Out of obscurity: Those "aspirational" fishes?

Like so many of you, as a lifelong hobbyist, I've spent a lot of time reading about, researching, observing, and collecting tropical fishes. And, in all of those years of researching, I couldn't help but wonder about some of "those" fishes- you know, the ones that are found in scientific studies and papers- fishes that seem to be ridiculously abundant in their natural habitats, yet never even show up as a blip on the radar for the hobby. The ones that a few of us geeks crave...long for...seek out.

I call 'em "aspirational fishes."

For a lot of years, my fave "aspirational fish" was the "Sailfin Tetra", Crenuchus spilurus. Not exactly the sexiest-looking fish out there, but unique, different, and interesting. Certainly worthy of a place in the hobby. It took me almost 30 years to get some- but it was well worth the wait for me!

Now, Crenuchus may not be the very best example, because it's not super, super abundant, but there are plenty of others out there which ARE extremely abundant, and, for many of them, there are multiple reasons why some of them never show up in the trade.   

The primary one- perhaps even the single most important one- being the fact that the collectors are simply not aware of any commercial value for them, and are far better off, from an economic standpoint, when they bring in 5,000 Cardinal Tetras instead of the abundant, but commercially "uninteresting" Hemmigramus elegans, for example.

The basically grey, nearly monochromatic characin has little in the way of value to the exporters, who need to satisfy the demands of thousands of hobbyists worldwide.

Now, if suddenly there was a huge demand for this fish from the hobby world, or if it was determined that they contained a protein in their tissues that is effective at treating cancer, we'd see 'em coming in by the ton!

Duh. Easy. Obvious.

So it's really about demand.

That makes sense to me. When you think about it, you could state that a fish being relatively drab and "unremarkable" in appearance actually has at least one benefit- it takes external pressures off of the wild populations of many species! Well, that's sort of arrogant of me- human that I am...it's a HUGE benefit for the fish!

And to some extent, I think it's also related to my love of "brown" environments...like our blackwater/botanical-style aquariums, for example! Not everyone's idea of a good time, right?

Yet, of course, as a hobbyist, I find myself wanting some of these less "interesting", yet decidedly common fishes to work with! I know from the marine livestock industry that some of the more obscure, less in-demand fishes will come in with more common species as what fisher-types call "incidental by-catch", and the sharp-eyed hobbyist/collector can occasionally score a somewhat common-in-nature (albeit nondescript and uncommon in the hobby) Tang, for example- that just shows up in a shipment of 400 more commercially-viable Ctenochaetus species, or whatever.


And it's the same in the freshwater market, of course.

Sometimes a few of these (hobby) oddities will trickle through in a group of more widely known, more commercially viable species. And occasionally, they find themselves in the hands of some really sharp retailers who understand the (hobby) scarcity of the fish and their value to a hobbyist. Some "chromatically-challenged" fishes sometimes even eventually become hobby "staples!"

And that's what's fun, to me. You never know what might make it through!

It's no secret that I've been obsessing forever about the small, relatively nondescript characin, Elachocharax pulcher. Part of one of my fave families, Crenuchidae, these are little, darter-like fishes that are common and abundant in the litter banks of Amazonia in South America, yet virtually unknown to the hobby.

They obviously would work really well in the leaf-litter beds that we're somewhat fond of replicating in our own aquariums, and would no doubt be popular within our tiny community of enthusiasts. They're cool enough that even hobbyists who have never heard of or seen them could be enticed to keep some if they were actually available!

Of course, I have no illusion that us 1% of the 5% of tropical fish enthusiasts who make up the segment of biotope-oriented characin lovers who keep leaf litter aquariums would even show up as an economically viable segment worth catering to by collectors. However, what if a few of these cool fish got through...and what IF some capable hobbyists were able to breed them?

Not only would success with obscure species like this release us from our reliance on chance collection/importation of them, it could permanently satisfy a demand- regardless of how tiny- for this cool little fish in the hobby! And, most important, it could conceivably prevent any sort of demand to continue to remove them from the wild.

It's that "what if?" that keeps a lot of us dreaming!

A very selfish and kind of a fantasy-like, almost blissfully ignorant point of view, I suppose- but fun to think about, right? I can imagine if I polled a group of you, there would be many fishes (from different families of course) just like my little friend, Elachocharax pulcher, which would be treasured by a tiny group, and preserved for future generations to enjoy. And you'd be stoked to devote a tiny section of your fish room to the propagation of one of these "aspirational fishes", right?

So, we keep an eye out on wholesale stock lists and in vendor's and dealer's tanks, hoping, waiting, and watching. They may not be with us in the hobby right now- for any number of reasons, but these "aspirational fishes" are what keep a lot of us going in the hobby...They're always on our minds.

What's your dream fish, and when will it show up?

Keep looking. Stay alert. Stay enthused.

And Stay Wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


Leave a comment