Who's to blame for the big fish problem?


When it comes to tankbusting fish that rapidly outgrow their homes, who's really at fault? The buyers who think only for the moment, or the sellers looking for a quick profit? Nicolette Craig investigates.

When researching a recent news analysis feature for PFK magazine, one investigator witnessed a man, who was looking to add to his Neon tetra and guppy tank, asking shop staff if a certain fish might be suitable.

He was told his choice would be fine, but might need to consider a slightly bigger tank in a year or two due to that fish’s adult size. The creature in question was a fast-growing albino Oscar!

Advice like this first pushed BIAZA (the British Zoos and Aquaria Zoological Association) into launching the Big Fish campaign in 2006.

The aim was to highlight the increasing problem public aquaria face after people buy cute little fish for their tank only to discover they don’t stay little for long and may turn into huge 'tankbusters'. The campaign’s launch created a stir at the time, but seems to have slipped out of the spotlight since.

However, aquarium scientist Dr Peter Burgess, who compiled the original survey, told PFK: "The big fish problem hasn’t gone away."

copyright © Edward Callaghan, Creative Commons

In 2008 more than 100 fish were offered to 12 zoos and aquaria. They included 60cm/24” plus Pacus, a Red tailed catfish more than 100cm/40” long, puffers, a 60cm/24” plec, a 40cm/16” electric eel, Blacktip reef shark at 50cm/20”, 30cm/12” Lemon stingray and 35cm/14” Long-nosed spotted gars. Less than a quarter were accepted.

However, a leading wholesaler told PFK: "I don’t believe this problem is as big as some people make out. Only a tiny part of our business comes from selling these 'big fish' – probably less than 0.5%. I think that as long as people are correctly informed about the requirements for these fish they can make excellent pets."

Daphne Layley, of the Southern Counties Catfish Rescue Society, sees a different argument.

"The situation is worse in recession,” she says. "When people feel the pinch, the first things to go are their hobbies and this often means that fish are dumped."

Sometimes the sellers are clearly to blame. I’ve been told of a small retail outlet with shoals of Pangasius sanitwongsei just 7.5cm/3” long, being sold for £6.95 each as community fish. These can grow to 3m/10’ long!

However, other shops have taken a stand and Maidenhead Aquatics, list 'tankbusting' species they refuse to stock. Paul Tapley, Maidenhead Aquatics’ livestock coordinator, told me: "For nearly ten years, we’ve had a policy of avoiding certain fishes that do poorly in captivity: not based solely on adult size or housing requirements as some private enthusiasts are capable of meeting the needs of big fish.

"We are one of the few retailers able to house larger fishes and this means that our stores are often obliged to rescue tank busters from members of the public either poorly advised by retailers or failing to do their homework before making a commitment.

"It’s disappointing that the retailers who persist in selling Pangasius, Pacus, Red tails, Giant gouramis and Clarias are usually those that lack scope to house even half-grown individuals of these species."

Dr Burgess added: "If the trade doesn’t get its act together and self-regulate, then another possible route to tackling this ongoing problem is to consider invoking the Trades Descriptions Act.

"Commercially, live fish are 'goods' so could it be argued that, for example, a Red-tailed catfish sold for the home aquarium is 'goods not fit for purpose'?”

copyright © Tino Strauss, Creative Commons

The Animal Welfare Act of 2006 includes fish kept as pets. It stipulates that animals must have a suitable diet and place to live, be free of pain, injury or suffering and exhibit normal behaviour patterns. Any keeper not meeting these criteria may be banned from owning animals, fined up to £20,000 and/or sent to prison.

Brian Zimmerman, of the Zoological Society of London, agrees that legislation should be examined and tightened up.

He said: "Freshwater stingrays, for example, are big and dangerous. In public zoos and aquariums we ensure that the public and untrained volunteers cannot come into direct contact with them. It’s therefore ridiculous that anybody can walk into a shop and buy one."

Anyone wishing to own a potentially dangerous terrestrial animal is governed by the Dangerous Wild Animal Act, however a Defra spokesperson stated: "We have no fish on the dangerous wild animal lists as they cannot survive out of water. We therefore do not perceive people to be at risk from them."

It seems high time that this situation was addressed!

Biggest busters
The top eight tank busters in 2008 were Pacus, Pangasius, Red tailed cats, plecs, Oscars, Clarias cats, arowanas and Pseudoplatysoma cats.

Pacus, piranhas, Pangasius, plecs, Oscars, Giant gouramis, Silver sharks and Red tailed cats were listed in 2002.

Catfish rescue
Chris Ralph and Daphne Layley are the chairman and secretary respectively of the Southern Counties Catfish Rescue Society. Here's what they have to say on the issue of tankbusting fish:

You are part of a catfish rescue society, but is there really any need for one?
You would be surprised! We can be offered anything up to four fish every month.  

Although we always try to help fishkeepers over the phone, that  approach doesn’t always work! Once we know the owner’s locality, we tell direct them to their local shops. Sometimes they’ve already tried them, sometimes not.

Sometimes one of our own members can take on the fish, depending on size and space they have available.

What kind of fish do you get offered?
The sizes range from 30cm/12” for a plec, through to 49-60cm/18-24” for a Pangasius or Auchenoglanis (Giraffe cat), up to 76cm/30” plus for a Red tail.

We are also starting to see problems with Auchenoglanis spp. and all the Redtail/Tiger shovelnose hybrids (pictured above). These seem to have hybrid vigour and the potential to grow very big!

Occasionally, we also get asked about Clarias spp., especially the marbled variety. You can still buy 7.5cm/3” ones for under a fiver in some shops and they look very cute: pale and pinky-white with large black blotches.

However, unless the customer has done his or her homework, or shop staff warn them, 18 months down the line it will have grown out of all proportion, eaten every other fish and require a brick on the cover glass to keep it in!
Do you think the big fish problem can be rectified?
This is not going to go away. Quite frankly, as a catfish rescue society our members have almost reached saturation point in being able to rehouse tank busters.

The powers that be are going to have to look at this problem with a view to licensing individuals, or even banning species growing over a certain size!

If these animals were wrapped in fur or feathers and were warm and cuddly the whole world would be up in arms at their treatment. As they are cold blooded, no one seems to care if they are badly treated.

Public debate

ZSL and The Deep aquarium want to open this issue up to public debate, and ZSL may host such an event in the future. Contact www.zsl.org or phone 020 7722 3333 if you’re interested.

This item first appeared in the January 2011 issue of Practical Fishkeeping magazine. It may not be reproduced without written permission.