When I was a young child, my father gave me my first fish- essentially some culls from his pure strain of solid blue Delta-Tail guppies. Having just turned 5, I couldn't care what they were, I was just thrilled to have some fish!
Obviously, as they years went by and my experience with fishes of all types grew, I began to be more of stickler when it came to the quality of the fishes I wanted for my collection. Like every hobbyist, I wanted the nicest specimens for my collection. However, I would occasionally purchase some "ugly ducklings" in the hope that my better-than-average care could bring out the best in them. Now, this is not an uncommon thing with fish geeks, right? It seems like almost every fish geek has a tank or two of "factory seconds"- fishes which may not be the best example of their species; fishes which may actually have some physiological issues. Fishes which, if they were in the wild, may not have made it.
Now, don't get me wrong- I'm ALL about compassion. I'm the guy who won't crush that wayward spider or cricket that wanders into the kitchen...But when it comes to fishes, I have tempered my compassion with a dose of reality, and an understanding of consequence. I am not an active breeder of fishes at the moment, but I know that if I was, I'd be pretty ruthless when it comes to culling. I have this issue with poor quality fishes getting into the hobby, as many of you probably do.
One of the things I hate the most is when you purchase a shoal of say, 15 Neon Tetras from the LFS, and you will almost always end up with 2 or 3 that, upon very close scrutiny, have small defects- missing or bent pectoral fins, missing gill plates, etc. Maybe even a crooked spine. Small defects that, perhaps don't harm the fish or render it incapable of survival, but problems that may or may not affect them later in life. The larger issue, as we all know, is that these lower quality specimens sneak into the gene pool, sometimes spawning, and perhaps affecting generations of the fish in a local area. And it's easy to overlook some of these little defects, particularly when you're purchasing small, shoaling/schooling fishes like characins, Danios, and Cyprinids, like I do.
We all have to be vigilant about this. It seems obvious, but it IS kind of hard to tell, in the chaos and activity of the store, that this Leopard Danio had a oddly-tilted caudal peduncle, or that the Rasbora was missing a section of it's left gill cover- but these things can't be allowed when we breed them (intentionally or otherwise), because the long-term quality of the species in captivity can be affected. And quite honestly, in recent years, I've noticed a lot of lower quality specimens, particularly of mass-bred fishes, slipping through the cracks and getting into retail stores, and often, ending up in hobbyists' aquariums.
This is not meant to be an indictment of every fish farming operation out there, or an allegation that wholesalers, or the LFS does a poor job. However, it IS meant to sort of give us all the occasional reminder that QC should start with the fish farmers, and the process needs to be continued at the wholesale, retail, and hobby levels. At every stage, buyers can and should "vote with their pocketbooks" and let the suppliers know that 27 of the 250 Neons they purchased had subtle, but significant defects.
Yes, it IS often difficult to catch the "bad apples" when you're dealing with thousands of fishes- I know, I've operated a large scale aquatic livestock facility, and worked at a number of aquarium related businesses over the decades. I get it. However, it's critical, IMHO. Captive bred fishes are a vital part of the industry, and will be forever. However, with the hobby growing rapidly, and demand growing, it's incumbent upon us all- fish farmers, wholesalers, LFS owners/employees, and hobbyists, to carefully scrutinize every fish we purchase, and offer feedback along the chain
I'm no geneticist, and I am certainly not an authority on quality control in an industrial setting, but it seems to me that quality of the fishes we sell is so much more important than simply meeting a purchase order commitment. "Commoditizing" fishes may look great on a spread sheet, but it simply doesn't make sense from a long-term viability standpoint. And quite frankly, I think our aquarium fishes need to cost more. Yup. We need to put a greater value on them- particularly wild-collected fishes, as this supports those in the countries of origin who earn a livelihood collecting our fishes, rather than contributing to deforestation and other ecologically unsound activities that would be more attractive if fishing for ornamentals wasn't an option. It's a privilege to have access to these animals, and the price needs to reflect this at all levels.
And honestly, even the larger commercial facilities should, I believe, charge more.The LFS should charge more. It better reflects the truly precious nature of the animals that we keep. I realize this won't make me popular with some hobbyists, but it's how I feel. I understand it's already an expensive hobby, but it's more expensive in the long run to devaluate and commoditize fishes. And quite frankly, I'd like to see even more fish stores and even wholesale operations getting behind "basement breeders" and small boutique fish producers, to further enhance quality and selection.
Small-scale breeders WILL charge more- as they should- to reflect the expensive realities of small-scale, careful fish breeding. Just like we see with small-batch food producers, coffee roasters, and craft beer brewers, the "ecosystem" around tropical fish production can and should reflect an even greater commitment to quality, value, and sustainable pricing. We as a hobby need to look beyond just the initial price of the fish at the LFS. We need to really understand- as we probably already do, and perhaps don't care to vocalize- that quality has a price. And, that lack of quality has an even greater price. We should make a choice.
It's long run versus short run, IMHO. Sure, it's great to be able to get thousands of really cheap Apistos, or whatever, into the market...lots of hobbyists could get them. However, in the long run, flooding the market with cheap, lower quality fishes with higher mortality and defect rates does nothing to advance the hobby long term, or to add value to the practice of collecting, breeding, and distributing them. We just have to be honest with ourselves and make what, for a lot of us IS a tough call: Accepting the fact that more expensive animals will lead to a brighter and better future long-term.
Again, this is not an indictment of large scale fish farming, wild collection, or the way fishes are sold. It IS a call for all of us, as consumers and hobbyists, to simply step back periodically and look at the bigger picture. Will paying an extra dollar/euro (or whatever your local currency may be) make or break your decision to stay in the hobby? Only you can answer that, but if enough people say, "Yeah, it's not so bad..." what a difference that would make...globally.
Not only now, but far into the future. For us, for our children, and for the children of those who work so hard to collect, propagate, and distribute the fishes we love so much.
And of course, for the irreplaceable habitats worldwide that are affected by our actions.
And for generations yet to be born, who will continue to enjoy the wonder and diversity of nature, which we will all have done our part to treasure and protect.
Treasure your fishes. Treasure your hobby. Treasure your fellow humans. We all know to do this, but it can't hurt to reflect upon it every once in a while.
Stay bold. Stay compassionate. Stay involved.
And Stay Wet.