What's for dinner? Disrupting the fish food game. Another plea to you budding fish food manufacturers out there...

Yeah, the question that has plagued moms around the world for centuries is one that we give more than just a little bit of thought to in the fish world, right?

Now, before I get too deep into this, I issue the heads-up that this is one of those pieces that will possibly piss off a tiny few my friends and colleagues who work in the aquatics industry. It will no doubt show a level of obliviousness or lack of understanding of how things work in the aquarium foods sector, and perhaps a ridiculous naiveté that only an outsider would display. So be it. (Of course, I really don't give a crap if I offend you, just in case you must know. My skin is plenty thick, the world will keep rotating, and my wife will still love me even if you don't. )

The world of tropical fish foods is pretty amazing. It's an industry that has some of the hobby's most respected and dominant companies in the game. And some of the newer brands that have come along in recent years, particularly in the marine food sector, have delivered remarkable breakthrough products that have changed the game. We're talking things like live and frozen rotifers, copepods, mysids, micron-sized coral feeds, etc. The number of foods for aquatic animals on the market today is crazy! I'll bet its a high multi-million dollar industry!

I mean, a recent scan of a major online aquatics retailer's Food section yielded a remarkable 280 plus varieties of fish food. I mean, that's crazy cool! But what I found interesting is that, in the freshwater world, other than the frozen and dried  foods that were things like "Blood Worms", "Tubifex", and "Daphnia", most of the foods intended for freshwater species are sort of "adopted" to our needs, a la Brine Shrimp. Now, I'm not "dissing" the venerable frozen brine shrimp, the poster child for the aquarium food industry. Nor any of the hundreds of quality dry and freeze-dried foods out there. No, sir. These foods have made the modern hobby convenient, dynamic, and accessible for millions.


However, what makes me curious (and probably shows my ignorance, too) is why there are so very few foods that are simply- well- the stuff that freshwater fishes eat in the wild? Yeah, really. I mean sure, there are a few...but they're far in between, really. Think about it for a moment. If you really want to feed your fishes "authentic" food- you know, the equivalent of fish "health food", you either have to culture your own-not something everyone wants to do-or somehow source foods that are not commercially available. To me, pellets are convenient and all that jazz- but they're kind of...souless, if you know what I mean?


Of course, you can use any of the fine 400-odd fish foods on the market and just "deal with it", in which case, my work is done here.  :)

Pressing forward, following that lengthy preamble-and with much love and respect for the fish food industry- I must ask again, "Why do we not see "whole foods" on the market that are representative of what freshwater fishes consume in the wild?"

I mean, the information about what fishes consume in the wild is readily available for those who take the time to look. Gut content analysis has been part of ichthyology for many years, and yields remarkable information about the habitat- and habits- of freshwater tropical fishes. And what are the most common "menu items" for many non-herbivorous freshwater fishes? Insects, insect larvae, copepods, crustaceans, fish eggs (and fish). Of all the foods we see on the market, only a handful come to mind that are more-or-less highly representative of the type and "form factor" that freshwater fishes consume in the wild: Blood Worms, Tubifex, Daphnia, and Fish Eggs (shameless shout out to one of my fave foods, Doc's Eco Eggs), and harpactoid copepods (used for marine fish feeds). Oh, and wood-containing foods for Plecos and such.

Now, these are all fine foods, and feeding a combination of almost any one of them will do the job and keep your fishes fat and happy for a lifetime. We should feed combinations of these foods a lot, and I think we do. However, my point here is that I can't help but wonder (much like I do about replicating wild habitat water conditions for fishes, rather than "acclimate" them to ours) if our tropical fishes would be just a bit better off if they were fed foods that literally were close counterparts or exact specimens of what they have evolved to eat in the wild? Such as aquatic insects, like Diptera pupae, Coleoptera and Trichoptera larvae and adults, and a variety of Harpacticoidae copepods. 

Okay, this begs the next question: "What the @#$% are Diptera and Coleoptera, etc. anyways?" Well, Diptera is an order- a big old assemblage of lots of species of...flies! Now, I'm not talking about using the annoying nasty ones we like to swat...but I suppose that's a start...Well, anywaysTrichoptera are larger insects known collectively as "Caddis Flies." Species of them are found worldwide. Hmm...

And then the next question is...How do you get this stuff? Is it even economically viable or safe, or?  How many people would really buy this stuff? (they MUST have said this about Brine Shrimp, too at one point, right?) Well, I don't know. I'm not in the fish food industry, and I haven't made the effort to try to disrupt it. Yet.

And believe me, I understand...Me, "Mr. Aquatic Botanical Guy", who's sourced all sorts of exotic stuff from all over the world, literally has to tell my suppliers in the tropical regions of the world, "Just pick up some of the dried leaves that fall in the jungle...You know, the stuff near the streams?" I can name the species, even. And they still continue to supply me with the "everyday" Catappa and such...because, well-  that's what they know. That's what sells to the industry. That's how it's done. Thinking outside the box for these guys is a bit risky, less cost-effective initially, and entirely full of unknowns. And as we know, most businesses eschew the unknowns and risks associated with going "off the board" on stuff. I get it. I don't like it. I don't believe in it. But I totally get it.

And with foods like insects and such from tropical aquatic environments, there are obviously other things to overcome...like the fact that some harbor parasites and disease that may infect both fishes and humans. Yeah, I know, you're thinking about the absurdity of importing wild mosquito larvae that may be carrying the Zika virus or whatever...I hear ya'. I mean, getting "assorted South American insect larvae" through customs might be a bit daunting.

What I am suggesting is that there may very well be "pure," disease-and-parasite-free laboratory-grown specimens of many tropical insects that can fill the role as "supply" for the fish food industry. Or, substitutes-species in North America, Asia, or Europe that are easier to obtain. Okay, like Wingless Fruit Flies, right? YES! Hobbyists have been culturing them for decades, and pure cultures are available in labs. They're readily available from both hobbyists and biological supply houses. Couldn't they be incorporated in a "fresh" preserved state-not freeze-dried and incorporate into a flake with fish meal and dozens of other "things" we find in fish foods? I mean, perhaps kept concentrated  in some sort of nutritive solution that preserves both their form and freshness? Perhaps refrigerated? 


I know that I'd pay good money for concentrated, preserved disease-free wingless fruit flies, or cultured, lab-grade Caddis Flies... Yeah. Wingless fruit flies are more-or-less utilized already in the hobby...just that no one, to my knowledge, has made them available in a more "pret a porter" fashion- ready to feed without the hassle of culturing the damn things. Wouldn't that make a few more people try them? Oh, I know that some exotic stuff has been available in the past from good companies- frozen Mosquito larvae, Glass Worms, Cyclops...However, in this exploding new age of aquarium hobby enlightenment, perhaps it's now time to go after marketing these food items more seriously and in a more coordinated fashion (Pay me the $200 consulting fee if you want my hour's worth of ideas and input on this, lol) Some budding aquatic food entrepreneur out there could literally build an "Empire of the Flies" if he or she wants to take a crack at this stuff! You could be the "Uber of exotic aquatic feeds" or something...

And of course, as previously mentioned, we do have marine species of copepods, as well as Daphnia, so we've sort of got that covered. I am sure that the nutritional profile of these is somewhat different than their freshwater counterparts, but it couldn't hurt to try these foods, right?  Although I wonder if anyone is working with culturing freshwater copepods on any large scale? Something again that I have not looked into just yet. 

So what would a "dream fish food" look like to me? Some form of minimally preserved, refrigerated, squeeze-bottle-feedable combination of Fruit flies, Caddis fly larvae and adults, Daphnia, and small Blood Worms. Talk about a "buffet in a bottle" for fishes, right?

Okay, fish food entrepreneurs- I've given you a minimal framework to do more research and develop a product. Many of you have advanced degrees in biology and other backgrounds that could really give you an advantage when looking to disrupt this market! There is a ton I didn't touch on, forgot to touch on, glossed over out of ignorance, etc., and much more I could have said on the subject, but for those of you who are "picking up what I'm putting down", I think that the gears are already spinning. I mean, YOU have to do some of the work on this, right? And I didn't even ask for royalties in this rant, either. Of course, if you're offering...


Well, seriously- there are possibilities here. They are not easy to execute at scale, no doubt. They involve sourcing, manufacturing, preserving, packaging, and possibly certifying. The payoff, if any, will no doubt be "down the line"...and who knows? It may NOT prove to be viable at scale. On the other hands, a convenient, easy-to-use combination or "a la carte" items from this "natural selection" of foods might prove to be a huge thing to public aquariums, hatcheries, and hobbyists worldwide. You don't know until you go for it, right?

So, maybe I once again pissed off some of you...bored a handful, turned off a bunch...but maybe...just maybe- one or two or three of you read this and thought, "Ya' know, I might just look into this..." in which case this rant was wildly successful! You've got this. 

Where else are you going to read THIS kind of stuff, anyways, right?

So, until next time...

Live the dream...Or dream about living the dream...

Stay innovative. Stay creative. Stay in your blissful force field of benign ingrnarance...the one that makes you dare to ask, "Why?"- and gives you the courage to change stuff...

And stay wet!

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics  

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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