Saltwater Fish Buying Guide

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Saltwater Fish Buying Guide

Making Informed, responsible, and successful choices.


Conscientious Purchasing:  Protecting the reefs and your wallet.

                Marine aquarium keeping is notorious for the stories of doomed aquariums and whole-tank wipeouts.  Experiences like these are completely avoidable with a little education, care, and caution.  The first place to carry this attitude is when buying fish at the pet shop.  Knowledge is your best investment!  If you are new to the marine aquarium hobby a good book (or 2, or 3) on the subject is a must.  You must have a basic knowledge of the animals that you are considering for purchase.  There are many excellent and affordable guides available.  If you lose one animal because you didn't understand its needs, the chances are that the book would have paid for its self.  One of the biggest mistakes that newer hobbyists make when purchasing new fish is choosing the wrong type of fish for their aquariums.  When choosing prospective inhabitants it is imperative that the fish will be the correct size, temperament, and difficulty level for the home aquarium they are destined for.  Another consideration is the husbandry demands that the different species will make on the aquarist.  Some animals require minimal attention, and others need care multiple times a day.  It is very important to choose specimens who's care level is a good match for the aquarist's skill level and free time.  Besides understanding the needs of a prospective purchase, it is important to have a basic understanding of how the marine fish industry works.  Too often fish are purchased without any thought given to the sourcing and stress level of the animal.  Insight into the process of live fish shipping and dissemination will help one make careful choices in the store. 


A peek behind the scenes.

                Marine animals for the pet trade come from tropical seas all over the world.  Most are collected from Coral Reefs and surrounding environments.  A small, but growing number are bred in captivity. The animals that are collected in the wild have a potentially long and convoluted path from the reef to your home aquarium.  The longer the supply chain, the more stress the animal experiences.  It is important to purchase animals from vendors that make an effort to streamline this process.  This ultimately leads to healthier livestock and fish that survive longer in home aquariums. Lee's Feed purchases from vendors that minimize the stress involved in the supply chain through a variety of means including vertical integration, captive propagation, and in-house quarantining.

                Typically the supply chain for a reef-collected fish looks like this:

                Collector -> Broker -> Exporter -> Importer -> Wholesaler -> Retailer -> You

                That's a lot of hands involved in the process and each stop induces stress on the fish.  The main vendors used by Lee's Feed have reduced the shipping time and complexity by owning the whole process.  In other words, the people that collect the fish from the reef work directly for the vendor that we buy from.  Because there is no weak link in the chain of ownership, fish of dubious origin have no way to make it into the supply stream.  Instead of a long, open supply chain, the process is simplified:

                Collector -> Importer -> Retailer ->You

                This is tremendously important for receiving healthy livestock in the store.  This is also a wonderful way to know everything about the animal that you are buying, as special tags are displayed with all relevant information on where the specific animal was collected, and when it was received in the store.  This kind of attention to detail does induce a slightly higher cost, however when purchasing an expensive display animal the peace of mind that is gained is worth a few dollars.

                Another way to make sure you are giving your pets the best chance of survival is to buy fish and corals that were raised in captivity.  Wild caught animals have to adjust to living in an artificial environment that may not look anything like what it is used to.  Some fish are very adaptable and make that transition happily; others are a great challenge even for experts.  When buying animals used to captivity, there is no difficult transition for the animal and stress is minimized.  This also relieves collection pressures on the reefs.  It is entirely possible to have a beautiful reef aquarium completely stocked with specimens that have never seen the reef!

                To achieve this one first has to learn the lingo that is used in the industry to denote the origin of animals.  There are a few terms used regularly, and some are used interchangeably causing confusion.

                -Tank Raised (captured as larvae and grown-out in aquariums).  Fish from these sources do not struggle from any transition when placed in the home aquarium.  They are collected as tiny larvae from plankton drifts and grown to sellable size in aquariums.  The collection of larvae is considered by most experts to be much better for wild populations of fish and the reef in general.

                -Captive bred (bred, hatched, and raised in aquariums).  These fish are the safest and most environmentally conscious choice.  When presented with an option, always buy captive bred animals. For the time being our choices are limited to Anemone fish, gobies, dottybacks, and some damsel fish, but the list is growing steadily!

                -Aquacultured Corals (Fragments of wild corals raised in outdoor ocean farms).  There are a growing number of these operations in places such as Bali, Tonga, and New Guinea.  Samples of wild reef colonies are taken and grown to larger sizes in controlled conditions.

                -Captive Cultured Corals (Fragments of captive corals raised in aquariums).  Corals that have been grown in captivity will display an unusual level of hardiness and are excellent choices. 

                -Wild Caught (collected as adults from the reef).  For many reef animals this is still the only way to obtain them.  Buy animals reputable dealers that purchase their stock from well-regulated fisheries.

                -Aquarium Conditioned (long term aquarium residents).  These animals have already been acclimated to captive life and will certainly fare better than freshly imported animals.


Avoiding Cyanide-caught fish.

                The shameful scourge of the marine hobby is the prevalence, in some areas, of a fishing method that uses Sodium Cyanide poison to easily collect fish from the reef.  Cyanide is a powerful poison and it stuns fish long enough to be collected by hand.  Unfortunately, this method kills many, many fish for every one fish that survives long enough to make it to the retail store.  To compound this already terrible cost, the reef that is exposed to the cyanide is usually killed as well.  If that wasn't enough, most fish that survive the initial poisoning die from related complications up to a few months later. Some collection locales have a worse track record than others for cyanide use, and some animals are notorious for being collected with cyanide.  Traditionally, the worst offenders are The Philippines, and increasingly, areas of Indonesia.  These are poor areas, and regulation of collection practices are practically non-existent.  Their coastlines are also huge, so what regulation that does exist is overburdened.

                You can minimize your chance of purchasing cyanide-collected fish by following a few simple steps:

                1) Demand (with your dollar and vocally) that your retailer makes serious efforts to purchase safer fish.  There are a few ways this can be accomplished by a conscientious supplier, so it is not too much to ask.  Fish from certain well-regulated regions are safe (see guide), as are those that are certified safe by a regulating body like the Marine Aquarium Council (MAC Certified).  Additionally, high quality importers know exactly where fish are from and who caught them because they own the whole process.  There is no weak link in the supply chain so dubious animals have no way to make it into the supply stream. 

                 2) When purchasing fish look for signs of cyanide poisoning such as listless "spacey" behavior, extreme intense coloration, and emaciation coupled with a voracious appetite.  Avoid fish that exhibit this behavior.  Additionally, be very picky about buying certain "problem" fish.  Some Tangs, large angels, butterflies, and damselfish are notoriously stricken by cyanide poisoning.  These animals are very challenging to collect off the reef though other means, and cyanide is often used.

                3) Buy animals that are bred in captivity!  Captive bred animals are obviously free from cyanide worries and all the other negative impacts of reef collection.  Always buy captive bred and captive propagated animals when a choice is available.

                Here is a list of common sources of fish and inverts in the aquarium trade.  Sources that have little or no history of cyanide fishing are listed as 'safe'.  The length of time between the day of collection to landing on Mainland American soil is also listed.  This is an important factor when considering stress.  Most collection locales have regulation in place, but often enforcement is lax.  Notable examples are listed.

                                Hawaii (Safe, Short trip, well regulated)

                                Florida (Safe, Short trip, well regulated)

                                Caribbean and Brazil (Safe, Short trip)

                                'Mexico' (Safe, Short trip, usually other Pacific Central American waters)

                                Fiji (usually safe, long trip)

                                Tonga (Safe, medium trip, well regulated)

                                Bali (usually safe, long trip)

                                Indonesia (use caution, medium to long trip, poorly regulated)

                                Philippines (use caution, medium trip, poorly regulated)

                                Maldives (Safe, Very Long Trip, well regulated)

                                Red Sea (Usually safe, Very Long Trip)

                                Kenya (Use caution, Very Long Trip, poorly regulated)

                                Western Australia (Safe, Very Long Trip, well regulated)

                                Others (New Guinea, Vanuatu, Palau, Cook Islands, etc.).  These Locales                                                              usually require special permits or collection trips that are attempted                                                      by professional outfits.  As such, the collection methods are first rate,                                                    but the trips are long, and the overhead high.  The livestock will                                                  command premium prices.)

                So now that you have the knowledge of what to look for in a prospective purchase, one might wonder how to go about getting that information at the store.  Here at Lee's Feed we make efforts to place all relevant collection information on pricing tags.  Additionally, we will be glad to answer any questions related to the care and sourcing of any animal, and will feed any fish to check for appetite and stress level.


Quarantine your fish!

                One of the best ways to ensure that your display animals are safe and healthy is to quarantine all new purchases before adding them to your tank.   Marine fish diseases are easily communicable and can be difficult to treat.  By adding fish to a very simple separate aquarium first they can be easily treated for disease or fattened-up.   Most new fish should be kept apart for 2 or 3 weeks to rule out any chance of parasitic diseases.  A 20 or 29 gallon tank with a simple air driven filter, a place to hide, and a heater is all that is needed for most fish.  This tank can be easily drained and stored when not in-use, and set-up in minutes when a new fish is desired.  This simple practice can prevent disease from spreading in your main display tank, saving the aquarist the heartache of watching delicate and expensive wild animals slowly succumbing to preventable disease.


NO GUARANTEE on marine animals. (Why no standing guarantee?)

                Marine Tanks, and especially reef tanks, should only be attempted by committed hobbyists.  The fish and invertebrates are very sensitive and are easily killed by mistakes and conditions in the home aquarium that are beyond the control of Lee's Feed.  Instead of subsidizing the losses of a few and spreading-out that cost in our markup, we have decided to reward conscientious hobbyists by offering a lower markup at initial sale.  Please note that our lack of a standing guarantee on marine animals does not imply a lack of confidence in our livestock!  In fact, the opposite is true.  We are very picky about sourcing our fish and corals and spend many hours per day caring for them.  We are proud of them, and we know that your chances of losing new fish are low if you have followed the buying guidelines outlined above and care for your home system properly.  (Rarely, certain situations may warrant replacement.)



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