Steve Baker ruminates over the big fish 'problem' and how, instead of going away, it has gotten worse...
Back in my days as a young hobbyist I became aware of the term ‘tank buster’ and the fish that term was aimed at. I was lucky enough to be guided by a very knowledgeable and responsible aquarist who ran a local shop so I avoided purchasing a Red-tailed cat, a Tiger Shovelnose or a common Plec – in fact I didn’t see them because this aquarist didn’t sell them.
That wasn’t the common story though. Plenty of shops sold them and plenty of customers bought them, either not knowing of their size potential or not being realistic about their long-term ability to house such fish correctly.
In the mid 90’s it wasn't seen as an issue. When fish outgrew a tank you could call the nearest public aquarium and offload your problem on them. Some even quite liked it, getting settled, exotic display fish for free.
By the early 2000’s public aquariums were running out of space and displays were being choked up with same old fish. The owners of the tank busters were being told no. Realistically there was nobody in the country with a tank big enough for these fish so owners off loaded them on anybody showing wiling and many big fish were being kept in ridiculous sized tanks.
In 2005 The Big Fish Campaign was fired up because public aquariums were constantly being hassled and had no more facilities to help so it was obvious that fish keepers needed awareness and aquatics shop owners needed telling.
By this time, I was working in the industry and within a few years it was obvious that the word of the big fish campaign was having an effect. Fewer shops were selling tank busters and fewer fish were being subject to silly sized tanks.
Several years later the Big Fish Campaign's voice went quiet and social media was in full force uniting fish keepers from around the world. In the hobby, the internet and social media have done a lot of good connecting scientist and researchers, but maybe it has done some harm too. It seems to me that influences from other countries, maybe countries with a different ethical outlook on animal welfare, have been influencing our trends in the UK.
What I’m talking about is videos showing Big (but not massive) tanks from Asia, USA and others housing massive ‘Tank Buster’ fish.
During the last 3-5 years unfortunately the industry has seen a boom of potential monster fish in the shops. Maidenhead aquatics, Pets at Home and numerous independent shops are signed up to the Big Fish Campaign still and we need that list to grow!
Every recent shop tour (and on our roadtrips) we see tank busters for sale – I’ve even had one shop saying how difficult it is to rehome a large catfish that was bought in by a customer only to have several juveniles for sale!!
It’s something of a relief to me to be able to say the Big Fish Campaign has a new lease of life and you can expect PFK to be fully onside again too. The Aquarium Working Group of BIAZA (British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums) has revived the campaign to bring more focus to the ongoing problem.
I think it’s fair to say there are more big tanks in the country now than there were 10 years ago which is great for housing big fish, but not the massive fish we often see in them. I only know of one massive private tank in the country and that’s been fraught with affordability issues since service costs have been on the rise.
We’ve seen plenty of traditional tank busters in the more old-fashioned shops plus there’s a new wave of tank busters in the more up-to-date shops, not only can you go out and buy Pangasius, Giant gourami, Lungfish and Pacus, now you will regularly find Arowana, Stingray, Ripsaw catfish, Mbu puffers, Clown knifefish and ridiculously the two biggest fresh water fish in the world have been seen in shops - Mekong catfish and Arapaima – both measuring in at around 3 meters!
When I think of this subject the animal welfare act springs to mind, two things – firstly the seller must be clear about the potential size and long-term maintenance of any fish sold, if they sell a potentially large fish to a small tank it is a sale which is unsuitable for use and must offer a full refund.
On the part of the customer they must have, on the date of purchase, the correct facilities to house the fish at its full size. That means if you buy a 10cm red tailed cat you should already have a tropical pond of 6.5meters (sticking to 5x the length of fish guideline).
Here’s a run-down of tank/pond sizes that should be offered for some of the monsters;
Oscar & Common plec – 2.5m
Mbu puffer & Giant gourami – 3.5m
Silver arowana & Ripsaw catfish – 4.5m
Pagasius cat and Clown knifefish – 6.5m
Alligator gar & Mekong catfish – 15m
Personally, I don’t want to buy anything, not even food from a shop that sells tank-busters and I like to let them know that that’s the reason!
Long live the Big Fish Campaign!
For more details, visit www.bigfishcampaign.org
PFK associate editor Nathan Hill and staff writer Steve Baker go head to head in a short discussion about the ethics of hybrids.
NH: Let’s go straight in for the jugular and see how the conversation evolves from there. So, starting with the strongest sentiment, what’s the single worst thing about Parrot cichlids?
SB: It’s what the fish represents and what an acceptance of messing around with cross-breeding leads to. Accepting a man-made hybrid paves the way to not caring about bloodlines, survival of the fittest or the animal’s long-term health or ability to survive stress free. We already see low regard for the Parrot cichlid in areas such as tattooing and tail mutilation (albeit not in the UK) but this doesn’t seem to extend to natural fish.
NH: Is cross breeding always bad? Humans have hybridised many animals, and not always to bad effect. Mules, for example, have longer lifespans than the horses that sire them and are smarter than their donkey mothers. As for not caring about bloodlines, I wonder if this represents a broader trend of changing ethical opinions – I would argue that the Parrot cichlid is a symptom rather than a cause here. If that’s the case, I’d be wary of holding the fish to account for a cultural shift.
Tattooing and mutilation are illegal in the UK, and for the best part frowned upon by the majority. I’d add that folks who own Parrots often love them more like ‘higher’ pets such as dogs, while many ‘natural’ fish like tetras are the ones seen as disposable commodities.
SB: I agree; small, shoaling fish are often seen as a number and not an individual. There are many natural fish with higher pet-like qualities such as Oscars, puffers, eels and more, which recognise an owner and demand interaction. What’s the need to make another?
Tattooing and tail removal may well be banned here, but I worry about how long it will be banned for – the more manipulation of animals that becomes accepted, the more ethical boundaries will be pushed.
Is cross breeding always a bad thing? No. If two species meet, mate and produce viable offspring which survive, then I think it’s fine, natural. But I think bringing two (or more) species together that would never meet, don’t produce fertile offspring and carry deformities that would rule them out for survival in the wild is a poor choice. And what for? Because humans want to. Some hybrids will get the best of both parents, like the mule, but mules are infertile, which is genetics telling us they’re still an unsuitable mix.
Do we even know what they are? The flippancy toward genetics worries me when Parrot cichlid owners don’t even know their fishes’ lineage.
NH: I’m not sure that viability is an issue. Many pampered animals we keep are sterile (dogs, for example) so the ability to breed isn’t prerequisite. The deformity thing is indeed an problem, but Parrot cichlids don’t seem greatly inconvenienced with their deformities. And I don’t know how many Parrot cichlid fry are culled, but I’d wager it’d be around the same percentage as other mass-farmed fish.
Also, could it be said that Parrots are better suited to aquaria than some ‘natural’ fish? They don’t require much space, and seem both robust and interactive. Any fish unsuited to aquaria experiences high mortality and stress, quite the opposite to most Parrots. But many ‘natural’ fish such as Clown loach experience higher short-term mortality rates and stress.
SB: I don’t buy in to this idea that because we’ve messed about with some animals, then it’s fine to mess about with others to the same point too.
Plus, I see a big distinction here, as domestic dogs are all one species, and line-bred rather than hybrids. I still don’t like it, just as I don’t like line breeding in fish. Dogs have many ailments and develop ageing problems prematurely and, again, just because humans want them – greed over welfare.
Deformity wise, I don’t see the Parrots in tanks at a disadvantage. In an aquarium they can look comfortable, but I’d be surprised if the culling wasn’t much higher than a natural ‘pureblood’ fish. We know the head is deformed in Parrots and some are likely going to be too deformed
and culled. The fact they can’t close their mouths completely means some have breathing issues and therefore more would be culled or succumb to problems during transport.
I agree that some other, natural species are less suited to aquaria. We have them because we want them, not necessarily because we can house them well. But there are many natural fish that are more suited to aquarium life than both Clown loach or Parrots.
NH: People vote with their wallets. If they truly disliked Parrots because of welfare issues, then there’d be no market. Breeders are only filling a void that the public supports.
I’m flying blind on mortality rates and long-term health issues. All we have is conjecture. We can say that the fish ‘should’ have problems courtesy of deformities, but the fish themselves seem (this is anecdotal, as I can only vouch from those I’ve seen) oblivious to their ‘defects’. They strike me as resistant to disease and water quality issues that would hammer other fish.
To stick my neck on a chopping block, Parrots almost seem a better choice for, say, a 120cm boisterous community than a generic wild-caught, high-stress South American cichlid that would rather be in a river. Given the options, surely there’s a case to be made that Parrots can be the ‘least worst’ option.
From my experiences, I think the issue with Parrots boils down to two points. Firstly, they’re seen as diluting interest in ‘real’ fish, which threatens the hardcore aquarist – there’s a dread at seeing the hobby become nothing more than a collection of chimeras.
The second point is part of a wider argument, and depends on which side of the GM/hybrid fence your prejudices put you. If you’re anti-GM and against tinkering with organisms, Parrots are a no. If you’re on the side where tinkering is just progress, then I doubt you’ll have a problem with them. I think that many people’s minds are made up on this issue before they even know what the issue is.
SB: Absolutely, there are different camps out there and I know mine is a hard-lined attitude where I give much more respect to nature than I do to the human position.
My view of GM is that if we were sustainable with our breeding rates as a species and responsible with our demands on the planet, we wouldn’t need to mess with genetics of anything, plus nature wouldn’t be so pressured by habitat loss and pollution.
I don’t hate Parrotfish, but I do hate the idea of people messing about with genetics and hybridising purely for profit and for the enjoyment of other people. For me it would be far more righteous to spend our time and energy exploring ways that we can lower our detrimental impacts.
This feature was first published in the Spring 2018 edition of Practical Fishkeeping. All images and content copyright of Bauer Media.
Keeping pond fish healthy should start with good water quality, writes Dave Hulse, Technical Consultant at Tetra. Fish who live in ponds with poor water quality are more likely to have raised cortisol levels as a stress response to their environment. One of the symptoms of raised cortisol levels is an inhibited immune system, leaving fish vulnerable to attack from a wide range of infectious organisms in the pond – known as pathogens.
There are many pathogens that live in the pond with the fish, but if your fish’s immune system is fully functioning then they will be able to keep these nasty bugs at bay. Other ways that we may suppress a fish’s immune system are by overstocking the pond, not providing enough dissolved oxygen, not monitoring pH and KH or feeding inappropriately
Take seasons into account
Your fish’s immune system is however at the mercy of seasonally-induced temperature change, and this is one factor that we can’t really control. Evidence shows that the important antibody response is suppressed in koi carp in water temperatures below 14⁰C, though elements of the non-specific cellular immune response can still be quite active. However, most pathogens also become less active in cooler water; the white spot parasite life cycle turns once every 6-7 days at 20⁰C, it may take months below 10⁰C.
As water temperatures rise in spring, pathogens can rapidly become more active, though the immune system of the fish can take longer to catch up. This leaves a window of infection when the fish is vulnerable to attack. Make sure you are a vigilant pondkeeper and monitor water temperatures very closely. Not only does this allow you to keep your fish as healthy as possible, but also helps you indicate when to charge their diet from wheatgerm to a general food. Good pond monitoring also lets you keep an eye out for signs of ectoparasitic infection. These signs can include flicking, flashing, excessive mucous covering, lethargy, respiratory distress and ragged fins. A preventative dose of a broad-spectrum anti-parasitic treatment such as Tetra MediFin at this time might be useful, though ideally this would be better informed if the fish can be seen to be suffering from the first stages of disease.
Instead of providing a preventative dose of anti-parasitic, try preventing diseases in other natural ways. Ensuring excellent pond water parameters, making sure your pond isn’t over stocked with fish and ensuring that you have an adequate filtration system giving your fish plenty of oxygen will help their immune system stay healthy, helping them fight off disease.
What’s the best way to treat a diseased fish?
Firstly, be sure that your fish are actually suffering from an ectoparasitic disease or something similar. Pond fish disease treatments usually contain an active ingredient called Malachite Green. Whilst this ingredient is amazing at killing a wide range of pathogens, the dosage amount must be properly measured so that it’s not toxic to fish. This is a risk worth taking if your fish is suffering from a nasty illness, but not one that should be taken lightly otherwise. The take home message is simple: if you have clear evidence your pond fish are suffering from a disease, then use of a broad spectrum antiparasitic is vital.
Adding salt to the pond can be a gentler treatment for a range of fish diseases. This can reduce osmotic stress and promotes mucous production by the fish. However, many pond plants will not tolerate the salting, so holding the ill fish in a large container with 3 grams of salt per litre can be very beneficial. Clearly the water in the container will need to a small filtration system to ensure the injured fish’s wastes do not accumulate.
Are there any diseases I should really be watching out for?
For koi keepers, there is one pathogen that you should be on the lookout for especially, and that’s cyprinid herpesvirus 3 (CyHV3) better known as koi herpes virus, (KHV). This lethal disease is the nemesis of koi keepers, carp fisheries and farmers all over the World, it can kill entire populations of carp. In the UK, KHV is a notifiable disease, so suspicions and cases must be reported to the Fish Health Inspectorate and, if confirmed, a Designated Area Order will be legally enforced which either requires the euthanasia of all fish on the site and sterilising of all fish husbandry facilities or demonstrating 3 consecutive years without a further outbreak. So, it’s important to keep a close eye on your Koi at this time of year!
The aquatics industry has done much to limit the spread of KHV within ornamental carp. Fish coming to a retailer can be ‘preventatively acclimatised’, which involves maintenance of the fish for 2 weeks at 22⁰C, a temperature at which the virus, if present, simply cannot resist causing disease. When buying koi from a retailer, be sure their fish have been through this process. To be doubly sure, preventatively acclimatise koi in a quarantine system at your home before they enter your main pond may be an idea. If you have non-carp fish in your pond, these should be introduced to the new koi in the quarantine system rather than the main pond.
A quarantine system can be very useful to contain any pond fish diseases and allows you to acclimatise new fish to your care. Should any disease occur it can be restricted to the quarantine system rather than the main display pond, disease treatment in a small quarantine system will be much simpler and cheaper than dosing a large display pond also.
In summary, prevention of any pond diseases is always much better than cure. Fish will proceed through the delicate winter period much more effectively if they have been given the opportunity to feed in winter. If water quality conditions are monitored and optimal then this gives the fish the best chance to fight off opportunistic pathogens at this vulnerable time. If clear signs of ectoparasitic disease are shown, and water quality problems ruled out as an alternative explanation, then a dose of broad spectrum antiparasitic should be applied.
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.
Finally we have a bonus tip which will literally put money back in your pocket.
Spend in the right places - Buying online could be worth good money if you’re smart about it. For instance, if you buy the your fishing supplies through the cashback scheme ‘mustard jar’, your earned rewards can pay for the supplies themselves. It’s too easy not to do.
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.