Where do all those big fish keep going?

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Buying a young tankbuster leaves owners in a moral quandary that they can't just shrug off by palming the fish onto somebody else. Nathan Hill explains.


It’s time for a harsh dose of gut churning reality if you’ve bought a giant fish. There’s nowhere for it to go. If you’ve invested your pennies in a Red tail or a Tiger shovelnose (or to really compound things, one of the quite horrific hybrids) then you’ve got a role to play in that fish for the rest of its life. At least, if you’ve any moral fibre, you have…

Whimsical purchases of tankbusters are insane. And I’ll go further than that. In the modern age where tabloid journos are scraping their barrels, looking for the next thing to champion, the prospect of them finding a small tank with more giant pimelodid than water is increasing dramatically. When they find it, they won’t be kid gloves about it. They’ll expose it to the world in a flurry of emotion, evoking paraphrases that cause people who’ve never even kept a fish to despise us all.

If you buy a giant, then you’re accountable for it. In fairness, the same applies to any fish. It was quite happy not being owned by you, minding its own business. If you’re going to take it under your wing then you’re responsible for it. Every aspect of its life is under your control, from water quality and temperature to swimming space. And what’s more, you’re accountable for what directly happens to it when it does eventually leave your care.

Misconception 1: I’ll be able to sell it when it gets too big.

Reality – you won’t. A young Meredontotus costs a bomb, maybe £500 or more for a good one. But the fish doesn’t gain value as it grows, it plummets. A prime, young specimen commands a good price. But once that fish has lived a cramped life, fed on excessively fatty foods, has become misshapen from its crowded tank, and has atrophying muscles, it’s pretty much worthless. Some of these fish migrate thousands of miles every year. In a four-foot tank they can barely turn around.

No, by the time a huge number of tankbuster keepers have ‘finished’ with their fish, they have a grotesque, ill lump that even any self respecting fishmonger would turn down for free.

Misconception 2: I can take it back to the store.

Yeah, best of luck with that. Many of the ‘rehoming tanks’ in a retailer’s store are either sumps or displays. If you’re really lucky they’ll have something as big as eight feet long. And that’s still not big enough for an adult Red tail.

The fact is, the days where big fish would be taken in are numbered. People don’t have the space anymore, mainly because they’re already full of other peoples’ excessively sized livestock.

The other thing to remember is that half the time, the shop almost certainly doesn’t want that fish in its sump.

It’s going to sit down there, not selling, eating huge amounts of food, and generating complaints from the passing public who will all line up to point out that the tank is too small. A fair few places have been stung with the ‘it’s cruel’ line now from concerned shoppers, and it leaves a bitter taste.

Misconception 3: I’ll donate it to a public aquarium.

Nope, they don’t want it. And you’ll probably be surprised to hear that usually they don’t have space for it either.

I recently visited a public aquarium where big fish are languishing behind the scenes. They’re cared for, but they’re essentially rejects. Big, ugly brutes that will never make it do displays for compatibility or other reasons, destined to end their days hidden from view in simple, rounded tubs.

Try to remember that public aquaria aren’t responsible for your big fish problems – you are. You might grizzle and gripe that you’ve done all that you can, but can’t afford any more, and in some circumstances you may be right. You may well have bought that fish when you had an £80K a year job, and had planned to build an indoor pond, only to be made redundant down the line. But I’ll wager that a huge chunk of tankbuster owners knew what would happen but just didn’t think about the fishes' long-term welfare in advance.

Well here’s news – I have no sympathy to give. You bought that fish, now you provide for it. Get a second job or something. Just don’t blame others because they won’t take away your burden.

Misconception 4: I’ll give it to a fish rescue.

Ohhh, now this is a contentious one. I’ll be the first to admit that there are fish rescuers out there that are trying to do the best by the fish, but how do you separate the wheat from the chaff?

You won’t get money for the fish, and you may even get charged for it being taken away – but what then? What happens to it?

A good rescue and rehome centre will do just that. They’ll have a network of people with large tanks that they vet in advance, and will work hard to get the fish settled into another home as soon as they can.

But beware the kleptomaniac, is my advice. Tragically, it would appear that some rehomers are little more that hoarders, collectors who will take your fish – and supposedly your responsibilities – away from you, never to be seen again.

But is that good enough? As far as I’m concerned, it’s not. A lot of the time it might just be the laziest option to take. The problem is, the fish remains your responsibility, including where it goes straight after you. You can’t give yourself a clean conscience just because somebody turned up to your house with a polystyrene box, charged you £13 for petrol, and then scampered off into the night.

It’s down to you to make sure that where the fish is going is suitable. For all you know, it may be headed to a tank of exactly the same size, or even smaller than the one it just came from. It might be headed into a tiny indoor pond that sounds promising, but actually holds less water than a 4’ x 2’ x 2’.

You need to check first. Because for some unscrupulous people out there, cramming as many free fish as they can get into substandard tanks equates to a hobby.

Remember, nobody is regulating these fish rescue centres. Some of them will affiliate with the RSPCA, which is commendable, but I could set one up myself in five minutes if I wanted to, tour the country ‘rescuing’ fish, and then cram the whole lot into an 18” cube. And if I do, it’s your fault for not vetting me first…

Misconception 5: It’s not my fault, nobody told me it got so big.

Use this line in my presence and I’ll slap you. A nice, open-handed wallop that makes your eyes water.

Fish retailers aren’t a ‘hard sell’ lot. They don’t stand there saying ‘roll up, roll up’ and then confuse and confuddle you until you walk away with fifty fish you didn’t intend to buy. In fact, it’s usually the exact opposite. They’ll screen, they’ll question and they’ll cross-reference until they’re happy that the fish is going somewhere that they feel confident about. After all, one thing they really do not want is you coming back after a couple of days complaining that they didn’t cover something. They tend to be quite comprehensive in covering themselves.

But even so, the fact is that it’s not down to the retailer to even tell you in the first place. Personally, I’d be a lot more comfortable if they didn’t stock most of these fish, but that’s their decision, not mine.

Ultimately, the decision of which fish to buy is the keeper’s, and the keeper’s alone. And if the keeper is going to purchase fish, in the knowledge that they are going to be accountable for its wellbeing, then they need to – and this is an absolute, basic requirement with purchasing any living animal – research the thing first. Don’t buy on impulse, and don’t go near anything you know nothing about.

Fish shops still have books, right? And many of them have internet access these days, too. There’s no excuse for it.

The cure?

It’s a no brainer, really. Just stop buying the things. If you’re squeezing river giants into small tanks then I have no idea what you’re trying to achieve. Status symbol? Beats me. Whatever it is, it’s the fish that ends up paying the price for your bravado, and that just isn’t right.

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