“First of all,” says Dave Huie, “it should really be called the exotic fish hobby, not the tropical fish hobby.” Beneath his glasses, Huie’s face is scrunched into a look of bemusement. “Although, even that name’s not exactly right. Exotic being outside the United States, and tropical meaning between the tropics. The hobby really involves every fish you could possibly keep inside a tank. And there are well over 30,000 species of fish. Well over. And this is just a guess, but there are probably somewhere between 600 and 1000 species just within what’s called the ‘tropical fish’ hobby.”
Huie met his wife at a Tropical Fish Society meeting, and the two were married a year or so later, next to the fish pond in Balboa Park. The president of the club presided over the ceremony.
Huie, 52, is of Chinese descent. His graying hair stands out all over the place.
“The problem with this hobby now is, it’s my obsession,” he says. “And how do you keep from just blowing all your money on it?”
Huie and about a dozen other prominent San Diego fish fiends have gathered on a Saturday morning in a no-frills office behind a little white house in National City.
The smell of moss and water permeates the space.
This is the administrative office of a small website business run by Charley Pratt, but in the back room, the sound of 250 filters bubbling fresh water sounds like heavy rain drumming on a roof.
This is Pratt’s fish hatchery.
Tanks of all sizes — from 1 1⁄4 gallons (as big as a breadbox) up to 70 gallons (big enough to crawl into) — fill the room. A total of 160 tanks.
Pratt estimates that he owns as many as 10,000 fish.
The tanks are mostly unadorned, with few plants and little decoration. The collection is utilitarian: these fish are being bred to sell in local stores.
Craig Fries (pronounced “freeze”) is one of the aquarists who has come to Pratt’s hatchery today. Fries has “just gotten out of the hobby.” He lost his lease on the place where he used to keep his fish. “I had about 6000 gallons of aquariums,” he says. “And I couldn’t even think of moving all of it. I was selling fish wholesale when I was in junior high. And I’m 62 now. And this is the first time I haven’t had any fish since college.”
And how does that feel?
“Liberating,” he says, with a guilty look, as if he’d swallowed all his fish instead of selling them. Then he qualifies the statement. “No, but really — it was at least an hour every day just to feed everything. Some days, it was six hours, when you had to clean or whatever. And you couldn’t miss a day. It was a labor of love, but it was a lot.”
If it’s so much work, then why keep fish?
“Why fish appeal to us,” Fries says, “those of us who are like gear-heads, so to speak, is that you’re in total control of the entire environment of the fish. It’s not like a dog. You can’t control the air that the dog breathes, the ambient temperature, and a list a mile long of the things that you need to consider when you’re dealing with fish. There’s the sociology of the whole thing. How you’re housing them, and with what other species, and their aggression.”
Fries wears a loud tropical shirt and has a carefree air about him. In a moment when he’s not engaged in conversation, he sets down his coffee, produces a set of nail clippers from his pocket, and clips his nails.
It sounds as if Fries is saying that fish keepers want to feel like gods. Are they just a bunch of control freaks?
“No, no, no, no, no,” says Fries. Then he said, “Well, that’s one way of looking at it. But the other way of looking at it is that each one of those parameters makes the whole situation exponentially more complicated. It’s just a really, really interesting and really complex hobby.”
Kirk Bean is nodding in agreement. “There’s almost a limitless intellectual curiosity,” he says. Bean, who is the current president of the San Diego Tropical Fish Society, has been into fish for about seven years. By day, he’s a computer systems manager.
Says Bean, “You combine that intellectual component with the fact that it’s an experimental endeavor, where you have to be willing to take risks and do things differently, and you have to be able to think in entirely different ways when you’re dealing with an animal that lives in an aquatic environment, and you realize that keeping fish is a challenge.”
What about the aesthetic component?
“For me, it has nothing to do with pretty,” Bean says. “I don’t even have pretty fish anymore. I have boring, gray, brown fish. And any true fish geek would look at my fish and say, ‘Wow, that’s really cool.’ But you’d take them to a pet store, and they’d say, ‘Sorry, we can’t sell any of those.’ ”
Almost all of these fish folks will admit that, in general, fish aren’t great pets. You can’t cuddle with them or have them warm your feet while you sleep or take them out for walks.
But there are other reasons why these hobbyists were drawn to fish.
“I like how calming fish are,” Debbie Lara says. Lara is a veterinary assistant who has been into fish since she was a little girl. “It’s just nice to watch them. I also like the planning stages of a tank, especially. Like, setting up the decorations and getting it all going and picking the fish that are going to go in it. A lot of thought has to go into compatibility.”
Bill Cline adds, “Fish can be very alluring.” Cline worked in fish stores for eight years and had his own store for two. He got most of a master’s degree studying ichthyology and aquatic biology. “If you took all the species of fish and put them on one side of a scale,” Cline says, “and all the species of all the other vertebrates — all the mammals, reptiles, birds — and put them on the other side of the scale, the fish would outweigh the other ones. Outweigh in both number of species and in biomass. There’s just so many fish in the world and so many kinds of fish.”