Fancy a way of making your hobby closer to self-funding? Steve Baker looks at six options that could help bring in the pennies.
Lots of people have the idea of breeding fish to sell on. Financially, some are aiming to supplement their hobby, to bring some of the costs back. Some people are after a little profit out of it – some pocket money. Other people have grand ideas of watching the money fill the front room.
In reality, many people have great breeding successes with the wrong fish. They may be easy to breed and easy to move on but have very little or no value commercially. Or they may be fish which are slightly trickier to breed and hold a better value but are hard to move on because the demand just isn’t there for behavioral or aesthetic reasons.
If you want to breed a particular fish because it appeals to you or you want to raise awareness, then that’s great and should definitely be encouraged, but if you’re looking for some profit we’ve got a few suggestions – but you won’t be giving up your day job! It simply costs too much in water and electricity in the UK to be easily, commercially viable.
Let’s start off with a reasonably easy target. For Dwarf cichlids, I’m mostly thinking about Apistogramma spp. At £25 - £50 per pair they won’t set you back the earth to get brood stock and their needs are quite simple. An average 75cm tank, air-run sponge filters, a heater-stat, some terracotta flower pots and some leaf litter, wood structures or plants are what you need – nothing to tricky or expensive.
They like their water soft and at least slightly acidic. It’s best to buy a small group to start with and wait for a pair to form. Condition them with frozen and live foods for a couple of weeks and if they are being stubborn try mimicking the coming of the rainy season with a cool and soft water change.
Realistically you’ll need to hatch your own Brine shrimp to feed the free-swimming fry and they’ll need regular feeding and regular water changes. It takes a fair while for the fry to get to a saleable size and showing some colour which is one of the reasons they hold a stable value.
Wild caught cichlids
With the concern of weakened genetics occurring through mass production of fish there has been a rise in recent years for F1 and F2 fish (the ‘F’ number denotes how many generations they are away from wild parents).
If you can get your hands on some wild brood stock, it immediately adds value to the offspring. This spans South American, Central American and most cichlids worldwide but the main demand area it seems is with Rift Lake Cichlids (where genetics can get confused more easily).
The trick here is to settle the brood stock in. They will want their natural water parameters replicated and, at least initially, tank furniture should be familiar for them. The size of the tank and tank-mates will depend on the species but spacious would be the target for wild fish.
They may need tank mates as dither fish, for some confidence boosting but these will need to be quick, robust and large enough that they won’t become dinner and gentle enough that they won’t upset your newly captive brood stock.
Discus have always held a high value, partly because of their timeless beauty but mostly because of the difficulties of breeding them. It’s expensive to set up a breeding project. For a start, you’re looking at multiple tanks for growing on and maybe separate tanks for brood stock, high quality water conditions, Brine shrimp hatching equipment and a high food bill. If you happen to have ideal water coming out your tap it’ll cut a large bill for RO water (or an RO unit and water bills) as many water changes are needed.
The rise of the European tank bred Discus has boosted the market over recent years, mostly because they are happily kept in slightly harder and cooler water conditions compared to wild fish or Malaysian tank bred individuals so, for best desirability obtain European brood stock.
They will be dear to purchase, if you want a mature, proven breeding pair you’re looking at around £180.00 for basic colour variants. Buying a group of smaller, immature fish and hoping for a pair to form would take an awful long time or possibly a pair would never form.
You won’t need to plow as much money into the set up as you would with Discus but Zebra plecs are tricky to breed and nurture the young. Water quality is of upmost importance and softer conditions are preferred so again, RO costs will be necessary for most of us in the UK and they aren’t the most productive of fish laying around 15 eggs to a batch.
Another issue is the cost of brood stock but the bonus of that is the sale price – regularly seen at £150 in the shops, a sale of upwards of £90 is realistic.
Common Clownfish have been commercially tank bred for many years now and hobbyists have success with them too. There are two ways at looking at breeding Clowns. At £25 in the shops the normal common clown has a good value and, as far as marine fish are concerned, they are easy to breed with good sized batches (up to 1000 eggs) so the numbers game works.
The other way to do it is to breed your own strain. So many variations of Clownfish are now available and the value can be much, much higher than the natural strain with Picasso and Snowflake varieties doubling the value and some variants pushing way past the £100 barrier. If you can develop a viable unique variant you’re in the money. This one is about following trends and this trend is still current.
Now here’s a demanding target. Breeding tangs in captivity is not the norm, and until recent years we thought it impossible or next to, but it’s been done now so it is possible. Getting them through the early planktonic period is the real challenge, providing the right plankton foods in enough volume while keeping water quality high.
The thing that makes me include the humble Yellow tang is the sudden rise in cost. Due to bans and pressure being put on wild marine fish collecting we have seen Yellow tang values go from £35 to £100 almost over-night (shame you weren’t buying brood stock two months ago).
There’s also the thought, if you can breed yellows you could probably breed even higher value Tangs too, and you might make some money out of writing articles about your success too.
We'd all have more tanks if we could. But if you're anything like us, you'll have discovered that all that electricity, feeding, hardware, as well as all those plants and fish, soon starts to add up.
Anything that helps ease the running costs of a hobbyist is welcome, right?
New PFK staff writer Steve Baker looks at ten ways that you can shave the odd few pence here and there from your monthly bills...
Some like it hot – But you might be surprised at how cool your tropical fish can go. Though the tropics don’t have seasons as we know them, they do have temperature fluctuations through the year.
In the Pantanal, Brazil, it is not unknown to get a frost in the evening at certain times of the year and when fish are roaming the shallow, flooded fields they encounter temperatures much lower than you may expect.
During June to August average temperatures can be as low as 18°C. So, check up on the demands of your fish, you may be ok to turn the heater down from 27°C to 24°C or even 22°C and that would make a large difference to the heater usage (but do it slowly, One degree per day).
Wasting light – If you aren’t growing plants there’s little point having the light on when you’re not watching. Many people will have the light on while they are out or at work, maybe leaving it on for the fish but many don’t really need it at all. We want it to see the fish. No matter what lighting you use it’s going to be cheaper if it’s on less.
Efficient equipment – I’d never looked at wattages before as closely as I do today. There is a real balance to find here.
Most budget equipment is based on old technology, nothing wrong there, it’s tried and tested, and teething problems have been ironed out making it cheaper and easier to produce. The downside is that more up-to-date technology does push for efficiency so you may find that buying a modern, new tech external filter will save you running costs and return the price difference (from a budget filter) within just a few years.
Plus lighting - LEDs are always going to save running cost over older T5 and T8 lighting for equal brightness.
Scavenging the floor – It’s well covered that you can collect your own leaf litter and wood from the right trees so research which ones can be used and make sure they are well dried. Soak leaves in boiling water to kill any bugs, pour boiling water over branches and twigs. You can boil up Alder cones to make your own blackwater extract (humic and tannic acids) too.
Buy in bulk – I wouldn’t suggest buying big tubs of food. By the time you're halfway down, who knows how many vitamins have broken down? Still, many other things can be bought in volume to offer better value.
A bag of universal filter floss will save lots compared to purpose cut, manufacturers replacement floss. Starting a tank? Why not buy filter maturing bacteria from the pond department? It costs less and goes further while doing the same job which is also true if you look at pond medications, additives and sponges.
Be a fish chef – You can make your own foods for many fish species. Nature offers some free ingredients like stinging nettles, clover leaves and dandelion leaves for the veg selection. Many larger fish can be fed on earthworms (but wash them first) or home-grown Daphnia will feed smaller fish.
Or you can raid the supermarket veg for peppers, lettuce, courgette, sweet potato, tomatoes and others plus most seafood mixes are cheap and can be blended down to feed small fish. You can always add garlic for a health boost too.
Make it yourself – Some equipment we buy is so simple yet we still pay for it to be made and transported, we pay for the manufacturer, the wholesaler and the seller to take their profit.
Why not cut the bottom off a small pop bottle, attach a hose to the top and make yourself a gravel hoover? There are many tutorials on-line, too, from making canister filters out of a bucket to making an LED luminaire.
I love cheap scrubbers – Purpose bought algae sponges are dear. Consider using an old filter sponge or a cheap scouring pad from the supermarket – just make sure it has no detergent in it. As a tip, the cheaper ones don’t tend to.
Fish stock – To be really frugal you can search online sales pages and fishy classifieds to find privately owned, tank bred livestock. Mollies, Guppies platies and common Ancistrus are everywhere, Corydoras aren’t that uncommon, Malawi cichlids are easy to find and sometimes you’ll find something more unusual.
Become industrious – If you can breed fish at home or grow heaps of plants then you may find a local shop willing to exchange a small amount of credit to supplement your food and treatment expenses. Don’t expect too much for run of the mill stuff, but every little helps.
News released earlier this month suggests that fishkeeping has experienced a substantial decline in the last five years. But is everything as it seems? Nathan Hill has a look at the numbers.
“88% of all statistics are made up on the spot,” comedian Vic Reeves once observed. But as humans, we seem powerless to resist the draw of numbers. Like nocturnal bugs to a candle, we throw ourselves at the mercy of sensational looking double-digit declines.
This month, a newspaper made substantial claims about the fall of UK fishkeeping. “The number of households with a pet fish,” it proclaimed with near reverential authority, “is down from 17 per cent in 2012, to just 10 per cent in 2017.” By way of reference, the text cites a survey by data analysts Mintel.
Or rather, it hauls out a couple of charts, and fails to quote any of Mintel’s text directly. Given that Mintel are asking almost £2000 for a one-off copy of the report, you’ll be unsurprised, dear reader, to know that I haven’t been able to quote figures either. I know nothing of the study sample size, the demographic — I lack all context.
The text carries on, in places, as almost gleefully pejorative. In a piece laced with spurious assertions and galloping non-sequiturs, various hypotheses are put forward for this loss. Fish aren’t photogenic enough for selfies, comes the claim. Cats, dogs and rabbits are the new ‘go to’ pet, seems to be the unstated premise here, while the author wilfully overlooks that the sole chart on which this case is made shows a marked decline in those pets too. But why let good old-fashioned reasoning inhibit a story?
Of course, the author of this piece seems to have overlooked something salient. In 2012 the very same paper reported that the data showed that around 10% of the UK — one in ten households — owned pet fish. At that time, pet fish were said to be growing in market share, increasing to the tune of several millions of extra individual fish bought by a benignly piscivorous audience. Back then, the journalists were plucking out their own reasons for this explosive growth. ‘Pet fish are easier to keep than cats or dogs,’ was the suggestion, with the writer clearly oblivious to the vagaries and intellectual exhaustion associated with keeping a magnificent reef tank in bloom.
The Pet Food Manufacturing Association (PFMA) has been tracking pet populations in the UK for the last decade. I’ve no idea how many people Mintel polled in their survey — the journalists trampolining on the all-important ‘17%-down-to-10%’ number seem to have elided here.
The PFMA has an effective study sample of 8,000 respondents. How representative that is of the wider UK when extrapolated upwards, I do not know. Not all things expand evenly, as my waistline would testify.
In 2012, on PFMA polling, they estimate that 20 to 25 million individual fish were kept in aquaria — around 9% of UK households, if the trend of later years is to be trusted. To confuse things, there are also a similar number of pond fish kept, equating 6% of households. As fishkeepers we are aware that the two camps are usually mutually inclusive rather than exclusive. Assuming the most absurd case scenario that everyone in the survey who owned an aquarium refused to own a pond, and vice versa, then we get a combined effort of 15% of UK households with a pet fish.
Racing through the years, only stopping to grab some souvenir numbers (9% aquarium, 6% pond for 2014; 9% aquarium, 5% pond for 2016 — PMFA figures) we hit the apocalyptic scene of current fishkeeping: 8% aquarium ownership, 5% pond ownership for 2017.
Maths wasn’t my most powerful subject in school, but I was smart enough to calculate the hypotenuse length on a right-angled triangle. Subtracting 8% and 5% respectively from 9% and 6% seems well within my remit, so unless I have missed out on some major mathematic reformation movement, I can only see a 1% decline in fish ownership in each of the two camps. As a retailer, and faced with figures like that, I’d probably not consider selling up and fleeing to join the ex-pat crowd of Spain any time soon.
All in, we seem to have a market that has somehow managed to grow, while simultaneously peaking and declining at the same time. Apologies, but I’m not buying in to it.
I’m not going to pretend there hasn’t been a decline in fishkeepers in the last five years — what little data there are support it. But I am going to contest the numbers. Never one to miss the opportunity to rant, I’m also happy — as someone who has followed the industry for my entire life — to put forward my own unsubstantiated suggestions about why any decline is happening. The difference in my own case is that I’ll carry the placard with shining letters above me: specious claims right here, approach with caution.
Let’s start with the nano tank. Those little bundles of affordable, high maintenance, beginner traps have been a target of derision from me for years. I would question the role they’ve played in any decline.
I think I’d argue that what we’re seeing now is a reversion to the normal, if there’s any localised ‘decline’ in fishkeeping at all. Nanos were peaking in sales around the 2012 period. The industry was generating a higher number of new aquarists, with the pathetically optimistic argument that all of these keepers would somehow master their nightmarishly hard, 25 litre goldfish set-ups and progress to something bigger and better. Don’t kid yourselves, stores. We all knew that many of those tanks, once they left our shops, would promptly be furnished with ill-fated goldies sourced from our nearest competitors.
The nano market is a bit like a drunken pilot — it was inevitably going to get grounded. I wrote recently about the conspicuous absence of nanos at the AQUA trade show I attended. The air carried the collective hum of manufacturers and retailers pretending that the nano phase never really happened. I was there, I kept asking folks where the tiny tanks had gone.
While I haven’t any data to support me, my gut feeling is that the number of keepers in the 2012 polls was in part tainted by the short-term, new-wave glut of consumption that was the nano buyer. Five years on, with nano sales evaporating away, the figures reflect the truer number of devotional, not ‘faddy’ hobbyists.
Here’s another thought. The working man is up against tough finances. Not every fishkeeper is a CEO on £250K a year. While livestock hasn’t really increased in cost in any considerable terms — based against old figures from the 1960s and 1970s, I noted that the price of fish has actually dropped in real terms — hardware is pricey. Low-iron glass, artisanal acrylic hardware, supplements that cost as much as a person’s monthly food bill: all these things have conspired to move fishkeeping slightly further from working-class reach.
And let’s cut to brass tacks. People are spending their money on some considerable ‘must have’ luxuries. Recently, while picking up a disposable phone for a one-off job (eventual cost 79p for my new handset) the couple alongside me at the counter were negotiating their new phone tariff. At £92 a month for the next 24 months, a mobile phone provider had just gobbled up £2,200 of potential reef tank money, right there.
‘Busy fools,’ a former boss once told me. He warned that I would be busy and poor if I always chased the low-end sales. The money — the mark-up — was in the high-tier gear. And many retailers have lived to this rule. The sale of a single £1500 marine set up might bring in as much profit as 15 x £100 nano tanks. Many stores are eager to promote their high expense range. That means less interest in stocking the accessible gear. And that means prices pushed slightly further from the cash-strapped newcomer.
Then there’s the shift in social conscience, especially among the younger generations now coming of age, where they have disposable incomes and a choice of how to spend them.
The shift in perception has been gradual, but is now too great a malignancy for aquatics to overlook. A lot of people take a stern position, that no animal should be kept in tanks. As representatives of a trade that revolves around the captivity of animals, we can open our arsenal — we assist conservation (sometimes), we maintain species that are now extinct outside of aquaria, we provide our fish a better life than anything they’d have in the wild, we are stewards who protect our stock — but these will fall on deaf ears, or worse. For a certain demographic, what we do is indefensible.
And, as a final thought, many of our advances have become our hindrances. The development of the hobby — in all the right ways — has made it terrifying. Circa. 1980 you had to buy a tank, add some fish, see if they survived, add some more, and keep some medicine on hand for the occasional outbreak of whitespot, and that was about it. Add some ant eggs, and when Finny the household goldfish carped it after six months, it’d be flushed and a replacement brought in.
It was diabolical, but it was unthreatening. Those of us who worked through the 90s will remember the efforts put in to heightening awareness of things taken for granted now — the need to mature a tank, the need to test ammonia.
In 2017, trying to buy a fish is like subjecting oneself to Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition. How long has the tank been running, with how many fish, how often are they fed, when did you test, what did you test for, no exactly what did you test for?
If I was joining the hobby for the first time, I think I’d be overwhelmed. I’m relying not just on my own research abilities, nor on the knowledge of my retailer, but also on the retailer’s ability to convey information in a way I can understand. I’m up against heaps upon heaps of conflicting, confusing and often outright contradictory information found online.
At a guess, I’d say I would be at least 17% more overwhelmed by it all than I was when I started in the late ‘80s. Maybe once I sized it all up, I might feel 88% better off splashing out £92 a month on a new phone too.
In brief: it depends if you breed and then sell them, and on what happens with proposed legislation changes. If OATA are unsuccessful in getting exceptions for fishkeepers, then a blanket law change may restrict selling of fish without a pet shop licence. If you have a 'gentleman's agreement' with your shop to swap excess stock for store credit or other fish, then no.
If you’re interested in the details, read on. If you wanted the immediate answer, that was it.
In a nutshell, current UK Government initiatives are looking at addressing the woefully outdated system of pet shop licensing. Amongst the plans is the proposed introduction of a single ‘animal activities’ licence, to cover four unique areas: dog breeding, cat and dog boarding, selling pets and hiring out horses (for riding).
The reason they chose ‘activities’ as opposed to ‘establishment’ is a clever one. In this new process, traders from home (bedroom breeders) without established, dedicated premises and who can currently sell without a licence will still be scooped up in a net of licensable activities.
Okay, so a good example of the kind of wording that has folks concerned crops up in ‘The review of animal establishments licensing in England, Next steps (February 2017)’ which states that: “This proposal should be seen in the context of the requirement that anyone operating a business selling pets needs a licence irrespective of the number of pets sold. This requirement will apply equally to businesses that: i) breed and also sell pets, ii) are third party sellers of pets (those that sell pets that they did not breed) and iii) operate from home or online. The requirement also applies in the case of business to business sales as well as sales to the public.”
I should make it abundantly clear at this point that the wording in the review is under the heading of ‘Breeding and sale of dogs’, which starts to make a lot of sense, seeing as there is pressure to bring puppy farming and the proliferation of dog breeders under control. That isn’t our concern here, but notice the wording doesn’t state ‘dogs’ specifically. It states ‘pets’. And that means it applies to anyone breeding ‘pets’. In this regard, items i and iii concern anyone breeding fish at home and selling them online, at clubs, and so forth.
Let’s take a step back and look at roughly who is doing what in the hobby. The typical, at-home hobbyist who accidentally or intentionally breeds the occasional species for pleasure, and then exchanges them for a bit of store credit with their local fish shop is almost certainly going to remain untouched. If your guppies keep spawning, and you keep swapping them at your nearby retailer (or with fellow hobbyists) for a few plants or a tub of flake food, you have nothing to worry about. The issue comes about the moment you try selling livestock.
For those who breed to sell (those of you with fish houses, for example, often use proceeds from selling fish to sustain your hobbies) then you ‘could’ have issues. I say ‘could’ because OATA are proposing possible exclusions, all of which seem reasonable enough.
The possible exclusions are:
Breeding without the intention of making a profit (by far the trickiest proposal, given how intent can be hard to demonstrate and offers a bolthole for nefarious breeders to slip through and try to argue their cases.)
Breeding for educational, conservation and scientific advancement purposes, and needing to sell offspring as a consequence.
Keeping for personal enjoyment and selling excess stock – assuming OATA can plead for this successfully on aquatic hobbyists’ behalf, then it seems sensible.
Hobby breeders (this is where most of us affected would fall in) who breed for pleasure, show-fish bloodlines, study and so on, and then sell on the excess. Think fish show auctions and you won’t be far off.
Which of those proposals will be put forward (or whether another comes up in the interim) remains uncertain for now, but PFK will keep hobbyists posted with advances as and when they are arise. But assuming all or any are successfully argued for on behalf of aquarists, it'll be 'business as usual' for the hobby breeder.
Ultimately, it boils down to how you behave as a hobbyist. If you're genuinely shifting the occasional surplus fish at clubs and shows, or to friends, I'm pretty confident that OATA are going to find you an exemption. If you're sat in a bedroom full of breeding tanks and you're hoping to supplement your income via the Internet and the local classified ads, then you're probably slap bang in the catchment that the legislation is looking to regulate.
Either way, I want to reiterate that at the current time DO NOT PANIC. Changes will not come in to play until April 2018 at the earliest, and so for now you’re doing nothing wrong if you’re charging your friend £10 for a bag of excess Danios you’ve bred. The feds are not going to arrest you.
In other news, you may have seen alarmist posts doing the rounds on social media about ‘growing calls for positive lists’ as though they are imminent and are going to send shockwaves through the English hobby.
So that we can put this one to bed, we already have them for our fish. They were enacted in 2014 and you can find more details about that here. Positive lists are not a new proposal!
There are arguments for and against Positive lists, which have been covered at length before, so I’ll not go through them again here. The important thing I want to get across is that if you see posts or articles about impending positive lists impacting on the hobby and restricting what we can keep, then I’d be inclined to direct you to the list we currently have here and remind you that the industry (or the hobby) hasn’t imploded on itself in the last three and a half years.
Something that is of interest currently being bandied around Europe (we’re currently still in it, and legislation still affects us) is the number of species being added to the Invasive Species Act of 2015. Primarily, this is interested primarily in plants (which is why the likes of Water hyacinth were restricted from import) but is gradually encroaching across to fish. You may or may not have seen some panic about Ameiurus and Lepomis species of fish being added to this list, but it’s worth noting that these fish area restricted under ILFA 2014 anyway. You can't import or sell them, so it's academic. It's also highly unlikely they'll ever be unrestricted, either.
What is of some concern is the proposed inclusion of Channa. Not a particular species, but the entire genus. That would mean that all of our Snakehead species from colourful Channa bleheri through to the stunning Channa sp. ‘fire and ice’ would be illegal to import and possibly even move around or sell without an exemption. Channa argus, for the records, is currently also restricted under ILFA 2014.
Again, OATA are working on addressing this issue, and it should be added that the inclusion of Channa as a genus on the Invasive Species Act is still only at a suggestive stage. Still, this does mark a disconcerting shift in interest from plants to fish, and as such PFK will be following developments closely.
In summary: Watch this space closely if you breed fish with the intention of selling them, online or at clubs and shows, don’t get confused about positive lists for fish, as we already have them, and do pray for Channa, as if they’re added to an invasive species list, we could lose them.
Let's take the time to listen a bit more to those with new ideas, rather than swatting them down like flies, says Nathan Hill.
We love a rebel, don’t we? I think we like underdogs in general. Very few people want to see David squished underfoot by Goliath, but love it when the little guy takes out the big guy with some kind of unexpected roundhouse kick.
Upstarts who stick it to the man are all the rage. Establishment figures are predictable, authoritarian — boring. Then comes along the wayward rapscallion who breaks all the rules, defies all the conventions and wins, and we can’t get enough of it.
Except in fishkeeping, it seems. If the hobby was a school, I wonder how many of us would be sat at our desk, arms crossed and shaking our heads in uniform complicity, ashamed by the loud kid at the back of the class who dares to question the teacher.
Take aquarium cycling, because it’s a nice and obvious topic. I probe a lot of people on this, and love to watch how discussions (predictably) pan out during spats. Sometimes I even provoke them using one of my many online aliases, just to see how quickly the firewalls come up.
Rock up to any forum or social media discussion and ask about maturing a tank, and you’ll be met with a resounding, dour faced ‘must use ammonia’ approach, as though anything else is tantamount to drop-kicking your livestock into a bucket of broken glass. Filled with cyanide.
I can see why defenders of the fishless cycle are so resolute in their stance. After all, even the official PFK stance is still that all tanks should be fishlessly cycled. But me, personally?
I’m not going to lie, I’ve been quietly playing with a lot of bacterial products in the background, out of sight in my (not) lab and using highly (un)scientific methods, and you know what? Some of them work. As in consistently, repeatedly, and in a range of different circumstances. Real world conditions. Have I been endangering things? Not really, no. I live in the charmed position of having a handful of instant Plan Bs to fall on at the first whiff of trouble. But I haven’t needed them.
Skeptical? Of course you are. Nobody is allowed to question the mighty fishless cycling republic these days. Damn my heresy, you’re thinking. Civil disobedience is STILL disobedience, right?
To be honest, good on you for that scepticism. Too many companies have cried wolf over the bacterial thing for years. Promises in a bottle. And let’s be honest here — some of those early potions claiming instant maturation were, well, crap. They’ve a lot to answer for, because in not doing what they said they would, they created the culture of suspicion we now have whenever anyone tries to tout a new wonder chemical.
Plenty of us got our fingers burnt in those days, and so badly burnt that we have the bitterest memories of products that didn’t live up to their expectations. It was all the worse because we’re not talking about something disposable, like a radio or teapot. What was happening as a result of spurious claims was death and suffering to animals in our care. We were doing everything right, we thought, but it turned out that death was still with us. Then it turned out it wasn’t always our own fault after all. Damn.
Despite that, I think it’s disingenuous to automatically discredit any newcomer who’s touting a revolutionary idea. I’m all for a Dragon’s Den style rigorous grilling of any product making grandiose claims,
but what I’m not for (and I have done this myself so many times) is a dogmatic rejection of it, on no grounds other than ‘because’.
Thing is, technology, and that includes biotechnology, is advancing. The fishless cycle works, it’s tried and tested. But it is longwinded, and most people getting into their first ever aquarium are impatient.
Fishkeeping is a culture shock in a world of instant gratification. Of course the holy grail of aquatics is the instant maturation liquid (or pill) that lets you go to full capacity in an instant. That’s why so many companies word their packaging in such a way as to allude to that. Some can’t deliver. Some I’m finding are pretty close.
It’s worth remembering that sometimes the upstart really does bring something new to the table. But then there’s safety in the tried and tested methods of conformists.
Perhaps, if we occasionally took the time to listen to each other, rather than drowning each other out in a frenzy of our own dogma, we’d make even more progress. After all, I’d hate to see the hobby stifled and regressive, all because it was so busy swatting away the very revolutionaries who could have eventually ironed out all of its kinks.
What is a fishkeeper, beyond a person? An unashamed fish junkie, thinks Nathan Hill...
Someone who lives from one fishy ‘hit’ to the next. I was speaking to some industry heads recently. They weren’t entirely fish people, if you get my drift. They asked me to stereotype the average fishkeeper, likely so that they could plan a way of making a targeted sales pitch.
I pondered this for a bit, and had to reply that beyond a passion for fish, there was no core ‘identifier’ for a fishkeeper. You can’t draw any conclusion beyond ownership of some kind of aquatic lifeform. Actually, even that’s wrong. I still class myself as a fishkeeper, even during those times I don’t have any tanks running. It just seems to be that much a part of my identity.
Fish in their veins
We are a diverse bunch. This last week, a week involving long shifts, food on the road (if at all), and little sleep, I visited a spread of northern and Scottish aquarists. Over that period, I met aquarists who were lavish or frugal, and everything inbetween. I met retailers who’d look as at home in a quaint village café, working as a husband and wife couple, as they do in a fish shop. I met keen-eyed go-getters, hungry for fishy wheeling and dealing. I met a man who just nodded approvingly — knowingly — when I set eyes upon a fish we had mutual love for, and I met a man with a headful of ethical concerns and a hipster approach to his store design, wardrobe and grooming. Put all of these people together in one room and they’ll get on better than a syndicate of lottery winners. See them individually in the street, and you’d never be able to make a connection between them. Yet every single one of them had fish in their veins.
I’ve been a fishkeeper in one form or another for 37 years, from student, then public aquarist, through retail, to teaching, to writing. In all of that time, I’ve never had the ability to tell a fellow hobbyist at a glance. Hold up a bag of fish in front of me and within five seconds I’ll tell you the exact number of fish in it. Give me a net, and I can tease out one specific Glowlight tetra from a shoal of 500. I even have something of a sixth sense for feeling when a tank isn’t 100% on water quality. These are all acquired skills. But show me a human face and ask ‘fishkeeper or not?’ and I haven’t a clue.
Some of us eat fish, some don’t. Some of us catch fish, others hate the idea. Some of us have one tank, some of us lose count at 50. Some of us breed our fish compulsively. Some of us danced with delight that one and only time our guppies produced offspring. Some of us keep underwater gardens, sculpted to perfection and Kings for a day before we move to the next project. Some of us like clinical, barren tanks and lab-grade fish. Some of us like leaves, mulch and mulm, and algae swinging from branches. Some of us want our fish out and about, all day, every day. Some of us want a catfish that flashes a single whisker once a year, and consider ourselves blessed to see it.
A state of mind
For me, fishkeeping is a state of mind, not a measurable characteristic. We’re all in this game because at some point, somewhere down the line, that alien underwater world imprinted itself on our minds and gave us a big shot of dopamine in doing so. I think secretly we’re all addicts, on one level or another. To this day, looking in to aquaria, especially with the light shining, pumps humming and the bubbling sounds that accompany it, sends me into a hypnotic place that nothing else in this world does.
So what is a fishkeeper, beyond a person? An unashamed fish junkie, I say. Someone who lives from one fishy ‘hit’ to the next. Someone prepared to get so engrossed in their tanks that they easily forget a mealtime. And even if you try to give up the hobby, I don’t reckon that buzz ever goes away. I doubt it will for me, and I’d be surprised if it ever does for you.
Happy fishkeeping, fellow addicts!
Nathan Hill has been watching fishkeeping videos...
I recently watched a DVD rip of a VHS from the early nineties, complete with tracking wobble and static hiss. It was all about setting up an aquarium, and it was bad, even for then. Undergravel filters I can forgive. Plastic plants with edges so sharp that you could cut tomatoes, I can forgive. Recommending brackish catfish with Angelfish and gouramis I can’t.
It was good nostalgia. I fawned over products I’ve not seen in over two decades. Hell, I watched the whole thing and spotted stuff that I still need. In the 1950s, sporting heroes did things differently. You had few specific cricket, football or tennis players per-se, because all sportsmen did everything. In the 80s and 90s, fishkeepers were similar. Did they keep tropical fish? Yes. Did they keep plants? Yes, usually badly but yes. Did they keep marines? Yes, with awful filters, tufa rock and dead coral skeletons. Goldfish? Yes. Ponds? Yes. Africans? Yes. Oscars? Yes. It was typical to be involved with everything.
Nowadays, after a quick flirt with entry level tanks, it’s increasingly the norm to define oneself as a ‘type’ of fishkeeper. That’s why we have reefkeepers, aquascapers, biotope buffs, Discus hoarders, catfish collectors and Koi gurus. We immerse ourselves in the latest information on our subject of choice.
Yeah, there’s still a background mass of leisure keepers with community tanks, drawing enjoyment on forming harmonious communities of pick ‘n’ mix, and that’s ace — I just tend to class those keepers as ‘specialists in waiting’. One day they’ll find what really excites them, and ride it out to its logical conclusion. I’ve seen it happen a thousand times.
All this specialisation has been facilitated by advances in technology and availability. Looking at that 90s video, there were product shots aplenty, and a lot of it was utter garbage. If I wanted to set up a ‘scape back then, or a reef set-up, I was doomed from the start. New gear made for new opportunities.
R&D is driven by customer desires. Wherever the public starts to show interest, companies will start to find ways to monetise it. People wanted reef tanks and companies made the gear to cater. People wanted plants and along came CO2 regulators and decent fertilisers. I don’t think that trend is over.
I can honestly imagine a time when nudibranch tanks become all the rage. Currently, those delightful slugs are a fantasy, almost all doomed to starvation in aquaria, because of their hyper-niche coral diets. Food is a strong research area. New pastes are tempting formerly unfeedable creatures to gorge. I even watched Harlequin shrimp — obligate starfish feeders — chomping down on manufactured food recently, despite once saying (with more authority than I’ve ever had) that it could never happen.
The aquascaping genre has scope to subdivide, now that the hobby has created a genre of aquarists interested in plant care above all else. I fully anticipate categories of ’scapes based around nothing but carnivorous plants, say. Why not, huh? Culturing of Cyclops is easy, and you can bet other mini freshwater organisms are coming soon. Plus, I can’t help noticing the trend for taking plants above the waterline. The paludarium, or some new variant of it, is going to be big business, just wait and see. Some bright company will spot this, and make luxury designs to accommodate.
Expect a LOT more hybrids. The new wave of cichlid mashups isn’t going to be the last of farmers’ exploits. They’re looking for the next big curiosity seller. There will be a huge audience, because they’re novel, and the mindset that fish are disposable isn’t leaving the main populace any time soon. If the UK changes its stance on genetic modification, I dread to think what new opportunities will open to breeders.
In brighter news, expect affordable big tanks. I can see that running costs are going to be a driving factor for any electrical gear development, and that’s going to push companies to make things as low consumption as possible. Eventually, it’ll become cheap to run massive power filters, heaters and lights again, meaning people will get those 2m+ tanks in the living room.
I could get hit by a bus tomorrow, so I might never find out. Still, it’s exciting to live through the hobby’s Cambrian explosion, watching new species of fishkeeper turning up all over in real time. I just hope that in 20 years I can look back at a 2017 YouTube video of myself in a shop, and snort derisively at how terrible all the products are, and just how little we all knew ‘back then’.
The Spring 2017 issue of Practical Fishkeeping comes with a free pull-out guide to building, stocking and maintaining a garden pond.
So if you’re planning on making this the year you finally get around to building the pond you’ve always wanted, you’ll find the information you need inside your copy of Easy Ponds.
Don’t forget that you can buy copies of Practical Fishkeeping online, to be delivered to your door first class and postage free. Click here for details…