Facepalm moments: Things not to say in an aquatic store!

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Maybe I'm just exposing myself as the bitter old man that I've grown to become, says Nathan Hill, but one thing that still arises during conversations with retailers are those cringeworthy questions and phrases, commonly used by unwitting customers.


I’m not taking a moral high-ground here, I hasten to add. I recall many moons ago when I was a fresh faced, keen, and aspirational new hobbyist who made some of these very errors myself.

If you’re new to the hobby, then take note. If you’re an old hand, then have a think back and see if you can remember using any of these pearlers. If you’re a retailer, prepare to make hissy noises through your teeth as we explore some of the lines that retailers never want to hear.

"Have you got any chips?"

I may be wrong, there may be retailers out there who genuinely have a giggle when this one comes up, but I’m probably safe in saying that for many of us, a little piece of us dies when we hear this phrase.

Humour is great in an aquatic store, and always welcomed by staff. However, do remember that some jokes wear thin after a few hundred times, especially in one day.

After a long morning of explaining the nitrogen cycle 15 times, and explaining to a well-meaning couple that they can’t keep goldfish in a bowl anymore, a retailer’s humour can start to run thin. In such situations, a light-hearted comment about adding lemon and vinegar to the livestock can be surprisingly abrasive.

"*insert single word*"

I’m a culprit for this one, or at least used to be. Instead of indicating what it is I want with a coherent sentence, I’d just bark the one word central to my point.

Having stood on the other side of the counter, I came to realise how annoying a habit it could actually be. Having somebody come up to me, proudly proclaim ‘whitespot!’ and then stand there with a bemused look did little to help me understand what it was they wanted. Did they want a cure? Did they want whitespot? Were we playing a word association game?

It tends to happen more in the pond world than the aquarium world. So, if you have issues with hair algae this summer, and approach your local store with just the word ‘blanketweed’ then don’t be too surprised if the assistant races off to get you a bag of slimy, green algae from his or her ponds.

"All the others in the tank are fine"

If you’ve had an issue with a fish, a loss, or a disease and the retailer asks if you’ve tested the water, then the above response really is about as useful as a chocolate teapot. The retailer isn’t asking if all of the other fish are fine, they’re asking if you’ve tested the water.

It may well be the case that all the other fish are, for the time being, ‘fine’ but the retailer is asking about water quality for good reason – they’re concerned that the problem isn’t going to affect any other livestock in your tank.

When water quality issues hit, they tend not to obliterate every fish within seconds of each other. Different fish have different immunities, even within the same species, and if you’re looking for an inconsistent indicator of whether things are going well in the tank, then basing it on the wellbeing of the fish that aren’t dying is one terrible way of going abut things.

"I’ve been keeping fish for 20 years"

Well whoop-di-do. This is one of those really painful comments, and puts the retailer into an uncomfortable place in having to point out that this rather arrogant position means very, very little indeed.

There are some – many – fishkeepers out there who have accrued a massive wealth of knowledge in their keeping history, and I applaud them. But then there are some who’ve basically spent the last 20 years getting everything wrong, thinking they’re doing it right, and learning zilch along the way.

Here’s a counter-example. I have been mixing music for around the last 20 years now. Frequently I will butcher together different sounds on my turntables while my partner winces and desperately tries to reassure me that I am not the worst DJ she’s ever heard. I am painfully aware now that the last two decades have given me nothing in the way of musical talent, irrespective of how much I’ve plugged away at it. As such, if I were playing a set alongside pro DJ’s, I would be very reluctant to offer a rebuttal to their mocking of my lack of talent with the phrase “I’ve been doing this for 20 years…”

"My last goldfish was fine, he lived happily for two years"

If the goldfish was maybe 18 years when purchased, then I might have time for this oft-touted line. I make the assumption that it’s down to the wholesale acceptance of failure in fishkeeping when younger, that people think that the goldfish lifespan really is a scant two years.

A goldie when kept correctly should be reaching a good 20 years or so at the least. For a goldfish to be dying within two years, or sometimes earlier than this, is indicative of a major problem that needs to be address before yet another fish goes of to die in its infancy.

"I must be doing something right if they’re all spawning"

Good old anthropomorphic behaviour has a lot to answer for. We humans like to breed when conditions are good, when things are just right. We like to be in a position that we can provide for our kids – even if Jeremy Kyle would disagree with this. And what’s more, we assume that this mentality carries across the species into the world of fish. The problem is that it doesn’t always.

There are many species out there that tend to spawn when things are going well and truly up the creek. Certain catfish, for example, tend to be triggered by deteriorating water quality, indicative of rainfall to follow. Some creatures will only reproduce when subject to appalling conditions as their breeding indicator.

Certain inverts, too, tend to go into spawning mode when things are much less than desirable in the tank, and this isn’t an entirely freshwater phenomenon.

If you brag about recent breeding successes in store, and then find that the retailer starts to subtly grill you about water changes with one eyebrow raised, then there may be good reason for it.

"He’s alive so he’s obviously happy"

This is not a good one to fall back on when the retailer has just explained why that 22cm/9” plec isn’t happy in your 45cm/18” aquarium. Merely existing is never evidence for happiness. I might choose to chain up a dog in my garden, feed it on scraps and leave it out in the rain – it won’t exactly be happy about it, but it’ll be alive.

Try to remember that retailers aren’t deliberately climbing into an ivory tower if they try to explain why you shouldn’t be doing something – although there are exceptions to this rule. For the best part, the retailer cares for your fish as much as you do, and they see an awful lot of situations like the one that is causing them concern presently.

It’s another one that I’d use an awful lot myself in my early fishkeeping days. I kicked myself so hard when it finally clicked that I was actually wrong about some of the things I’d subjected my poor fish to. It was a lazy justification on my part, and one to definitely be avoided.

"It’s only a fish"

If you want to take an aquatic retailer right to the very brink of giving you a crouching donkey punch, then drop this one into the mix. Admittedly, this one is usually the domain of the ‘novelty’ fishkeeper who has appeared to try to buy several goldfish for a gigantic brandy glass they found in a gimmick store somewhere. But that doesn’t stop the blood from turning icy cold when the retailer hears it.

Retailers as a rule love their livestock. Fishkeeping is neither a lucrative nor glamorous business venture, but most of us are in it because of one commonality – a passion for all life aquatic.

Use this last line at your own risk, but don’t expect it – or you - to be warmly received!