Think what you will about the tropical fish trade, but it introduces lots of children to science. How? In order to successfully maintain a fish tank, you need to understand about chemistry, biology and ecology. Even the most simple books talk about the nitrogen cycle, bacteria, different species, water quality requirements, food requirements, and how fish might interact with each other. Add in some of the plants (freshwater) and corals and macroalgae (marine) you have to start to balance nutrients and light into the equation as well.
I always had fish tanks, for as long as I remember. It is actually why I became interested in marine science in the first place. My dad always kept tanks, and then when I was old enough (aka, had a job that could support the hobby) I had my own tanks as well. What better place than to work at a tropical fish store! I got a lot of things at cost, accumulated a lot of equipment and knowledge. My father and I subscribed to magazines, had an extensive library, joined aquarium societies and attended meetings. In fact, my first aquatic conference ever was the American Cichlid Association conference. At our peak we had ~15 fish tanks. It drove my mom crazy so most of them were in the basement (along with one of those preformed ponds you buy at home depot, where we kept 5 turtles). My pride and joy was an eight foot long 180 gallon Lake Tanganyika cichlid tank. For 4 feet of the tank I had rocks piled to the surface, sloping down toward the center. At the opposite end, I had bare sand and shells. I had quite the community – a lot of your typical species, the brichardis and leleupis, the julies, many of which were constantly breeding. I had a colony of L. multifasciatus shell dwellers. Some L. tretocephalus. (Most of these fish used to be in the genus Lamprologus, hence the L, however, some of them have been removed. The hobby still uses Lamprologus to describe many of these fish) But the real specimens were a largish 7 line Frontosa and a mature Lamprologus tetracanthus with bright yellow speckles. I loved that tank. But I went to college, and obviously that wasn’t going into a dorm room. But we had lots of other tanks. And I’ve done it all. Marines. Reefs. Discus. Rainbowfish. Malawi cichlids. Guppies. South American. Asian. Planted tanks (with DIY CO2). I’ve bred fish. I loved it. But its a hard hobby to keep up in tough times. Its expensive, and when you start paying rent and living on a graduate student wage, you have to start to make choices. Now, I only have one 29 gallon fish tank, devoted to Tanganyikan cichlids, perhaps in an attempt to relive my glory days. But I digress.
Working at the store, I was able to select fish from the wholesalers, meet breeders, reorder stock, and just in general, learn about the operation of the business. One day I might run my own store, or wholesaler. Or I might work at an aquarium, since I liked the store so much. And it made me want to pursue something having to do with fish as a career. Originally I thought I would go to school, learn more about these animals, and aquaculture, and I would go do it myself. Cut out the middle man. Make millions (hahahaha boy was I delusional). So I chose a school that wasn’t terribly far from home that had a good marine science program – the now defunct Southampton College of LIU (long story short, LIU shut down the campus to save money, then the state of NY purchased it and it became part of Stony Brook, then due to budget restraints, Stony Brook-Southampton is now closed as well). So I came to school, met some great people, and learned to SCUBA dive my first winter. This was incredible. I couldn’t believe I was missing out. Then, through the school, I volunteered at the New York Aquarium. At the time, I thought that was a dream job. It wasn’t, but through no fault of the aquarium. I actually love the New York Aquarium. I just realized that I didn’t want to just feed and clean all the time. So I went diving again. Then I did an internship with the National Marine Fisheries Service, doing Hudson River fish trawl surveys. That was fun. I loved it, although, in retrospect, I wish I had done my own project. Then I spent a semester at sea, traveled to the South Pacific, and started working at the school’s marine station. Eventually I received a scholarship to stay for a summer and do research which involved diving and seagrass (hence Zostera), took a job doing diving work for the USGS in Florida and now am back in school for the past 5ish years.
The moral of the story? Keeping fish tanks got me started down this path. Obviously, everyone who keeps a fish tank doesn’t end up a scientist. But I do think they hold considerable value, regardless of your thoughts on the trade itself. And so when I read about the freezing temperatures in Florida, I don’t just get worried about the price of orange juice going up. I worry about the hundreds of tropical fish farms where many species you see in the local pet stores are bred and raised. This winter has been particularly harsh for them.
Over half of all the tropical fish sold in the US come from Florida farms (the other half come from Asia). Typically, these fish sell best in the winter, since people are home more often (back in school and work from summer vacations, longer nights, etc) and can pay more attention to their tanks. The industry generates a $45 million dollar economy for the Florida farms. At least it did. The recession has already slowed the aquarium hobby, and more and ore people are buying electronics than anything else. Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of fun playing games on the Wii, but I would never choose a Wii over a fish tank. Maybe that’s my personal preference. But when I see these computer programs to run simulated fish tanks, like on Facebook, it drives me crazy. Just get one! It doesn’t have to be big, but its both fun and enriching. It is a learning experience. Anyway, the farmers are suffering the losses of millions of fish, which will hurt the already slowed industry. According to a NY Times article, “A severe guppy shortage has already emerged, according to distributors, while fish farmers statewide expect losses of more than 50 percent as African cichlids, marble mollies, danios and other cheerful-looking varieties sink like pebbles to the bottom of freshwater ponds across Florida.”
“It’s bad,” said David Boozer, executive director of the 120-member Florida Tropical Fish Farms Association. “We were hoping for an economic turnaround to pull us up by our bootstraps, and that may happen, but we certainly didn’t need 10 days of subnormal temperatures.” – NY Times
It tough times for farmers in general in Florida due to the freeze. But while tomatoes and oranges are more in the mainstream, not too many people think about fish farms. Most hobbyists pay no attention to where they come from, they just see them in the store and bring them home. But, I share a personal connection with these struggling fish farmers, and wanted to share. Hopefully things return to normal, damages can be minimized, and their ponds can be restocked. Hopefully they didn’t lose a considerable amount of business to the Asian market due to this weather pattern. I can’t imagine not having a fish tank, and am shocked at how few people now keep them. I encourage all of you to go ahead, get yourself a small set up. You will enjoy it! Here is a picture of my current fish tank (don’t mind the algae, I don’t!):