Saving Nemo

How Will “Finding Nemo” Affect Marine Fish Keeping?

D. Patrick Donston, Pet Product News 2003

The movie “Finding Nemo” has raised public awareness about fish especially to children, but the negative side is that it may cause controversy over keeping fish in the aquarium. Retailers need to properly instruct pet owners about the husbandry practices and biological needs of clownfish. If thousands of little Nemos die because they are being sold improperly, the negative publicity could hurt the whole aquatics industry. All pet store owners should become familiar with the general guidelines if keeping these fish and pass them down to all employees involved with their sales. A good adviser knows the biological needs of the fish and can identify the right equipment and techniques for sustenance and growth. Clownfish, also known as anemone fishes, live unharmed among the stinging tentacles of sea anemones. They are members of the same family of fishes known as damsels (Pomacentridae).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlthough most sources say clownfish are easier marine fish to keep, most experienced marine keepers say any marine fish requires more attention and equipment than most freshwater fish. Compare selling a clownfish to selling a hard-to-keep freshwater fish, which usually requires oversize filtration, aquarium and possibly special equipment. Clownfish do not have to live among sea anemones in captivity. This is an adaptive trait that protects these colorful fish from predators in the wild. While this symbiotic relationship attracts new hobbyists, trying to sell anemones to everyone may cause more problems. Sea anemones require specific lighting and other expensive equipment, which a newbie might not be willing to purchase. In addition, sea anemones are very difficult animals to keep alive in captivity. Captive-bred clownfish thrive and do much better than their counterpart wild caught species, according to experienced fish keepers. It is also a responsible conservation practice that all pet stores should adhere to.

Starting Out Right

It’s nice to start with a 15 or 20 gallon aquarium because they’re fairly inexpensive and have a better area-volume ratio than a 10 gallon aquarium. A 24 inch long aquarium gives customers more lighting options if they choose to keep any photosynthetic animals later. Lighting is extremely diverse in price and strength. Recommend lights geared to the customers’ wants and needs. For someone who wants fish only, an inexpensive fluorescent top will suffice. But for keeping sea anemones and live coral, this will not be adequate. Recommend live rock and sand when setting up small marine aquariums. Studies and experience throughout the last 15 years show the advantages of using live rock and sand, which give better balance and stability to these systems than the standard aquarium filter. Using a small powerhead or powerfilter to efficiently circulate water throughout the rock provides the aquarium with adequate biological filtration as well as a denitrifying component.

Recommend a small protein skimmer to keep the water clear and live rock clean. If lighting were increased beyond a standard 20 watt fluorescent top, suggest a protein skimmer. Remember most new aquariums must go through a cycle or conditioning process before fish are added. Sending a Nemo home the first day may not be such a good idea. A bio-enzyme or live culture ensures ammonia and nitrite levels don’t peak. Make sure your staff knows the importance of conditioning the aquarium before a clownfish is put in.

How Much is that Clownfish in the Aquarium?

This chart can be used to advise customers who are considering a small marine or nano-reef. These are only guidelines; there may be other factors to consider. The customers’ budget and other animals they wish to keep must be understood before final recommendations are made.

Item: General Retail Price:
15 to 20 gallon aquarium $20 to $30
Heater $25 to $30
Thermometer $3 to $5
Marine Salt Mix $15 to $20
Hydrometer $10
Live Sand (20 lb.) $20 to $25
Water movement/filtration:
Power filter (oversized to 30-40 gal.) $30 to $50
Small powerhead $20 to $30
Live Rock (20 lbs.) $6 to $10 per pound

Lighting and top:

Fluorescent hood (24 inches) $30 to $50
or
Special: P.C., VHO, etc. $100 and up
Other:
Small protein skimmer

$50 to $120

Test kits $25 to $60
Approximate Cost: $390 to $700

A full test kit, or at the very least, a marine pH kit, hydrometer and alkalinity kit, should encompass all marine setups. In smaller aquariums, water parameters fluctuate more often. A customer should know how to test for these items and what to do if they go out of balance. Do not underestimate the alkalinity on a smaller tank, a common mistake some stores pass along to their customers. Research this subject if you’re in doubt. In the wild, clownfish come from stable environments where there are high concentrations of dissolved oxygen, a constant pH, low nitrate, CO2, and zero ammonia and nitrite. They are primarily affected by the chemistry and biological needs of their aquarium environment. These conditions are controlled by the aquarium owner, advice and equipment.

I have seen and heard a number of stores thus far where these little fish are going into tanks that are too small or otherwise inadequate. I believe this is happening due to inexperience of pet store clerks trying to sell these animals of great interest right now. It scares me to think of the negative publicity that may come about. Please research, educate your staff and instruct them to be responsible when selling these fish. Work within your customer’s budget, and give the best advice you can. Remember a good aquarist always does what’s best biologically for the animals. With this in mind, you may or may not sell the coveted clownfish, but your goodwill and honesty will go a long way.

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