The other day, I gushed to you about my fave "Holy Grail"-type fish, Crenuchus spilurus, and it seems to have struck a chord in some of you- always a great thing when you're a writer, BTW!
I was chatting online this AM with a friend in Europe (gotta love the era we live in, right?) about some upcoming aquarium projects that we're both doing, and we were discussing our dream fish selections for said projects- often lamenting the lack of availability or difficulty in obtaining various species.
"I'd do a whole tank around that one...just can't find the damn fish anywhere..."
You've had those conversations, too. I know that you have!
This is both the bane of our existence and part of what makes the hobby so compelling and alluring, right?
As a lifelong hobbyist, I've spent a lot of time reading about, researching, observing, and collecting tropical fishes- just like most of you.
It's a big part of the hobby for many of us!
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 about wild fish populations- fishes that seem to be ridiculously abundant in their natural habitats- swarming in and out of view in all of those underwater Amazon videos-yet almost never even showing up as a blip on the radar for the hobby!
What gives? Why do we rarely see them in the hobby?
The mind boggles...
Or, is there a logical, straightforward explanation that we don't always think about?
Now, there are plenty of reasons why some seemingly abundant fishes never show up in the trade, the primary one being 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.
A basically grey, nearly monochromatic characin has little in the way of value to the exporters, who need to satisfy the demands of wholesalers, who in turn, cater to stores...who cater to hobbyists worldwide. Now, one only needs to contemplate how different things would be if suddenly there was a huge demand for this fish from the hobby world. Like, what if it became the "it" fish for some reason? Maybe it was the easiest characin on earth to breed, or if it was determined that they contained a specific protein in their tissues that is effective at treating cancer or something; we'd no doubt see 'em coming in by the ton!
Duh. Easy. Obvious.
So it's really about demand.
And that makes sense. We love our hobby, but collecting and importing fishes is...well, a business. And business largely runs on seemingly almost unfairly "dry", yet prudent, fiscal decisions.
Now, when you think about it, a fish being relatively drab and unremarkable in appearance has at least one benefit- it takes external pressures off of the wild populations of many species! No one is typically grabbing the grey characins or unmarked cichlids, right? So they can reproduce at will and maintain an abundance, while their more colorful brethren are picked off by sharp-eyed, profit-motivated fisherfolk by the thousand.
It's not really that difficult a concept to wrap our collective heads around, is it?
Yet, of course, as a hobbyist, I find myself wanting some of these less "interesting", yet relatively "common in nature" fishes to work with!
I know from my years in the marine side of the aquatic livestock industry that some of the more rare, less in-demand fishes will come in with more common, in-demand species as "incidental by-catch" on occasion, and the sharp-eyed hobbyist/collector can score a somewhat rare, albeit nondescript Tang, for example that just shows up in a shipment of 400 more commercially-viable Acanthurus leucosternon, or whatever.
(Acanthurus chirugus Image by JT Williamns, used under CC BY 2.5)
These are always cause for celebration among serious marine fish enthusiasts, and many cool forum post has been dedicated to a (on the surface, at least) relatively unexciting brown Tang that an eagle-eyed, highly experienced hobbyist nabbed at the wholesaler or LFS, picked out of a large group of the more popular species it arrived with.
These little "discoveries" fuel a lot of people's passion for the hobby!
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. This happens a lot with dwarf cichlids, like Apistogramma, and with catfishes, like Corydoras.
And that's what's fun, to me. You never know what might make it through! My local fish stores (and yours too, no doubt) has always had one of those "Any fish in this tank $1.00!" displays...and you just never know what true rarity you might find in there, cast aside from a tank full of more "viable" fishes...
And then there are fishes which don't make it in to the hobby to any degree because, well- they're not that appealing to a large number of hobbyists...yet. Perhaps they come from a specialized habitat, and need the same situation in an aquarium to show off their best color and vitality.
It's no secret that I've been obsessing for sometime 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 extensive litter banks of Amazonia in South America, yet virtually unknown to the hobby. A real shame, because they are fascinating fishes that we could do some cool stuff with in our tanks!
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- "the 1% of the 5%" of tropical fish enthusiasts who make up the segment of natural-style aquarium keeping, 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 in viable numbers? Not only would success with obscure species like this release us from our reliance on chance collection/importation of them, it could possibly even 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 need to continue to remove them from the wild. It's that "what if?" that keeps a lot of us dreaming! And of course, if enough people are exposed to such a fish, it just might open some eyes up to the pressures on the wild habitats which need our attention and care. A real "win" for Nature.
A very selfish, and I suppose, kind of a fantasy-like, almost blissfully ignorant point of view, I suppose, but fun to think about, right? Yet, entire specialties in the hobby, such as killifish keeping- are built upon this idea of obtaining and breeding relatively obscure species )and variants from different geographic localities) of fishes.
(Yes we DO obsess...Chromaphyosemion sp.- Image by Mike PA Calnun)
And of course, it's not limited to just killifishes. There's Bettas, Apistos, L-number Loricarids, etc.
I can imagine if I polled a random group of you, there would be many fishes (from different families of course) just like my little friend, Elachocharax, which would be treasured by a tiny group, and diligently maintained, spawned, and preserved for future generations to enjoy.
So, yeah- As part of our "fish geek due diligence", we need to keep an eye out on wholesale stock lists, and intently scrutinize vendors' and dealers' tanks, hoping, waiting, and watching. They may not be with us in the hobby right now- for any number of reasons, but these "out-of-sight", yet truly "aspirational fishes" are what keep a lot of us going...
US, the real "one percenters..."
These fishes hold us spellbound, captivated, and diligent.
They're always on our minds.
What's your dream fish, and when will it show up?
Do you look for "substitutes"- or hold out for the "real deal?" How badly do you want it?
Stay focused. Stay alert. Stay diligent. Stay persistent. Really- stay freaking relentless.
And Stay Wet.