Sources of Saltwater Specimens

Saltwater aquarium enthusiasts have a plethora of choices for purchasing both supplies and livestock, from local specialty dealers to big-box pet retail chains to mail-order suppliers. Finding the right combination of these for your aquarium needs will facilitate the creation of the tank you want at a cost you can afford.

Choosing a Dealer

Look for a store with a large saltwater dry goods section and a varied inventory of healthy marine fishes and invertebrates living in well-maintained holding tanks. A dirty, unkempt, poorly lighted store should be an immediate signal to look elsewhere. if you live in or near a reasonably large city, look for a store that sells only saltwater aquariums. it is likely to have a better selection, more knowledgeable personnel, and better prices than a store where saltwater is a sideline.

Never buy fish on your first visit to any store. First, investigate the range of offerings, quality, and prices in your region before making any decisions, especially if there are several competitors. Make at least two visits a week or more apart. The idea is to find out how the store operates on a continuous basis. Be critical but fair in your evaluations. we all have our good days and bad ones. Ask questions. Do not expect everyone to be an infallible expert, but you should hear correct answers at least to basic questions about water quality, the particular needs (feeding behavior, for example) of any fish in the shop, and steps to prevent or cure common problems. One good sign to watch for: when someone does not know the answer to your question, they take the time to look it up in a book. Good shops always have several well-used reference books behind the counter.

Dealers are in business to make money, but a sales pitch should not be the sole communication you have with them. Professional dealers know that the key to their business success is for their customers to be successful hobbyists. It is in the dealer's best interest, for example, to steer you away from fishes that would be inappropriate for your tank because of size or compatibility problems. Remember, though, that most dealers will sell you anything you want if you insist.

The next step is to evaluate the specimens themselves, and there are several factors that you should consider.

Purchasing Fish Based on Collecting Practices

Care in purchasing may be the most important aspect of managing your aquarium. Here are some suggestions for making wise decisions in this regard.

Collecting from Wild Populations

Bear in mind that most saltwater fish have been collected from wild populations. The time between being collected and arriving at your local shop typically ranges from two to three weeks. During this time, the fish may or may not have been maintained under optimum conditions. Unfortunately, it is seldom possible for you to know much about this chain of custody.

10 Saltwater Aquarium Models

10 Saltwater Aquarium Models

Against the practice of wild collecting, two primary arguments are raised:

• Overfishing

• Generalized damage to the reef itself in favor of wild collecting, the response concerns the importance of this source of income to local fishermen lacking other options for feeding their families. Establishing hatcheries in the source country, rather than collecting from its waters, maintains the income stream while reducing the toll on the reef. Fishing for food already removes substantial numbers of reef fishes, though not usually the same species as those collected for the aquarium. Stresses induced by turbidity from shore development, increased water temperature due to global warming, and the influx of human-created pollutants contribute far more to the decline of reef health than does aquarium collecting. Nevertheless, most saltwater enthusiasts would prefer that their aquarium not contribute to the decline of the coral reefs it is intended to depict!

For thirty years or more, the problem of using poisons to collect reef fish has been a subject of controversy within both the aquarium industry and the conservation community. Despite a huge investment of expertise and millions of dollars, a satisfactory resolution of the issue has yet to emerge. Anyone who owns a saltwater aquarium must be aware that at some point they may purchase a fish that was collected by poisoning. No certain method exists to determine, after the fact, if chemical exposure has taken place. Little agreement seems to have been reached regarding the effects of chemical collecting on the survivability of fish subsequent to being collected. Trying to account for the effects of holding and handling methods, shipping circumstances, and the capabilities of aquarists themselves on survival presents significant challenges.

Collecting from Good Sources

One way to avoid unhealthy fish is to choose species that routinely come from good sources. Several popular aquarium fishes come largely or exclusively from Hawaii, for example. Fish-collecting in that state is well regulated. Shipping to the mainland is relatively inexpensive and does not involve red tape, since it is interstate commerce. Therefore, travel time is minimized. Good Hawaiian fishes include the yellow tang (Zebrasoma flavescens), Potter's angelfish (Centropyge potteri), Vanderbilt's chromis (Chromis vanderbilti), and several desirable butterfly-fishes, such as the raccoon (Chaetodon lunula), threadfin (C. auriga) and longnosed (Forcipigerflavissimus).

The tropical west Atlantic and Caribbean regions also supply many good aquarium fishes, such as the French angelfish (Pomacanthus paru), the royal gramma (Gramma loreto) and the yellowhead jawfish (Opisthognathus aurifrons). I have noted remarkably few problems with Florida or Caribbean specimens over the years. Shipping time from Florida, of course, is minimal to most locations in the country, with specimens sometimes arriving the same day.

if you want to be completely sure of chemical-free fish, avoid purchasing fish from areas known for a chemical collecting problem. This can be tricky. Many popular aquarium species may come from any of several source countries. Only the importer knows where a particular batch originated. On the other hand, even in the Philippines, where chemical use has historically been widespread, some collectors use only nets to harvest specimens.

Caring for an Aquarium 11

Catching Fish, Killing Coral

Coral reefs can be directly affected by collecting activities associated with the aquarium trade. In some regions of the world, divers use poisons to make fish easier to catch. The chemicals can kill coral polyps, which take a long time to regrow. Like so many other places on the planet, coral reefs face even greater dangers from pollution and global warming. Unlike freshwater aquarium fish, the majority of saltwater fish are taken from their natural habitats rather than produced in hatcheries. Aquarists must recognize that they have a responsibility to avoid contributing to the degradation of coral reefs by their purchasing decisions.

For more than twenty years I have involved myself in efforts to keep saltwater aquarium-keeping a sustainable hobby and industry. Home saltwater aquariums can do an enormous amount of good by bringing ordinary folks up close and personal with some of the sea's most remarkable denizens. A broader awareness of the fragile beauty embodied by coral reefs can only increase the desire to protect them for future generations. Biology imposes constraints upon the potential for captive propagation of many saltwater fishes. This has seldom been the case with freshwater species. Less than 10 percent of saltwater fish and a still smaller fraction of invertebrates come from captive propagation. Despite many efforts to learn how to spawn and rear them, some of the most desirable (from the aquarist's point of view) saltwater species will come from wild stocks for a long time to come. That being the case, we should choose wisely and avoid species that have little or no chance of adapting to captivity. The obligately coral-feeding butterflyfishes, such as C. ornatissimus mentioned above, provide a perfect example. On the other hand, home aquarists should encourage the efforts to breed saltwater fish and invertebrates commercially by seeking out captive-propagated specimens whenever possible. I am proud to serve on the scientific advisory board of Reef Protection International ( This organization has produced the Reef Fish Guide listing both recommended species and those that hobbyists should think twice about. You can download a copy from the Web site, and I will be referring to this guide in the chapters that follow.

Your saltwater aquarium dealer will likely become a major source of advice regarding your aquarium. No one has more control over the health of the fish you will place in your aquarium than the retail dealer. Saltwater fish endure a difficult journey before eventually arriving in your town. How the dealer selects fish and how he treats them while in his possession can make all the difference to your success. Fish can experience delayed mortality, meaning that their circumstances today can produce effects that may not manifest themselves for weeks, long after you've brought the fish home. In 1995, I founded the American Marinelife Dealers Association (www.amda to enlist like-minded saltwater aquarium dealers in combating negative environmental impacts resulting from the aquarium trade. Check the Web site for an AMDA dealer in your area, and when you visit, be sure to tell them I sent you.

Captive-propagated fish are among the best possible choices for the saltwater aquarium. Many species of anemonefishes are available from hatcheries, along with several kinds of gobies and dottybacks. Dealers usually advertise that they have captive-propagated stock, but always inquire. Captive-bred specimens may be smaller than wild caught counterparts but will of course grow to the size typical for their species. In all cases, captive-bred fish acclimate better to aquarium conditions and have fewer problems than do similar specimens harvested from the wild. Captive propagation takes some of the pressure off natural populations.

Widespread development of hatcheries for the production of both fish and invertebrates may provide the key to solving some of the thorniest problems related to the collecting of wild specimens for aquariums.

Selecting Healthy Fish

Here are some characteristics of healthy fish:

• Their colors are bright.

• They search actively for food.

• Their fins are held erect.

Follow these tips to avoid taking home unhealthy fish:

• Watch out for rapid movement of the gill covers ("panting" or "gasping"). This could indicate that the fish is infested with parasites.

• Beware of ragged fins and the presence of lesions, open wounds, or similar abnormalities. Fish can lose a bit of fin tissue or a scale or two without serious consequences, but any damage should appear to be healing.

• No bloodiness or cottony fungal growth should be apparent.

• Unless the behavior is characteristic for the species, a fish that hides excessively is in some kind of distress.

• Look for signs of poor nourishment, such as a hollow belly or a thinning of the musculature behind the head.

• When viewed head on, the fish should be convex in outline, not concave.

Ideally, the dealer will quarantine all new arrivals for at least a week before releasing them; two weeks would be better. If this is not the routine at the store you select, the dealer should at least be willing to hold a fish for you if you agree to buy the fish after the holding period is up. Saltwater fish have a harrowing journey from the reef to the dealer. They require a period of rest and adjustment before yet another move. A few days, or just until the fish has had its first meal, is not enough time for recovery. If the dealer cannot, or will not, provide this kind of quarantine period, you should make plans well in advance to quarantine all specimens at home yourself. I suggest a minimum quarantine of two weeks.

WARNING The usual advice is to look for obvious signs of disease when shopping for saltwater fish. This is a good suggestion, but only a very foolish, or very busy, dealer will leave a sick fish in the display tanks. The problems you may encounter will be of a more subtle nature. How was the fish collected? What has happened to it since that time? How has the dealer cared for the fish after its arrival? Neither you nor the dealer will have reliable information on any but the third question. Quarantine, either by the dealer or by you, offers the best option for avoiding trouble once the fish enters your display aquarium. Another recommendation often given is to ask to see the fish eat before you purchase it. Of course, a prospective fish should be willing to eat, but this is no guarantee of its health. A mishandled fish can experience delayed mortality even though it may feed normally. Quarantine will help to assure any latent problems develop away from the main tank.

Caring for an Aquarium 13

Making Rational Purchasing Decisions

Why, I am often asked, are saltwater fish so expensive? Fish and invertebrates are commodities to the aquarium shop. Every dealer has to make a living. But can a fish really be worth $300?

Many factors affect the retail price of saltwater aquarium fish. These include the species, source, size of the store, geographic location of the store, nature of the store's competition, and operating costs. My only advice is this: do not shop for price alone. Common sense must play a role in your evaluation of the "worth" of a particular specimen. For example, if an individual animal is being offered at a price that is "too good to be true," I urge extreme caution. A cheap fish is no bargain if it only lives a week or two after you take it home. Once you find a dealer that consistently provides you with good-quality fish, your best bet is to support that dealer with your business, even if a particular specimen is a few dollars less across town.

Here are some guidelines:

• Check out the dealer's reputation with experienced aquarists. You can find them at your local club or in online chat rooms.

• Ask the dealer about the collecting and shipping of his or her livestock. A good dealer should be willing to share this information.

• If your dealer has a separate, behind-the-scenes holding facility, ask for a tour. Seeing how the tanks are maintained out of the customer's view should reveal a lot.

• Ask yourself if the shop appears to be prospering. A struggling enterprise is more likely than a thriving one to cut corners on livestock sourcing and care.


Trans-shipping is a cost-saving method. An exporter in, say, Indonesia, ships an entire air cargo container of fish to a trans-shipper in Los Angeles. The trans-shipper meets the plane with a sheaf of orders from retail dealers throughout the country. At the airport terminal the trans-shipper opens the cargo container and sorts out the plastic bags of fish and invertebrates into boxes, each corresponding to a dealer's order. When the sorting is done, the boxes are sealed, labeled, and handed back to the airline. Eventually, the boxes arrive at the dealer's airport. The fish may have been in the plastic bag for as long as seventy-two hours. Trans-shipped specimens may not recover completely for several weeks, and may suffer delayed mortality. But they are cheap.


Five Rules for Buying Saltwater Fish


Know your dealer.


Know which fish come from what area of the world.


Be aware of problems with fish from certain areas.


Learn to recognize the signs of poor health.


Don't shop only for price.



Ordering Fish by Mail

A good mail-order supplier can be better than many local shops. Otherwise, how would the supplier have managed to stay in business when customers must pay freight costs and have no opportunity to see the fish that they are buying? Shop owners often complain about mail-order livestock suppliers, but the fact is that the customers would not buy live specimens by mail order if they were not frustrated with their local dealer. I can recommend this avenue to anyone for whom the local merchants fall short, but with a cautionary note. You might save a lot of money by ordering. You might find rare and unusual livestock. On the other hand, fish can arrive in poor condition, even dead. Getting a replacement or refund may be problematic.

Don't buy fish on impulse. Aquarium shops sell fish that grow much too large for the home aquarium. They sell fish that cannot be enticed to eat in captivity. They sell fish that will devour everything else in your tank. They sell fish that may bite or sting you. So, always do some research on any fish or invertebrate you consider purchasing. This can save a lot of headaches in the long-run.

The best way to zero in on good dealers, local or otherwise, is by talking to their other customers. Get to know the other aquarists in your local shop. Join an aquarium club, or chat online. When you travel, visit shops and compare them to the ones in your hometown. Finally, remember that the ultimate responsibility for your aquarium lies with you. If you purchase foolishly, suffering the consequences later is your fault, not the dealer's.

Aquarium and Fish Care Tactics

Aquarium and Fish Care Tactics

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