Despite fishkeeping’s ongoing popularity, there are currently no formal qualifications for aquarium management and fish husbandry.

The pandemic has led to a boom in pet ownership across Australia. In fact, 69 per cent of Australian households now own a pet, up from 61 per cent only two years ago, according to Animal Medicines Australia’s Pets and the Pandemic study.

While dog and cat ownership has led the surge over the past two years, there has also been an increase in the number of households with pet fish, which has grown from 11 per cent to 13 per cent.  

“Fishkeeping experienced a boom during the pandemic,” explains Jared Patrick, Managing Director of Premier Pet, and current President of the industry’s peak body, the Aquarium Industry Association of Australia (AIAA).

“People were not travelling as much and staying closer to home, so they had more time spare to spend on hobbies, such as aquatics. However, the challenge we are currently facing is keeping these new entrants captivated by our hobby while the world opens back up again.”

A retailer’s checklist for fishkeeping  

Like any animal, fish have a very specific set of requirements to ensure their health and wellbeing in a tank setting long term. Most retailers will have a checklist of the requirements for consumers setting up tanks at home for the first time.

This will include an adequately sized tank for the size and style of species being kept, as well as number of fish being housed, suitable lighting for viewing the fish or growing plants, appropriate décor, or ornaments to provide cover for the fish, a species-specific diet, as well as any water conditioning chemicals or test kits. 

According to Ben Dessen, Retail Manager at Kellyville Pets, fish are more complex pets to keep due to the nature of the aquatic environment in which they live and rely on for their survival. If one element of their set up is not right, this will lead to a myriad of health complications and a negative experience for the customer as well as a poor welfare outcome for the fish.

Additionally, he says customers need to be educated about the nitrogen cycle and importance of cycling their tank before introducing any fish. This includes detailed customer education about water parameters and how to regularly test their water.

Just as important for retailers is in-store presentation.

“A professional, well-maintained store with clean tanks, healthy fish, clear signage and pricing, well merchandised products, and knowledgeable and friendly staff should be a minimum requirement for any store,” says Dessen.

According to Patrick, retailers should try to keep the set-up process as simple as possible so to not deter newcomers, while balancing providing enough information to ensure the aquatic life is adequately maintained.

Anthony Ramsey, Owner of Crystal Palace Aquarium and Founder of the AIAA, says it is essential retailers manage customers’ expectations and provide customers genuine advice and not just sell as much as they can upfront.

“Success leads to repeat custom over many months as they stock their aquarium and then for years to come with associated consumables, such as foods, water treatments and replacement filter medias. Poor advice or greedy selling inevitably leads to failure which ultimately leads to customers giving up on the hobby,” he says.

“The two most important pieces of advice for any new customer is to stock your aquarium slowly, over six to eight weeks, with four or five separate additions of fish. More importantly still is managing feeding and instilling the knowledge that less is more to ensure customers don’t crash their tank from excess and over feeding.”

A standardised approach to training 

Despite fishkeeping’s ongoing popularity, there are currently no formal qualifications for aquarium management and fish husbandry.

“On the most part, knowledge in the aquarium industry is gained from years of immersed experience and a lifelong passion of keeping all facets of ornamental fish varieties,” explains Ramsey.

However, he says there are many informal and online training modules offered by some suppliers and specialist aquatic vets. These training modules cater to both retailers and consumers and are predominately aimed around fish health (diagnosis and correct treatment), water chemistry, nutrition, and compatibility.

“There is definitely room for improvement, especially among larger big box retailers as they often see a high turnover of staff and their staff often won’t be dedicated aquatic specialists. This can sometimes lead to less-than-ideal advice being offered.”

Dessen says training varies significantly between retailers.

“It is up to an individual business to implement its own training and educational programs for its staff, to ensure they are confident and competent in all aspects of fishkeeping. As a result, staff knowledge and experience are not consistent and will vary store by store.”

He says it is important for staff to intricately know the fish species they keep and sell.

“Staff should be knowledgeable about the particular species or group of fish they are selling in their store. Issues can arise from poor customer education, which will ultimately lead to health complications with the fish and issues long term.

“It would be great to see an industry specific training qualification rolled out to the pet industry. This would help to raise standards overall and ensure that all staff working in pet stores have a minimum level of knowledge.”

Similarly, Patrick says education of the optimum husbandry for any companion animals, aquarium fish included, can always be better and will always be an issue.

“In saying that, the standard of knowledge available within many specialist aquarium stores is very good. It is so important to have the basic care requirements covered in any pet or aquarium shop as we need as many newcomers as possible to be successful in aquatics.  This is important for the maintenance and growth of the hobby and industry.”

Industry challenges

The aquarium sector has not been immune from the challenges seen throughout the economy. Cost of freight, delays, and poor availability of freight as well as manufacturing/fish farming delays has seen significant increases in both costs and the consistent availability of both live fish and aquarium related products and equipment.

Strict government regulations on both the importing and quarantining of live fish and a limited list of species approved for live import are also huge challenges for the legitimate aquarium industry.

“While the vast majority comply and do the right thing, a lack of compliance in this space has seen a rapid growth of an underground aquarium industry, largely independent from the legitimate industry,” explains Ramsey.

“This black market side to the aquatics sector profits greatly from smuggled species, usually sold through online channels, that the mainstream industry is prohibited from trading in.”

One of the biggest issues currently facing the aquatics industry is the rising costs and complexities surrounding the importation of fish into Australia. Increased freight and logistics costs are seeing the prices of fish rise significantly, both at a wholesale and retail level.

“On a national and global scale one of the biggest challenges being faced now is the supply chain and logistics challenges,” says Patrick.

“From issues with the fish being delivered from rural areas in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand into the capital cities for export, to international airfreight being offloaded, to very expensive international airfreight (three to five times pre-covid costs), and then all of the increasing local costs we’re experiencing. Then we see the delays in deliveries to pet and aquarium shops within Australia due to transport shortages and bottlenecks.”

A tightening of the legalities and requirements surrounding fish importation is also contributing to an increase in costs, according to Dessen.

“A number of leading fish wholesalers are focusing on increasing the number of ornamental fish they breed in Australia to combat the complexities of importation. This is also a favourable environmental outcome as it takes pressure off the wild harvest and collection of many fish species overseas.”

Currently, Australia has a strict aquarium fish list of allowable imports both fresh and marine. The AIAA has been working to add to the import list. The association currently has nine species being assessed for import under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. 

“This is a confusing, and onerous process whereby each fish is rigorously assessed by the Environment Department for suitability to be added to the import list,” explains Patrick.

“The draft submissions for each of the nine species has been out to public consultation and also, we have received some initial comments from the Environment Department for us to consider adding additional information to our reports. We expect to submit our final updated reports soon.”

Aquarium advancements

The technology available in keeping marine and reef tanks has improved dramatically over the past decade and the subsequent success of keeping these animals has improved in parallel. 

“At the entry level to the market, plug and play all in one aquarium packages continue to improve the quality of filtration and lighting they offer,” says Ramsey.

“At the top end of the market and particularly prevalent in the reefing scene is the rise of connected Wi-Fi or Bluetooth enabled devices. Many of these high-end brands now offer complete control, monitoring, and custom programmability direct from your smartphone.”

One notable trend has been the interest around ‘aquascaping’, which is the craft of arranging and creating aquatic environments with live plants, driftwood, rocks, and various substrates.

“A carefully aquascaped tank is equivalent to a living piece of art inside the home and can be a stunning feature,” says Dessen.

In addition to aquascaped tanks, other popular trends include nano-tanks and nano-fish, shrimp-only tanks, and also living reef marine tanks.

Technology has evolved to enhance the fishkeeping experience for both keepers and the fish they are so passionate about. Recent advancements in LED aquarium lighting have resulted in a wider variety of plants and corals being kept successfully in a captive setting.

Additionally, smart filtration systems and tanks are taking the hobby into the future, with devices capable of measuring temperatures and water parameters and feeding this data to a phone app.

“Not only is technology and the products we use improving, but our knowledge and understanding is constantly growing as well,” says Dessen.

Trending species

So, what are the most popular fish species according to the experts?

According to Ramsey, perennial staples such as freshwater tropical species like; Tetras, livebearers and different catfish species, still remain the most popular by volume sold, while Siamese fighting fish remain a top beginner’s choice for small aquariums.

“The consumer trend towards smaller and smaller aquariums has seen a fall of popularity in larger Cichlid species and goldfish as they are better suited to larger aquariums. Instead, smaller all in one aquarium packages have seen a rapid rise in the keeping of planted ‘nano’ aquariums, stocked with tiny tropical nano fish varieties and colourful ornamental shrimp.”

Dessen says the most popular ornamental fish species kept in Australia are goldfish varieties as well as common tropical species such as neon tetras and bettas.

“These species are generally hardy and slightly more forgiving of any shortfalls regarding the husbandry of novice keepers,” he says.

“At Kellyville Pets we have not noticed a recent change and these entry level species have remained the most popular for many decades.”

This article was written by Claire Hibbit for the Aug/Oct issue of Pet Industry News.

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