thinking 'now you know what every day of my life is like…'
You’ll hear cheapskates rather than see them in stores. They’ll be the ones asking "What’s the best price you can do on these" while pointing at a single snail.
On balance, when someone is splashing out on £1k of marine hardware, you might expect a little incentive thrown in. And none of us should be put off by a savvy buyer who simply checks prices against typical online prices to make sure they’re not being really ripped off. But if you’re like me, you might feel a little bit vicariously dirty when someone in front of you tries haggling on a single strand of Cabomba.
Usually they’ll try to justify themselves with the line "You have to try it though, don’t you?" which makes me instantly think 'no, I don’t, because I’ve got more respect for these guys trying to make a living than that…'
The fact checker
A sort of semi-fraudulent wannabe expert, the fact checkers like to get online while in stores and fact check. Sometimes.
Now that’s a great thing, and with information so readily available, we should all be doing something like this. If you’re stood in front of a tank with fish that you really want, but aren’t too sure about, you should be getting straight on to the PFK website, Seriously Fish, or ScotCat, or one of the many authorities on fish requirements.
But — there’s always a but. There are people in this world who know how to navigate good and bad information, and those who do not. That’s why we still have popular clickbait stories about how eating garlic will make your teeth fall out, and how a GM tomato is going to destroy every frog in Europe. Some people just cannot establish the credibility of evidence.
And there we find the problem. There’s a difference between going online quickly to verify something, and going out of your way to find something that supports your assertions, no matter how wild or obscure they might be. When someone in a store is advising that a Red tailed catfish gets to 120cm long, it is a blinkered customer who will then desperately track down a website claiming they only get 30cm long, and tout it as some kind of unstoppable freight-train of irrefutable evidence.
The curious buyer
Who are you? I mean, who on Earth appears in a store once in a lifetime, and buys up the most obscure thing there is, never to be seen again? As a customer, you’ll probably not have seen this person. As a retailer, you’ll know who I mean.
I feel rude asking, but I’d love to know more about these obscure ninjas of fishkeeping. I would get the occasional one, always clued up to the nines, and after something I’d had in a sump for about a year. A person would arrive, ask a price on some battered, rehomed Brachyplatystoma I had in a display tank, then offer to buy it at the going rate.
Bear in mind that none of us had ever seen this person before, we’d instantly start asking the usual 'trip up' questions to assess competence, but then we’d be blown away at how hardcore a fishkeeper this person was. They’d have a big tank (so they said) of 2.4m long or more, and would know their water quality intimately, including all the stuff we weren’t particularly fussed about, like conductivity and dissolved oxygen.
During our brief and clumsy relationship, we in the store would be enamoured by this shining beacon of fishkeeping, and then they’d leave, polybox bulging with tankbuster, never to be seen again.
This kind of customer has led me to believe that there is some occult, underground ring of ichthyologist geniuses, in a secret guild of fishkeepers that have access to Bat Cave levels of technology. Every so often, one of the dark knights of aquatics will venture out, rescue some hapless tankbuster for a life of luxury, and retreat back out of the public eye.
I’ve no idea how to become a member of this guild, but if you’re reading this, leave me a sign of how I can join. I’m ready, I swear*.
*Disclaimer: I’m not ready.
If those curious buyers were my fishkeeping superheroes, then the singlet buyer has to be a superzero. Try as you might, whether you are a fellow customer or a store worker, you’ll not be able to convince these folks where they are going wrong.
Their trick, as the name suggests, is to buy up singles of fish. Now, in some cases they might have a thing for runts. I’ve known customers and fellow keepers that have their empathy chips running at full volume, and all they want to do is take in the eyeless, finless, bent-spined, upside-down, spiralling runts that have somehow made it to adulthood. I’m not going to knock that, as it’s kind of humble to go out of your way to set up a tank just as a haven for the downtrodden and weak. And as long as they aren’t trying to breed from these things, then there’s no reason for the rest of us to get upset either.
But there’s also the customer who wants a single Glowlight, or Guppy, or Corydoras. They’re often deliberately obscure about what it’s going in with, hinting that it will be going alongside a ‘shoal’ (unspecified) which almost always turns out to be anything but — more a forced collusion of 20 individual shoaling types mashed together in a tank.
I’ve no idea. Maybe it’s a neurological thing, an inability to commit to numbers. But whatever it is, I’ll wager that if I looked in their tanks, my OCD — which is pretty mild — would be taken to pandemic levels.
Yeah, that’ll be me then. You’ll spot me in a store, because I’ll be the one walking about with an unjustifiably sanctimonious air, pretending to take shots of fish, but surreptitiously photographing the other customers, judging them and making notes on their personalities.
I’d guess that the big thing with having a fishkeeping journo in your store, is that you don’t know how much he or she is scrutinising you. Here’s an interesting point though — you’re not being put on some kind of trial. You have to say something really unethical or outlandish to warrant suddenly going on the record, because most of the time they just want an easy ride, to drink all your tea, and do what all the other customers want — have a good nose around your fish tanks.
Expect to see customers who recognise them having a dig about some error they made on a picture caption seventeen years ago, or showing off pictures of their own set ups on mobile phones. Expect to see retailers trailing them from a safe distance, intently focused on whatever it is they’re making notes about or photographing, and occasionally tossing over a Custard Cream.
What I will say is that from the journo’s point of view is that almost everyone assumes you know a million times more than you do. We have our fetishes, but outside of those, we’re pretty much in your hands. Treat us like total beginners, and we’ll love you for it. I will, anyway.
Why not take out a subscription to Practical Fishkeeping magazine? See
Don't forget PFK is also available in digital format.
for more information on the iPad or iPhone version.
for details of the Android version.
This aquarium was built inside a front loading washing machine.
The machine was taken apart and thoroughly cleaned to remove all traces of detergent before being fitted with a filter, air pump and waterproof LED lighting, which was siliconed into place between the inner and outer tubs.
It’s a novel idea — especially since the washing machine is situated within an electrical appliance showroom: Rochester Appliance in Henrietta, New York, where it’s proved very popular with customers — although we think it’s unfortunate that it has been stocked with 'Glo fish’, due to the fact that "they pop more in LED lighting".
Check out the pics showing how the tank came together, along with a video, on the Imgur image sharing website.
This shocking footage shows the moment a kitten is almost pulled into the water by a fish as it plays with another cat next to a pond, apparently containing Koi.
Early reports said that the video showed the huge fish — which some think is a pike rather than a Koi — actually snatch the kitten and drag it underwater, but others now suggest that when viewed in slow motion it's just possible to see that there are still two cats at the end of the footage, one of which is barely glimpsed as it makes off to the left of the screen, no doubt minus one of its nine lives!
The video was shot by two girls in Japan and has gone viral since it was posted last week.
The rain's back, I'm spending too much time indoors, and when frequenting my local stores I'm doing an awful lot of eavesdropping. It's time to hoist up my soapbox and unleash the demagogue within, because my hackles are up, says Nathan Hill.
Let me clarify from the offset. I'm not precious about popularity. If people don't like me, I can live with that. So I'm happy to voice a few opinions that might prove unpopular. And I'm going to.
The bone of my contention today is not specific to the aquatics trade. It's everywhere. The key difference is that when dealing with livestock, the vulgarity of the issue is exacerbated, and frankly I am astounded — not to mention pleased — that we have not to date witnessed a physical assault by an infuriated retailer on a member of the public. Shopkeepers everywhere, I salute your restraint.
I'm talking about responsibility. Personal responsibility. I'm going to write two sentences below, and invite you to ask yourselves which of them looks correct:
1. I lost one of my fish.
2. I killed one of my fish.
Feeling uncomfortable yet?
We humans have become masters of sleaze, adept at shifting blame from ourselves over even the slightest indiscretion. If people drive cars like idiots and then crash, it's the fault of a slippery road. I might trip over in a supermarket, crashing headlong into a pile of expensive glassware, sending it cascading in a shower of fragments. When the public gather round and worried staff rush over, all I need do is point at my untied shoelaces and scream 'there's the culprit' and everyone will heave a sigh of relief. It wasn't my fault.
The first of the two lines above drives me into a terrible rage. 'I lost that fish I bought last weekend...' No, no you did not. If you lost it, it only remains to find it. Where did you see it last? Have you looked down the back of the sofa? 'Lost' is the way we make ourselves feel better about the grossest kind of incompetence.
To be sure, one can have a fish die through natural causes or circumstances outside of our control. Perhaps it carried a congenital heart defect. Maybe there was an undiagnosed tumour inside. You might be subject to an unseen, ongoing power outage. These are fair caveats. You lost the fish, and it was outside of your control.
'I lost all of mine when my heater stuck on,' I might hear someone say, instantly absolving themselves. That'd be a reasonable argument back in the nineties, but this is now 2014. We have items like the Seneye. If my heater sticks on now, I get a text or email so that I can resolve the issue before it becomes lethal. That one doesn't wash any more. And for those who think that an early warning device won't make that much of a difference, I know (because I asked) that Seneye have an average of 400 temperature alerts sent by text and mail every single month. That's a lot of potential disasters avoided right there. But then, all of the major killers are easily avoided, if only we can be bothered to familiarise ourselves with them. Ignorance, as in so many fields, is no defence.
This must be the twentieth time I've written this point, but I'd like it to be my mantra; my legacy, if you will. The fish in your tank were perfectly happy not being owned by you. You have not done them a colossal favour by taking them from rivers and seas and placing them in to your aquarium. You have taken them from a natural platform and placed them into an entirely synthetic one, of which every single aspect is entirely under your control. When it comes to your aquarium, you are the closest approximation of a god that you will ever be. You have the power of life and death, through choice or incompetence. So start behaving like the benevolent deity that you are.
If that sounds anti hobby, then you've mistaken me. The hobby is fine. The concept of keeping a little slice of wilderness is fine. As long as it is given the high degree of consideration it deserves. Once we start to look at livestock as an expendable commodity, we have fallen down a certain ethical slope that we should be fighting to stay at the top of. The hobby is fine indeed, because the whole point of the hobby is to keep fish alive and happy. But some of those within it need to stop dragging their feet.
The idea of 'losing' our livestock is more transparent than a glass catfish. For the best part, we 'kill' our livestock, usually through ignorance. Less frequently through contempt. Sometimes through outright arrogance. Sadly, those most likely to be the arrogant killers are the least likely to read a blog on fish care. That's the dilemma we face on that point.
I can also hear the squirm of some folks pushing responsibility back a little. Perhaps the fish death was the result of an out of date test kit? Sorry, hombre, I'm not buying that either. If you want to push blame back down that line, I'm going to chase you right along it. My concept of an aquarist as a fish god is one that is omnipresent, accountable for every aspect. Test kits go out of date and give false readings. That's why you need to be hotter on keeping records and checking the dates. And by jove, you'd best have a test kit in the first place. I'd go so far as to argue that's the thing you should be buying before you even buy a tank. If you can't afford one, then you sure as sugar can't afford to buy fish...
I also tire of shared blame. For some folks, it appears that a specialist is someone called upon at the last minute to take their portion of the flack. Your retailer is a valuable resource, yes, and far from flawless. But 's/he told me to do it' is no defence either. These are your fish, not the property of the person who sold them to you. Use your local store as an advice source, but don't assume that by throwing your problems at them, you exculpate yourself. Because you don't.
That's not to say that there aren't bad retailers out there, but that's a whole different story (and blog). Any shopkeeper who pounces like a mantis on a clueless customer and tells them that setting up a 50 litre reef tank to keep anthias in is easy, deserves to be paraded through the streets and jeered. But shame on you too for being so easily duped. This isn't a TV we're talking about, it's a gaggle of living organisms. Before you buy so much as a shrimp, you should have read tomes on the subject of their care, watched online videos, discussed with folks on forums: harvested everything you possibly could. This is the age of information, where ignorance is inexcusable.
For the newcomer, a good trick to employ is to ask the questions that nobody wants to hear. 'Why can't I keep this fish?' should be the first thing you ask. 'What are the difficulties?' Rather than asking if they'll be okay in a borderline system, and then thanking the first person who gives you the answer you wanted to hear, engage with the most vociferous detractor.
If I go on a forum and want to know about keeping seahorses, I don't want to speak to the people who tell me it'll all be rosy. I'm interested in speaking to the couple of voices who tell me I'm an idiot for even considering it. I want to hear the absolute worst case scenarios, I want to know everything that can go wrong, because only then can I prepare myself for all outcomes. That's responsible. Irresponsible would be me listening to the person who tells me it's a doddle, making a catastrophe of my set up, and then saying 'I only did what he/she told me to do...' See where I'm going here?
If this all sounds aggressive, it's because I intend it to be. For those who haven't noticed, the wolves are circling, and I'd rather keep them outside. Welfare and rights groups are gaining momentum, and not because they're getting more fundamentalist — it's because they have a few strong points. We can all happily ostrich away, pretending that they're oddballs and cranks, but as someone who engages with their arguments and listens to what they have to say, I'm increasingly concerned that we're the ones who are going to look like tragic old dinosaurs. We need to up our game. Fish are looked upon as an entirely different organism as they were ten or twenty years ago. The general public are starting to care, as should we.
But hey, the 'feeling' approach isn't going to work with everyone, so how about a pragmatic one instead? I don't need people to accept that fish are worthy of moral consideration to make my point. I can do it just on a resource and environmental consequence basis alone.
Look at it this way. Every time someone kills a fish, what they have just wasted is heaps of resource. Despite the best proponents, there's no such thing as a green or carbon neutral fish. Sorry, but there it is. You might be saving trees, but you're still flying planes. For every fish in your tank is a long chain of fossil fuels, fishmeal, cereal, carbon dioxide, medications, and more. In short, every fish you buy is a drain — albeit slight — on the planet somewhere. And if you want to treat it like a commodity then you're increasing demand, in turn increasing that global strain. To kill a fish is to burden the whole planet, fractionally.
I'd apologise for being so terse, but I'm not sorry. I've killed fish before, and have felt terrible for it. But this is the key pointer. I learnt. I learnt because I understood that what I had done was wrong, and that if I was to continue to be a part of this fascinating hobby then I needed to justify my actions, and that meant I needed to stop lying to myself. We all need to learn from our mistakes, that's how the we acquire knowledge. We all like to give ourselves a big pat on the back for our successes. When our fish spawn, I note that people are quick to claim 'I bred Kribensis' or whatever, as though they were personally instrumental in the fertilisation process. But if you're going to take the praise for the good things that happen in your tank, then you also need to accept the corollary position that when bad things happen you're equally accountable.
They're your fish. They're your responsibility. Deal with it.
Energy-guzzling aquarium equipment is coming under the scrutiny of the EU â€” and Nathan Hill thinks they have a point...
So, this global warming thing. I mean, what if it's all a rouse, huh? What if we're all being tricked? What if we stop hauling up all that oil out of the ground, pumping it into the air, turning it into plastic with a half life of centuries, and dropping the rest in the sea? What if we stop belching out carbon dioxide and become more efficient in the noxious fumes and effluvia we're so keen to excrete? What then if it's a hoax? Hell, we'll have just made the planet a nicer place to live on without good reason...
I'm not going to bother engaging the anti climate-change crowd, because those arguments aren't even relevant to any point about global resource management. The late Douglas Adams summed up the situation nicely in his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, when he wrote the following:
"The disadvantages involved in pulling lots of black sticky slime from out of the ground where it had been safely hidden out of harm’s way, turning it into tar to cover the land with, smoke to fill the air with and pouring the rest into the sea, all seemed to outweigh the advantages of being able to get more quickly from one place to the other - particularly when the place you arrived at had probably become, as a result of this, very similar to the place you had left, i.e., covered with tar, full of smoke, and short of fish." (Douglas Adams).
Beautifully explained, Douglas. We don't even need to bring the idea of anthropic global warming into the debate at all. We can already see the absurdity of the situation before we start arguing over whether corresponding CO2 levels and rising temperatures are relevant or not.
You'd be forgiven for thinking I'd taken up daytime drinking, and shouting my opinions at people in the street. But there's a reason I'm bringing all of this up. I'm not just rambling for the sake of it. Yet.
Get back to the fish!
Recently, our hobby has once again come under the scrutiny of European meddlers. Remember them? They're the same ones who told us we weren't allowed Apple snails any more, and are taking away our barley straw.
This time, the object of their contention is aquarium hardware, specifically lighting and heating. If I was writing for a fishy red-top, I'd probably be in my element now, penning headlines like 'Barmy Brussels Bureaucrats Ban Biotopes' and trying to whip up public hysteria against any planned legislation. But I'm not going to, as I kind of agree with them. How very bonkers.
The proposals aimed at aquarium gear are under the same banner as those currently being highlighted in much of the popular press; with attention specifically drawn to household vacuum cleaners. Yup, it has been flagged that some large vacuums in the 1600W-plus category are too energy inefficient, much to the distress of domestic gurus everywhere.
So what we have is a scenario where some folks have looked at (admittedly) anecdotal evidence of the wattages and timescales involved in using aquarium lights and heaters, and decided that they're guzzling too much juice compared to the benefits they bring.
Let's be clear about what the European Commission isn't driving for here. We're not looking at a situation whereby an Austrian in a balaclava can come to your home, boot your door in, confiscate your old T5 tubes out of your hood, smash your tube heater on the floor in front of your crying children, and then wade back out in thickly accented laughter. What we're looking at are recommendations of how systems can become more energy efficient. A sort of kick-up-the-rump for companies to look into aquarium alternatives that aren't burning as many fossils as your typical naval frigate.
And the fact is, these Euro fellows have the mothership of all points. Some of this gear is hungry for silly amounts of electricity. To be frank, fishkeeping is a leisure activity. Our aquaria aren't growing crops for our homes (though I'm looking at you to come to our aid here, aquaponics crowd), they're there to provide entertainment on a visual, therapeutic and intellectual level. And for a point of leisure, they draw a lot of power. I just set up a marine tank a few weeks back. It has eight plugs going in to it. The thing sits there, humming with the presence of a hungover Dalek, and aside looking pretty, it's producing nothing but heat and an ominous actinic glow.
Sure, we can draw comparisons with other fuel gobblers. Hey, there's nothing I love more than setting up a few Tesla coils in the basement and leaving them running all night, but that's irrelevant. The fact that I like to operate a fleet of high-wattage hairdryers, running constantly even when nobody is home, does nothing to let my fish tank off the hook. Just because our other interests and activities may consume power at a higher rate doesn't give carte blanche for aquaria to drain unnecessarily from the grid. We should be looking to lower all of our excesses, surely, not using the terrible cases to justify the not-quite-as-bad ones.
As a trade, great inroads have been made to reduce energy on lighting. That's one reason why we currently see so many LED units on the market. They trump fluorescents in many ways, but primarily in energy consumption and lifespan. Go LEDs! Yeah, some are pricey now, but as they become more popular, they should hopefully become more cost effective. By the time any kind of legislation against fluorescents comes to fruition, I'd like to think that the LED market was so cost effective that nobody even considered strip lights any more.
This is assuming that LED manufacturers don't get drawn in to some high wattage arms race, as they seem to be doing currently. A few manufacturers forget that it's the efficiency we're interested in, and instead are bumping out units that snort up more power than the halides they were supposed to replace.
Resolving heating issues might be a bit trickier, you may think. Just how can we reduce the energy demand of heating hundreds of litres of water? I could be woefully optimistic here and hint at the 'technology of tomorrow'. How about some kind of solar panel picking up the spilled light from my aquarium — all that light pouring out of the back and sides — to charge a battery that then runs a heater: or at the least supplement it. Or even just channelling the heat from the lighting into storage, for use when needed. Lighting manufacturers are keen to draw that warmth away from delicate LEDs, so why not put it somewhere useful instead? Active water cooling using a flow from the tank, through the hottest elements of the unit, anyone?
While I'm on form, I'm amazed that someone hasn't thought of an internal power filter with a solar panel on the top of it, to reduce electricity demand throughout the daylight hours. If you're reading this, manufacturers, consider that one patent pending. You're welcome. Now go slap your R and D departments.
Or maybe, just maybe, some bright spark manufacturer could do something that home aquarists have been doing themselves for donkey's years — insulating aquaria. Remember polystyrene? In my chilly home, I used to drape the backs and sides of my aquaria with sheets of the stuff, trapping in that lovely heat and bringing my heater in to play a lot less than I do in the current day. Tanks should be coming with insulated sides as standard. Make pretty décor (a-la Juwel aquarium style) out of it and have it inside, and it's a double selling point.
Or — and this is even more radical — we could stop obsessing at keeping everything at 25°C as a bare minimum. We could take the time to research our fish species properly, and put together tanks that run at 20°C or 18°C instead, with the fish to suit. Just a thought. Off of the top of my head, I can't calculate what kind of energy saving a drop of just 5°C might bring over a year, as my laptop locks up every time I use my on board calculator, but given the ambient high room temperatures of most folks' homes, I'll wager that it won't be a paltry difference. Most rooms are riding a good 19-20°C these days, so it figures that the biggest push for a heater is getting it substantially above that.
Rather than get ourselves into a high tizz, complaining about how everybody is down on the fishkeeper, and threatening to barricade ourselves in our homes, distributing tough justice to any Green proponent who has the gall to knock at our door, perhaps we could all just club together to come up with some ideas. Let's start thinking about how we can enjoy our hobby without polluting the planet.
Because the twisted paradox of it all is that if the status quo persists, or if we bury our heads and refuse to acknowledge that we might be guilty in our own, tiny way, then we could end up with a situation where there are plenty of fish in tanks, but none left in the wild. Or those barmy bureaucrats could just ban our heaters because we didn't come up with a solution when we had the opportunity. Neither option seems that appealing, though.
It's the ultimate for 'green' households that want to keep fish, so why are no mainstream suppliers embracing the aquaponics concept, asks Nathan Hill.
Very recently I wrote about the impetus on the hobby to up its green credentials, though at the time I made very little mention of an area that could be one of the driving forces that we need. Moreover, it even has the potential to boost the number of fishkeeping adherents around the world. I'm talking, of course, of aquaponics. Though you probably guessed that from the title of this piece. Hey ho.
So, shame on me for not making more of a thing of it at the time. Now, an overview of what all the fuss is about.
Aquaponics is touted as a hyper-efficient method of growing plants with minimal water wastage. Typically, to grow plants in soil requires watering of said soil. Once watered, only the tiniest percentile of that liquid actually makes it into the tissues of the plant. The rest quite simply evaporates away. Well that's no good.
By contrast to this old fashioned, H2O quaffing growing technique, aquaponics adherents merely find ways to suspend plants above a contained body of water, with roots submerged. Typically, large scale aquaponics involve huge vats of water with an intricate irrigation system above, with trays or pipes where the plants reside. Yay! No more wastage that way.
Is there anything else to it? You bet your sweet boots there is!. As well as just providing water, an aquaponics system can also directly provide a nutrient source for the foliage above; courtesy of fish! It's no secret that plants love to consume the delicious, nutritious wastes that fish produce. Hell, aquascapers have been exploiting that fact from the offset of their own unique hobby. Even my own experiences with 'scaping have shown me that a heavily planted system is so good at guzzling up ammonia that I end up with a biologically inactive filter, and I have to add synthetic versions of fish waste in order to keep my tanks blossoming. I don't exaggerate that point, either. There is an obvious visual difference between the biological media in any of my filters pending whether they're 'scapes or plantless set ups.
So what we have in the aquaponics world is a situation where fish are kept in large containers, and are able to be fed heavily (allowing for good growth) because, quite simply, the more waste they can make, the better. Plenty of fish equals plenty of plant food, equals abundant plant growth above. It's one of those situations where you wonder why nobody thought of it before, because it's that outright, slap-me-in-the-face obvious with the tiniest bit of retrospect.
Of course, from the commercial perspective, there are two outcomes; crops in the form of food vegetation and food fish. This is the only area I think that the UK tastes might be a little resistant to the concept. We Brits often like to think of ourselves as a sanitised nation. We like our salads disinfected with chlorine, our apples shiny, and our veg from a sterile packet. To digress, I've had frequent occasions where folks have refused an apple directly from a tree on the grounds that it was 'dirty' in some way. "You don't know what's touched it!" was a common remark directed my way as I tucked into my free bounty, as though the toes of a passing Starling might have somehow been drenched in E. coli or some other case-zero, zombie outbreak pandemic. I'm sure I don't need to spell out the madness of this situation, where an imported piece of fruit, sagging under the weight of a billion pesticides is somehow considered the safer option. Ye gods!
So, how will the typical Brit react to eating plants grown in fish peeps and poops? I suspect not that well. Oh, I know there's an enlightened crowd out there who can see past the faux squeamishness of it all and understand that this is the way forward. But I'm taking about the general public at large. That lumbering, clueless mass, fast drawn to hysteria. The kind of folks that stay awake at night panicking at an invasion of giant spiders, because a tabloid red top told them to. The kind of chaps who will hoot in delight over a Youtube video of a chicken dancing on a piano, and then fill their faces with KFC without any sense of irony. That public. But if we can win them over, get a couple of aquaponics systems in the Big Brother house, or on a decent daytime TV show — even if someone donates on to a celebrity chef, for crying out loud — then there will be rivers of cash for the maker of that tank. Make aquaponics trendy (or even, dare I say it, aspirational) and the people will flock. Build it and they will come.
But let me get back on track here. The fact is that for us who understand that ammonia is ammonia whether it comes from a packet of fertiliser or a fish's gills, the aquaponics concept is a great way of killing two birds with one very well placed stone. We are able to keep fish in the exact, low pollution conditions that we want of them, and at the same time we are able to grow herbs and brocolli from the comfort of our living rooms. We get happy fish and free chillis. That's got to be a result, by anyone's standards, right?
Which brings me to the very point of my blog: why aren't mainstream manufacturers embracing this idea, and forcing their design teams to build a funky model on pain of death? They're missing a trick, for certain.
Let's look at this from a sales perspective. You have a hardcore of extant hobbyists who would love the idea of something that keeps water cleaner for less expense and less effort. But you also have a whole multiverse of people out there who currently don't keep fish, and in many cases what they need to get lured in — to take that first taste of the hobby — is a gimmick. The point of sale for an aquaponics set up has several buzzpoints. Low maintenance, for one, just like a veg filter on a pond. For two, it's a tank you can harvest something back from. You're saving the planet by keeping fish. If a marketing department can't ride around on a gift horse like this, scooping up huge handfuls of revenue in diamond-studded silk gloves, then they have no place in their daily jobs.
There are aquaponics systems appearing out there. We covered one a while back, though personally I felt that the particular example was about appearances of pragmatism. Another I stumbled across was tiny, designed to house a single Betta, and frankly a bit breathless. But realistic efforts are appearing from pioneering kickstarter campaigns. Here's one I found on a quick search, which ticks several of the right boxes. Based around a ten US gallon (38 l) tank, and with no unnecessary frills attached, this is something I'd genuinely like to have a play with (you can see it in detail in the video below). And I'll wager that when my friends see it, they'll want one of their own. I hope you're reading this, big companies. After all, nanos are so 2010 now: it's time for something new. It's all right there on a plate if anyone has the sense to make it...
Since I've had a little free time, I've dipped a toe back in to retail - only a day here, a day there, you understand - getting a feel for what the trends are. And my, hasn't it all changed in just a few short years, writes Nathan Hill.
Here's the most interesting thing I'm seeing – large scale fish massacres. Whole tanks full at a time. That sounds like hyperbole, but I can assure you, I'm not just playing up to what media outlets like to do. I'm not exaggerating for wow factor, nor am I trying to turn myself into clickbait with that statement. There's a world of slaughter going on, and it's shameful.
Let's cut to the chase. Back in the olden golden, you had two avenues to get tanks and livestock. One was the confederacy of clubs and passionate amateurs around the country. But you had to be 'in' to get hold of anything, and to be in, it was generally a pre-requisite that you knew what you were doing.
The other way was through a retailer, the overworked, unsung and heavily defamed grafters of the industry. And when you went to a retailer, assuming he or she wasn't a cash-hogging blagger, you'd generally get interrogated when you wanted livestock. I've said this before, and I'll repeat it now: the single, most unique point about aquatic retail is that unlike any other profession in the world, the customers may be told in no uncertain terms that they cannot have what they want. Just think about that. I can go in to a store that sells anything, point at something, flash a handful of loot, and walk out with it. If I want to buy an ill fitting tutu, fifty gallons of acetone, or a rare painting just so I can doodle on it – money talks. But if I rock up and ask for a goldfish to stick in a bowl, I will, for the first time in my shopping life, be told that I'm not allowed. Ouch.
But now, the affronted customer needn't put up with that kind of audacity. Hell, they needn't even pay full retail prices, if they fancy a gamble. And in the mindset of the first-time, lay aquarist, why not? An awful lot of the casual and fledgling fishkeepers I'm conversing with today look at fish more like a commodity than ever. So where do they go to stock up on their 'disposable' fish?
'No income tax, no VAT, no money back, no guarantee' – that was the language of Only Fools and Horses (I'll wager you sang that line, too. Go back and read it again. That tune will be with you all day now). The writers of that old comedy perhaps don't know how on the ball (or visionary) they were. Markets have changed. Many an undeclared bedroom breeder can hurl out Endler's guppies online, or groom up a tank load of convicts. Stick on the postage, offer a price, and there you go – no questions asked, and no refunds.
Of course, some will stop and ask you questions. The really good ones will provide a list of conditions you should meet before buying, and vet you as far as they can remotely. But they are the minority, and they should get a collective round of applause from us all. For others, the money goes in, the fish goes out, and not a question is asked.
Basically, the whole ethical underpinning that the trade has been steering towards over the decades has become undermined, and a new approach is required. I just don't know what that new approach is. I'm open to suggestions.
The other aspect of used tank/fish sales is that it has given a second wind to borderline (and actual) tankbusters. Several times now, I have been asked about rehoming an overgrown plec, pacu or tinfoil barb coming as part of the parcel with someone's online purchase. Second hand tanks are everywhere, providing bargains for those in the know, and death and destruction for those who don't. I even know of one lady who has acquired – and killed – several tanks worth of fishes, marine and fresh, without once setting foot in an aquatic store. When I first talked to her about it, her naivety was painful. It wasn't so much she'd never had the nitrogen cycle explained to her, it was that she hadn't even heard of ammonia. I wish I was joking.
Straight up. Fish are dying at the hands of keepers who don't know what they're even doing wrong, and there's seemingly nothing the trade can do to stop it. Big fish are going homeless, or being sold on without vetting. Small fish are being moved around with stripped set ups, to be hammered by the resulting new tank syndrome. Keen amateurs are a species step away from making puppy farms, with no recourse or accountability for their stock once it flies out in the post. Responsibility is flagging. Rescue centres are stretched to crisis points.
So what am I actually proposing here? I have no idea, other than to make everyone aware of how bad the problem is becoming. Perhaps I could even side with the devil and do a care sheet, that people could pass around on facebook and other social media. A kind of sticky of information that gets stuck to every transaction. But even then, it'd be no better than the old 'Piracy labels' that they optimistically put on DVDs – those who don't have an interest in doing the right thing would have no reason to make people aware. I'm not sure anyone's going to turn this oil tanker around overnight.
For now, I'm just going to ask that perhaps anyone who might be reading this take stock. If you're an online seller, getting shot of stock on a facebook page, or forum somewhere, then please try to make things as explicit as possible. Assume your customer knows absolutely nothing. Ask difficult questions. And if your client gives an unsatisfactory answer, then maybe say no to the sale. It has taken a long while to get the trade to the moral level its at, and every transaction that goes without vetting erodes its integrity. I know as well as anyone that it's an impossible aim to 'police' private sales, and that's not what I'm advocating. But we can all play a role in increasing awareness.
Oh, and to the good private sellers out there, I offer a very sincere thank you. Your efforts aren't going unnoticed.
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PFK is on the prowl for fish tanks to feature in the magazine.
If you have a set-up that you’re particularly proud of, a project in a fish room or anything that you simply want to share with us, then we want to hear from you. If it has fish in it, we want to see it!
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Fancy having this wrap-around aquarium as an office - or even a bedroom? This £900,000 fish tank has a room inside it that's big enough to throw a party!
Fancy being surrounded by the ocean as you work, rest or play? This amazing fish tank features a room in its centre and is the brainchild of James Bruce of Red Fin Aquarium Design, based in Hong Kong.
Bruce told South China Morning Post: "We created a circular-shaped aquarium with no corners to detract from the feeling of immersion. The inner space is 10m wide, which means a floor space of more than 75 square metres that can be used for dining and parties."
The 35-tonne acrylic tank (which costs £725,000 on its own) holds 160,000 l/35,195 gal of water and houses nearly 1000 fish of more than 100 species. It also includes reef janitor species such as shrimps, crabs, urchins and snails, along with stony coral frags.
"Aquarium owners are often very conscious of where the livestock is sourced from, and it is important to them that the fish and invertebrates are aquacultured or collected under sustainable quotas," Bruce added.
The whole state-of-the-art life support system is computer-controlled, with the lighting following the exact day and night-time cycles of the Coral Triangle.
The £900,000 price tag is inclusive of installation at £46,700 as well as a £70,000 one-year maintenance contract with Red Fin Aquarium Design, which includes feeding the livestock and cleaning of the tank twice a week by a professional diver.
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A handful of recent events have prompted Nathan Hill to put finger to keyboard and share some of his biggest fears of what could put an end to the hobby we all love...
Something I’ve long admired about this hobby is its tenacity. It has, over the years, been subject to all sorts of accusations, including being geeky or uncool, being unnecessarily expensive (early marine keepers, anyone?) and even being environmentally unsound.
Despite this the hobby and the supporting trade prevails, and even in the face of some fluctuating trends: not least of all that same, damning migration to online purchasing that can wither and drain bricks-and-mortar premises. More than just prevailing, in some cases it actively stands proud, is able to boast expansion, recruitment, and economic growth. Even during this ongoing global economic wobble, fishkeeping is burgeoning. Wow.
That’s not to say that we are not vulnerable, susceptible even, to factors that could pull the metaphoric rug from under our feet.
I’m often engaged in conversation with people across a breadth of different fields: anglers, wholesalers, retailers, hobbyists, environmental scientists, and so on. Talking across such a diverse spectrum, I pick up on a lot of different concerns that reside, often unwittingly so, at the backs of peoples’ minds. After sitting and brooding on these for way too long, I'd like to share my biggest fears of what could, at any time, befall our hobby and end fishkeeping.
Pathogens capable of inciting disease pandemics are a major global worry. Just look at human concerns about antibiotic abuse and the occurrence of MRSA. Look at recent worries about Ebola outbreaks. Even look at the return of diseases that could easily be prevented in humans, were people not so blinkered and scientifically ill informed about vaccines. Disease pandemics are a major fear.
If you’re a newcomer to the hobby, then whatever you think you know about fish farming – forget it. If you have images of clinical facilities where each and every fish is treated like a newborn infant, then it’s back to the drawing board time. Farms are businesses, plain and simple. The goal is to get young fish out of adults as eggs, to hatch them, and to get them up to saleable juveniles as soon as possible, and that means that pretty much anything is on the cards to get them there. Antibiotics are used where necessary (and maybe even where not), and not just the kinds of antibiotics that you or I might have access to via a vet. Different countries have different laws about what can and can’t be used, and in some it’s a bit of a medicine free for all.
Hopefully we all know the dangers of antibiotic abuse, but in case anyone is unsure, here’s a brief recap:
Antibiotics kill things indiscriminately (the very word 'antibiotic' literally translates as ‘against life’). The idea is that they kill bacteria at a lower dose rate than which they kill the host. So if a fish gets ill, you can poison everything in the tank with antibiotics, and the pathogens making the fish ill should die before the fish does, and then you can stop the antibiotics.
However, if you leave a few bacteria behind, they start to get immune, and can build tolerance to the antibiotic. So, the next outbreak of bacteria will be a bit 'harder' to control than the first lot. Repeat the process, leave a few bacteria behind, and they get harder to kill again, until eventually you end up with pathogens that are so resistant to antibiotics that you’d need to use a dose rate so high that you’d kill the host before the pathogen.
That’s the abridged version, anyway.
The problem of course is that unregulated use of antibiotics over in the farming nations could quite feasibly create a strain of bacteria that our own antibiotics have no effect against. With diseased fish coming in, and no ability to cure them, we wouldn’t stand a chance.
But it’s not just bacteria.
There are a few pathogens on the horizon that are cause for concern at this time. In coldwater fish, there are the dreaded illnesses of KHV (Koi herpes virus) and SVC (Spring viraemia of Carp), both of which have the potential to cause massive problems to Cyprinids. Not so long ago, massive wipeouts from the former blighted farms across the world, causing losses on unmentionable scales in both ornamental and food fish culture. Here in the UK, some retailers faced the furious backlash from introducing the disease to consumer’s ponds. One was even driven to bankruptcy over it.
In the tropical world, I am very twitchy about Tetrahymena pyriformis, otherwise known as Guppy disease (though this is unfair as many fish are susceptible). This disease can cause massive mortality at breakneck speeds, especially in farm, wholesale and retail environments. I’m not the only one worried about this particular pathogen, either.
What is so very infuriating is the ‘wait and see’ attitude of some traders. This is not a disease to ignore, and to do so is not just at your own peril, but that of the entire industry.
You will recall recently that Jack Heathcote had to close down his massive aquarium because of exorbitant running costs. Agreed, his tank was huge: an absolute electricity guzzling swimming pool of a thing. But the point is, it used to be well within his outgoings to operate. Prices are creeping, across the board, and more and more of us are noticing.
Compulsory water metering, if introduced across the UK, will spell death for many users of RO water. Given that tapwater isn’t going to get better any time soon, marine keepers in particular will have the choice of either paying out for a safe supply, reverting the hardiest, nitrate tolerant specimens there are, or jacking the hobby in.
Electricity might start to play on the minds of the fiscally conscious, too. As we’re encouraged to get our own monitors in the home to calculate what’s consuming what, I suspect that many will be alarmed at just how much a decent sized tank can cost to run. A handful of frantically spinning pumps, a couple of hundred watts of lighting, and a wheezing 300W heater or two all add up to become a financial burden, and given the balance of sacrificing the tank to the cause of improved monetary household harmony, I’ll wager that some might start to seriously consider a less power-hungry hobby.
The tropical fish we get in the UK tend not to come from within the British shores. Many will be far eastern, along with some European, American and African contributions. Wherever they’re coming from, they’re coming via planes. A continuous squadron of winged beasts bring us boxes of fish like a hovering conveyer belt, and we’ve become very reliant upon it.
Plane freight has been insidiously creeping upwards (no pun intened) for as long as I can remember. In fact, it’s the freight that frequently constitutes the majority cost of the livestock we buy. The trade might hate me for saying it, but a farmed guppy can be bought from Singapore or Malaysia for pennies. It’s only once it’s circumnavigated the globe, whizzing from one Hemisphere to the other that it has racked up a lot of airmiles, and those airmiles all add up to extra expenditure that needs to be reclaimed.
Now this isn’t the end of the earth for fish where you can cram a few hundred into a box for transit. In that case the cost is distributed about: each and every fish carries its own little fragment of expense, to be added to a mark up. But what of larger specimen fishes? What of the larger wild catfish that come one to a box? I suspect that this aspect of the hobby is fast becoming vulnerable.
Retailers, to their credit, strive to keep retail prices down on fish. You only have to look at the glacial creep of the value of staples like Neon tetra to realise that they’re becoming less and less profitable for the trader, though the competition and the market is fierce. These fish were about £1 each ten years back, and they’re still about £1 each now. Retailers know that they can’t crack the prices of many of these staples up without dissociating themselves like pariahs from the hobby, so they suffer in silence.
Time could force a trader’s hand and we could see incremental price hikes. The big concern is where the cut off point is for the hobbyist. £3 for a Neon? £25 for a Pictus catfish? African cichlids starting at £30?
Let’s rule nothing out, because a lot of factors are at play with pricing.
Release of fish into the UK
I have spent the last few weeks scathing at the irresponsible actions of a minority of those in the industry.
I’m not sure many of us realise just what kind of scrutiny we are under as a hobby. Whether we like it or not, we have enemies, and powerful ones at that, who see what we do as a threat. Many of our opposition and detractors are those in the angling community, who can have an unbalanced and solely derogatory view of us, and the perceived threat we could pose to their own industry.
We as aquarists maintain what amount to collections of alien species in our ponds and tanks. Sterlets are far from indigenous, nor are the various gobies, catfish, tetra and so on that we keep.
This taps back in to what I mentioned earlier, vis. disease of fish. Any one of us, anywhere in the world could, in theory, be sat on the equivalent of case zero. We already know that domestic shrimps can be carriers of White tail disease, an illness currently ravaging farms of commercial food shrimp. We don’t know if there’s any risk of native crayfish picking up this disease, and I don’t want to find out the hard way, but all it takes is for some bright spark to consider putting his or her shrimps in a pond at the height of summer, to then be promptly flooded so that the shrimps get into a local river and meet a crayfish. The outcome of that encounter isn’t hard to envisage.
Is that even feasible? Well, yes. Loads of aquarists were affected by this year’s flooding, and I’m open mouthed and speechless that some people are even trying to highlight to the national tabloids that their fish escaped. Already that’s opened a forum on whether those at risk of flooding are allowed to keep the fish that they do. But the last thing we want to be doing now is drawing excess attention to it.
If ecosystems in certain rivers or lakes are impacted by fish like sterlets, who do you think will take the blame? And what then, the ramifications for our trade? Suffice to say, if someone’s escapees blight the native fish of a county, the angling lobbyists and national newspapers will demonise us to the extent that we won’t be able to walk down the roads without being spat on.
Controls are in place to stop just this kind of thing from happening. Legislation already incorporates rules and laws about where non-natives may and may not be put. Dangerously invasive fish are denied entry to the country through the implementation of the Import of Live Fish Act.
Enter the imbecile. The imbecile is someone who, upon going against all of the advice of his retailer, decides to buy a gaggle of potentially invasive, non-natives that promptly outgrow his pond. The imbecile then takes the fish, in his desire to be rid, and upends them into a local waterway.
I’m not saying that any of us should sit back and await this to happen. Rather, we should be aware of such people, and be thoroughly prepared to dob them in at the first hint of trouble. Call me a snitch for that if you like, but I’m more interested in the welfare of UK waterways than I am in some puerile, school playground code of honour.
CEFAS would be a good port of call when reporting imbeciles like the one mentioned above. Even the local constabulary, when made aware that someone is intending to release non-natives into British waterways, will be obligated to do something. The release of non-natives is an illegal act, and we should all be guarded against it.
Anti-hobbyists would seize any opportunity to extirpate our industry, and it is essential that we don’t give them an easy opening to do so.
This one isn’t something that we have too much say over, but where we do, we should.
Here’s a surprise for you. Some of the fish we currently keep are extinct in the wild. Red tailed sharks, for example, no longer have a native range. It was destroyed by damming, cities, irrigation and farming. Liquorice gouramis are going the same way, as their habitat is eaten up by Palm plantations. Certain African cichlids have vanished into the maws of Nile perch.
Degradation leads to extinction, and extinction means no new bloodlines. Eventually, that means inbreeding and variation. Now that’s fine if you fancy stores choc-full of Flowerhorns and the blandest of the bland in farmed staples, but with nothing interesting to offer, the trade might will be on its knees. It’ll certainly have no substance if there aren’t any decent fish left.
A few paragraphs above, where I lamented the release of non-natives, I drew attention to the dangers of a few rogue aquarists jeopardising our hobby on a national scale.
Worse still is that our comrades in mainland Europe could just as easily spoil things for us by releasing fish there, too. Recall the recent debacle of the Golden apple snail. We Brits did nothing wrong on our own turf, but it transpires that a snail population was released and decided to make merry in the waters of Spain. After some investigation it was argued that the snails could just as easily invade and establish into certain water of East Anglia. Just like that, legislation was drafted and the snails banned from importation and movement between EU countries.
I choke every time I read about the likes of Pacu being found in Parisian rivers, or Cabomba strangling Dutch waterways. Each of these is the produce of an irresponsible aquarist out there somewhere, and all are potential trade cripplers for the whole continent.
It’s bad enough knowing that a slip up on our own shores could warrant investigation, but to know it’s possibly wrested from our hands altogether is outright harrowing. The idea that someone could upset the Euro trade of Callichthyds by being foolish enough to put Scleromystax into Italian rivers is a troubling one. Rhinogobius found in Austrian ponds could be the end of those little cuties for all of us, and so on.
Given how high the powers of Europe go, I’m not even sure we’d have the grounding or stamina to successfully fight our corner.
Autonomy is required, though how to gain it isn’t exactly clear. It’s certainly one for the regulatory bodies to ascertain, because I’m sure that like me, you don’t want to be held accountable for problems you were never part of.
We’re all familiar with the idea of culture shock, and cross-generation differences. With each new generation the nation produces, the paradigm of attitudes and opinions alters ever so slightly.
It happens across so many different trains of thought that I’m almost stuck for choice, so examples are rife. Let’s start with obvious points like racism and sexism. If we go back 100 years, prevalent attitudes to females and foreign ethnicities were radically different to what they are today. That’s not to say that everybody was a xenophobic misogynist, but compared to today’s standard, the percentile of people who would have happily passed off derogatory comments about either was considerably higher than it is now.
Opinions and attitudes are often languidly slow to change, but change they do. The same applies to the world of animal ethics, too. Fifty years ago, the idea that someone might be tried for abusing a pig on a farm would have been near laughable. Flash forward to 2014, and the same person could expect to be near lynched, banned from working with animals, and possibly even subject to custodial sentence.
We’re seeing gradual encroachment into pet keeping, if you keep eyes peeled. How frequently do you now see cage birds on sale? Many retailers have abandoned them, and those that haven’t yet are often under pressure to do so. Again, just fifty years back a teenager wouldn’t have batted an eyelid at his or her mother keeping a canary in a cage. In the modern day, you’ll find increasing numbers of youngsters who would brand the act as cruel. It’s a gradual process.
We’ve already witnessed campaigns to get some fish out of aquatic stores. Giants like Pacu are increasingly considered ethically unsound, with the long term welfare consideration for the fish itself now ranking much higher than the novelty of keeping one for a while.
Retailers are becoming more switched on and savvy in their vetting of potential keepers. Ethics rank higher than pound signs in some stores, who will politely refuse a sale if they think the fish in question will not have its requirements yet. People care.
None of this is to say that we’re on a slippery slope that will eventually lead to a total rejection of fishkeeping by some future generation. We can, after all, dig our heels in before it gets runaway, and this is something that we should perhaps guard against. Showing ourselves in a positive light is essential, and perhaps more essential than ever if we’re to win over the minds of tomorrow’s keeper. Young people will be the future of the hobby, and if they reach hobby age having been influenced in such a way they think the trade negative, then it’s pretty much game over. No new fishkeepers, no continued hobby.
Zoonotic illness (Disease part two…)
I should probably include the caveat 'once grabbed by the mainstream media' for the above subheading.
Zoonotic illness alone is unlikely to wipe out fishkeeping, in the same way that recent TB cases acquired from cats won’t be leading to a global purge on felines any time soon.
But a devastating sob story pandering to our worst fears (I needn’t say which tabloids I brand as capable of this) and highlighting the loss of a hand or foot through some badly diagnosed, ill treated and runaway case of fish TB could quite easily inflict a wound from which we’ll never quite recover
The worst situation that could befall us would be a combination of tragic events. Someone young and immunocomprimised for whatever reason, picking up a particularly nasty strain of Leptospirosis, or something similar and dying would be a disaster in every way, not least of all for the individual concerned.
We know that hygiene is essential when working with tanks. We understand that getting unprotected hands with cuts in aquaria is to invite disaster, and we can eradicate this risk at source, just by being both aware of the hazards, and being aware of how to safeguard against them.
Just bear in mind that if you’re taking risks with your health for the sake of your hobby, then you’re not just putting your own neck on the line. If it all goes very, very wrong and you end up in a bad way, then you’re potentially messing it up for the rest of us.
I’m upset that most of the factors above are in many ways beyond the remit of the day-to-day aquarist. Responsible buying can help to reduce the chance of disease and zoonosis, and voting with our wallets can promote retailers to purchase better quality and responsibly sourced stock.
Expenses are beyond our control, bar lobbying MPs and embracing efficiency where we can. Championing low running cost technology over higher wattage 'budget' alternatives will help such lines to grow, in turn safeguarding us in the longer run.
What is definitely in our grasp, and what I consider the biggest danger to us all, is not releasing fish in the UK. I cannot reiterate enough just how damning it would be for us to have subtropical species that are only sourced through our hobby turning up in native ponds and rivers.
I’ve harped on about it numerous times, but I’m not going to miss another opportunity to do the same. If you release your fish in to the wild, or are considering doing so, then shame upon you. I will have no truck with anyone who wants to jeopardise the hobby for all of us like that, and who also shows abject disregard for the wellbeing of their livestock.
Keep fish in their tanks where they are not a risk, and I beseech each and every one of you: if you know someone who’s planning to release, call the authorities and make them act on it. It’s your hobby at stake too.
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The poor old Blobfish may have been voted the world's ugliest animal, but this soft and cuddly version is still incredibly cute.
The 60cm/24" plush toy is available from ThinkGeek and is described on its website as the 'Grumpy Cat of the Sea' which is 'super soft and needs a hug'.
ThinkGeek says: "It seems unfair to vote Blobfish as "the world's ugliest animal" based on what they look like when we dredge them up from their natural habitat, over 2,000ft underwater. It doesn't look like this at its proper depth. Plus, if the Blobfish took us down to its level, we wouldn't just be ugly. We'd be dead.
"So we're going to call this Blobfish, proper name Psychrolutes marcidus, "cute." That's the least we can do after pulling it up half a mile from its home and pointing and laughing at it. After all that maybe it could use a little hug?"
The cuddly Blobfish costs $39.99 (around £24) plus postage and is available from ThinkGeek.
The poll to find the world's most visually unappealing animal was part of an online competition conducted by the Ugly Animal Preservation Society, which is dedicated to raising the profile of some of Mother Nature’s more aesthetically-challenged endangered creatures.
The Blobfish won by almost 10,000 votes to beat the Kakapo (a flightless parrot from New Zealand), the Axolotl — which came third — and the rather interestingly-named Scrotum frog, and will now become the official mascot of the Society. All the animals on the shortlist face threats to their habitats.
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The headline might not mean much unless you know who the FAWC is, says Nathan Hill, but this committee recently published an opinion on fish welfare that contained an important - maybe even groundbreaking - point...
Given that we’re fishkeepers (I think) and not farmers (not that we can’t be both) you’d be forgiven if you fail to recognise the acronym for the Farm Animal Welfare Committee.
The FAWC are important in the 'acting behind the scenes and out of the spotlight' kind of way. They’re one of few impartial groups within the live animal industry, with a refreshing lack of representation of any organisations they might be associated with. Most importantly of all, they’re a committee of DEFRA, and they provide impartial and authoritative advice on how legislation for animal welfare should proceed and be steered.
So that’s who they are.
Now, what’s all this about fish pain? Well, on February 14 this year, the committee published their Opinion on the Welfare of Farmed Fish.
‘So what?’ you might be thinking. ‘Who gives a hoot about farmed fish? We’re aquarists…’ The thing is, legislation in one field often can have an osmotic effect on another. Opinions can leach back and forth between disciplines, and new information gained in one specific area can have far reaching implications for others when it becomes more universally accepted.
The FAWC, and the opinion it published are significant — groundbreaking even — in one important criterion. Point no. 128 on their list, sat right down there at the bottom of the recommendations, reads: "Fish are able to detect and respond to noxious stimuli, and FAWC supports the increasing scientific consensus that they experience pain. We therefore recommend that deliberations on management and other processes should be made on this basis."
Wait there, did we all just read that right? ‘Supports the increasing scientific consensus that they experience pain.’ Great Scott! Despite all the malingering, crap-and-bilge journalism of national papers jumping gleefully up and down (Fish can’t feel pain! We have the proofs! Etc.), those individuals with the voice that actually make a difference have accepted the tentative premise that maybe fish do feel pain after all, and just maybe we should factor that into how we deal with them. Rational thinking and reason, 1; sensationalist, ill informed dailies nil. High time too.
So welfare considerations, it is advised, should be based on the acceptance of a fish’s capacity to feel pain. Or at least they should in farmed fish.
Another point raised in the Opinion carries the onus that: “society should provide animals with a life worth living, and an increasing proportion with a good life. […] These provisions should extend to fish.”
We’re pretty much on the ball with that one anyway. After all, who keeps fish for the purpose of being cruel to them? I mean, aside the kind of tool who buys goldfish to see them deliberately torn apart by Piranhas, we’re all focused on making our fish happy. Hell, I’ve cried at the death of a fish before. We’re ahead of the game on this one.
The Opinion notes: "perceptual barriers exist to giving fish full ethical considerations. Humans typically identify more with […] mammals than they do with fish." Yup, we’re all aware of this one. 'It’s just a fish' is the phrase that turns retailers from happy monkeys to borderline mercenaries. Don’t believe me? Go into an ethically minded store and try saying it to some of the staff. See how long you last.
FAWC are aware of this mindset. People are "less likely to regard fish as worthy of moral consideration on rational grounds." This is one of the most sensible things I’ve seen in a while, and takes a pragmatic stance with fish pain. If you’ll grant me the indulgence of a digression, I’ll explain more.
Those who have thought about the issue of fish pain tend to align themselves with one of two opposing views. The first, what I might call the lay views, is that pain capacity in fish is either non-extant, or so remote and anomalous from what you or I might call pain that fish require no further consideration. Literally, they’re too dumb to hurt properly.
The second camp, the fish lover view, tends to err on the side of (most probably) too much caution. In this anthropomorphic camp, they can end up ascribing too much sentience to the fish in its capacities. They can mistakenly assume that the pain in a fish is identical with that which you, I or a dolphin feels, and overcompensate accordingly.
The catch is, those in the second camp are often so blinkered by their affection that they let emotion rather than reason dictate how they feel people should deal with fish. I’m in the position of accepting the likelihood of fish feeling pain. The evidence is strong, growing all the time, and I can’t help but note that the most vociferous opponents always seem to have an agenda that involves the exploitation of fish for commercial gain. But that’s by the by.
But it’s worth being realistic about this. Fish feeling pain is (most likely) nothing like the pain that higher animals feel. Many of the brain structures involved in fish pain are analogous, or possibly even surrogate when compared to our own, and one cannot be safe extrapolating from one fish to the next. Would the salient capacity of Paedocypris be the same as that of a Boulengerochromis? I doubt it, and I doubt their pain perception is particularly similar, either. Sometimes even we aquarists need to take a realistic approach about just how much fish can feel and how much we let it affect us. It should be instrumental in our welfare decisions, of course, but we shouldn’t rule out those with an opposing view as somehow inhumane or ill educated.
Even more compelling, the FAWC make mention that: "There are indications of a cognitive process, at least in rainbow trout, for the experience of fear." We aquarists tend to package the concept of ‘fear’ under the same label as stress — which it is. But in our parlance, we refer to a fish stressing (not scaring, not driving fear into the heart of, not terrifying) another fish that it chases. To see the notion of fish fear so formally identified opens up a whole new territory of ethical debate, but that is for another time.
Now, before the "this is stupid, trawlers don’t worry about welfare" brigade fire up, it’s prudent to note: "the welfare of wild caught fish in large quantities is not within FAWC’s remit." And before anglers get the hump with me, they also add that "Angling is similarly excluded from FAWC’s remit […]" So there. There’s no point trying to draw upon futilities by way of analogy, as the two (three) camps are all distinct here. FAWC deal with farmed fish. If there’s to be a knock-on effect to wild harvest and angling, that’s for other legislators to decide. But it’s not what the FAWC are hankering for here.
What does all this mean to us as home fishkeepers? Currently, not a single thing. Nothing. Nada. Except that floating about in circulation we now have some authoritative figures pushing the acceptance that fish can feel pain, and our practices should reflect this. What we have is the thinnest end of a wedge inside the world of legislation, promoting what will be better fishkeeping on a slow and gradual basis. And as I’ve already alluded to, as the idea gains more momentum, as more people accept the idea as probable over improbable, we might start to see the first hints of a paradigm shift in our fishy thinking.
Personally, I can’t wait to see where it leads from here.
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A study into the effects of chemicals commonly used in euthanasia and anaesthesia of fish has found some of them to be less humane than previously thought, says Nathan Hill.
A while back I wrote a comprehensive piece on the methods of despatch for dying fish. At the time I consulted many authorities in the fish world, trying to collate the few universally acceptable techniques as advised by researchers, hobbyists and even within the field of commercial aquaculture.
Alas — or rather I should say fortunately — the scientific community has decided to spend some time investigating the effects of anaesthetics on fishes, and have found that what we traditionally recommended may in fact be unwise, at least in the case of Zebra danios.
In a nutshell, the time has come to reassess the use of anaesthetics in fish euthanasia, and for good reason. Though we hobbyists are more interested in keeping our fish alive, it should be remembered that some fish are at the pioneering front of medical research, mainly because of their fast rates of growth and maturation. If studying the occurrence of cancer, say, it’s handier to have thousands of test subjects all developing symptoms rapidly, than waiting months at a time for a slower organism to develop.
Because of such a high turnover, it follows that the vast number of fish – estimated to be around 500,000 in number – will be humanely destroyed after research is complete. Given that we hold increasingly high standards of welfare across all domains, but especially in the field of scientific research using animals, it only seems right that current methods are frequently assessed and updated.
In the Plos one open access papers 'Do Fish Perceive Anaesthetics as Aversive' and 'Conditioned Place Avoidance of Zebrafish (Danio rerio) to Three Chemicals Used for Euthanasia and Anaesthesia' evidence is offered to suggest that in the presence of some chemicals at least, Zebra danios show a consistent aversion to some chemicals used in their humane destruction and sedation. This is especially relevant for researchers, given that around half of those 500,000 test subjects are Danio rerio.
In the first paper, tests were carried out using a range of potential sedative chemicals, including quinaldine sulphate, Isoeugenol, Benzocaine, MS222, 2 Phenoxyethanol, Propoxate, Lidocaine hydrochloride, 2,2,2 Tribomoethanol, and Etomidate.
Fish were offered a choice of swimming lanes, one free of chemical tainting, the other containing one of the anaesthetics to be tested (along with control substances, of course). For the fish lover the results weren’t promising.
At 50% of its effective dose rate, MS222 elicited aversive responses in Zebra danio, with the fish overwhelmingly preferring to spend their time in the ‘clean’ lanes. The implication of this is that not only can they detect the chemical, but it has some noxious quality that they wish to avoid. Given that some literature cites MS22 as an irritant, the role of the chemical as a ‘humane’ method of fish control is called into question.
In fact, of the nine tested substances, quinaldine sulphate, isoeugenol, benzocaine, MS222, 2 phenoxyethanol, propoxate, and lidocaine hydrochloride all resulted in aversion by the fish.
As everyday fishkeepers, we won’t have access to MS222 as it requires veterinary prescription, but for the home aquarist, the concern in all of this is the aversion to 2 phenoxyethanol. Those who have had to euthanise or anaesthetise fish in the past may have had dabblings with this chemical, under the guise of Aqua-Sed. It is, after all, one of the chemicals that has been long established as suitable for humane destruction.
During the tests, fish were shown to significantly increase their swimming speeds when subjected to 2 phenoxyethanol, which, as most aquarists will know, is suggestive of a classic 'fight or flight' response.
The conclusion of the research is that MS222 cannot be considered best practice for humane destruction of fish, and in addition the authors cite that there could be a better and more humane alternative to 2 phenoxyethanol. Further, they suggest that these chemicals should only be used in exceptional circumstances with Zebra danios.
So what are the options from here? Well, the second paper reports on similar experiments involving MS222, Aquacalm (a Canadian fish sedative made from metomidate hydrochloride), and that classic UK staple of clove oil. These were again tested against Zebra danios as the industry standard species.
This experiment involved preferential areas for fish in aquaria both with and without the stimuli of sedatives (the fish were trained first to swim through tunnels to either dark or light compartments, giving them a choice of sides where they were happier — in this case on the light side, with inherent aversion to the dark).
What was discovered was that despite the training, the fish quite staunchly refused to re-enter the usually preferred side of the set up once they associated that side with MS222. Even after the chemical had been removed, and the directly aversive stimuli no longer present, they opted to remain on the side that had previously been their non-preferred choice.
However, by comparison, when exposed to clove oil and Aquacalm, only a tiny, negligible minority of fish eschewed their formerly preferred side, suggesting that clove oil has considerably less ground as an aversive substance. That’s not to say that there’s no aversion at all, and in the former tests, utilising isoeugenol — a derivative of clove oil’s 'plainer' eugenol — still provoked an aversive reaction.
So do I sedate or not?
Well thankfully, none of us aside public aquarists need concern ourselves with MS222. Given the results as they stand, I would be keener at this stage to use clove oil (adequately mixed) to sedate or kill a fish than 2 phenoxyethanol, but this last chemical is still preferable to the plethora of barbaric methods still frequently touted on forums and ill researched websites. Either way, nothing is set in stone and further research will be required to see where this is all going.
From my own perspective, I would probably hold at this time that despite the revulsion factor involved, blunt trauma by an experienced aquarist followed by 'pithing' (destruction of the brain using a fine wire) is likely the most humane method of despatch currently available. But if you’re inexperienced, or dealing with something fiddly (how does one club the head of something like a Neon tetra?) then sedative is still likely the kindest thing you can do for your fish. It sure beats dying a slow death of bacterial necrosis or skin boring parasites, I’m sure…
Don't forget that PFK is now available to download on the iPad/iPhone.
Nathan Hill with the good news story of the first fish to actually be removed from the endangered species list...
Follow the story of the Oregon chub, Oregonichthys crameri, on the IUCN red list of threatened species, and the depressing tale makes familiar reading.
After a severe decline through the 1950s and 60s, the fish eventually cropped up on IUCN as 'rare' back in 1986. They held that post for another four years until continued decline shifted them up to 'vulnerable', a dangerous place to be for any species. And there it remained for 12 years, until at last, having fought back with abundant populations, the fish now lists as 'least concern', just like you, me and pigeons.
The North American fish rated even higher on the U.S. Endangered Species Act, hitting full on endangered status, but now, 21 years later, is considered to have recovered. That’s not to say the fish are totally out of the woods. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to monitor the species for another nine years, ensuring populations continue to grow, before taking a real sigh of relief. As Oregon director of Fish and Wildlife Paul Henson says, "They can leave the hospital and get to be an outpatient."
The fish were placed into peril by — surprise, surprise — human activity, as the beaver ponds and swampy homes it normally inhabits were drained away to control flooding, as well as make space for farms and cities. As predator fish were also introduced to their waters from elsewhere, the pressures grew. Bullfrogs, Bluegills and Bass loved fattening up on the little fish, and populations were hit hard.
Before Europeans settled, waterways in the region were rife, and the fish estimated in numbers of perhaps a million. But by the early 1990s, there were only eight places left where they were known, and their combined numbers barely scraped 1,000 individuals.
After their recovery, around 160-180,000 fish are now thought to reside in at least 80 locations.
To their advantage, the chub are not 'obstructive' species, competing with well-financed or anthropologically important projects. Unlike the Zebra plecs of South America, the chub aren’t battling it out with massive hydroelectric dams, and it turns out that this works in their favour.
To recover the fish, partnerships were established with landowners to restore key habitats. After reassurance that economic activity wouldn’t be affected, introductions and management began. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were even called in to alter dam releases the more closely resembled natural river flows.
It’s estimated that $2 million has been spent over the last two decade for research, in-ground improvements and monitoring, with funding supplied by the federal government.
Eventually the delisting target was reached in 2012, after it was ascertained that numbers of at least 500 fish were found in at least 20 of the populations. Furthermore, the numbers were stable and/or increasing over a seven-year period.
Furthermore, handfuls of other protected species such as Salmon, Red-legged frogs and Western pond turtles have also moved into the restored habitats and are settling fast.
The news comes as a promising reprieve to stories of extinctions and overfishing. All we need now is for a few other countries to take note and understand that maybe, just maybe, eco systems and habitats can be as important, if not more so, than things like palm oil plantations.
Don't forget that PFK is now available to download on the iPad/iPhone.