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“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.”

Air-Breathing Fish?

“There’s a lot of fish that breathe air,” says Bill Cline. “They come from water that’s low in oxygen, so they’ve developed the ability to go up and breathe atmospheric air to fill in the air that they don’t get from the water. And bubble nests are a way of providing the environment for the babies and the eggs. If the fish can’t live without breathing atmospheric air, then if they laid their eggs in the water, then the eggs probably couldn’t survive. And there’s a lot of ways that fish can get around that. So there’s a family of fish — the anabantids — and others, too, that spit their eggs into a nest of bubbles at the surface, so they stay wet, but they also have the oxygen in the bubble that they can breathe. And atmospheric air has a whole lot more oxygen in it than water does.”

These fish are clearly a kind of modern version of the ancient evolutionary link between the ocean and land. And you can keep them in your living room.

“The lungfish requires a whole lot of air,” continues Cline, “and they wouldn’t live very long if they were underwater. When they lay their eggs, it’s in a mud hole. And they lay their eggs down there, and the parent will go up and breathe atmospheric air, and they have pectoral fins that have a webbing on them. And as they’re breathing the oxygen in at the surface, the oxygen is leaving their body through the fins, into the water around their eggs.”

Electric Fish?

“There’s an electric eel, an electric ray, and an electric catfish,” Bill Cline says. “Any one of those, if they get big enough, could knock you off your feet. They contract their muscles. It’s like isometrics. And when they do that, all of their energy goes into production of electricity. You wouldn’t want to keep any one of those with other fish.”

You’ve Got Ears Like a…Fish?

“The truth is, fish aren’t all that visually oriented,” Bill Cline says. “They do see in color, which dogs and cats can’t do. But they’re very hearing oriented. For instance, you may have seen films of schooling fish in the ocean that move as one. When one moves, the others move instantaneously. That isn’t because they’re watching the other fish. It’s because they’re hearing the other fish. They have a lateral line down their sides which they use for hearing low-frequency vibrations. And sound travels so well in water, it’s almost like the fish are blending feeling and hearing at the same level.”

Upside-Down Fish?

“There are some fish that have no sense of up or down,” Bill Cline says. “The upside-down catfish spends more time upside-down than it does right side up. Most fish have a color that’s dark on the top and light on the belly. That’s so something that’s looking down on them will be looking against a dark background and they’ll see the dark color on top and they’ll miss it. And something looking up from below will see the white belly against the white background, and they’ll miss it. But the upside-down catfish is darker on his belly than he is on his back, so when he swims upside-down, he has the same advantage.”

Charismatic Fish?

“I’ve had lionfish and groupers, big saltwater fish, that have definitely had personalities and likes and dislikes,” asserts Debbie Lara from behind her small round glasses. “You know, you have the little laser pen that you shine on the floor for the cats? Well, my grouper would be chasing it right along with them. Or the light from your watch would shine on the ceiling, and he would try to get at it. He also got so he recognized me. You know, my husband would walk by the tank, and he could care less. I’d walk by the tank, and he’d be up at the top begging for food.”

To demonstrate, Bill Cline puts his hand over a nearby tank of oscars — a few stocky, oval, mottled fish about five or six inches in length — and they immediately swim up to the surface of the water. Two of them snap at the air. “They’re very aware,” Cline says, “and they think they’re going to get fed. They’re not afraid of us at all.”

Craig Fries speaks up. “You can talk about the sociology of fish. You learn, when you keep fish, to incorporate the actual personalities, if you can believe that. All you have to do is say ‘personality’ to someone who isn’t a fish geek, and they laugh at you. But it’s very much a fact of what we do.”

No one disagrees with Fries.

“In fact,” says Kirk Bean, “that’s one of the great oddities of fish-keeping. For example, a 14-year-old boy might find piranha appeal to him a lot. They’re illegal in this state, and they have this nasty reputation. But they are, for the most part, one of the most boring fish in the whole entire world. Most people move beyond the desire to keep piranha, and then they’ll maybe get cichlids, which are typically much smarter, full of personality, and distinct, one fish to the next to the next. And therein lies a whole different way to appreciate what you’re keeping. You know, this isn’t just some toothy thing that eats. It’s now something that has an entire society within the tank.”

“You could almost call it politics,” adds Fries. “Some fish just don’t like each other. For whatever reason. And some do appreciate company. Some appreciate the company of other species.”

“And some are just happy when they see me,” says Bean, without a hint of irony. “That’s not a joke. And when someone else walks in, they’re not as happy.”

“Yeah,” agrees Fries, emphatically. “Yep, yep, yep. Exactly. Many people don’t appreciate the intellectual capacity of fish, but they are smart.”

“And smart comes in many forms,” adds Bean. “Some are better at communication. Some kinds of fish move better and work better together. Some are smarter in the ways that we would define smart, like, they seem more aware. And some are just much better predators, and their whole smartness, if you will, is associated with their ability to seek out and capture prey.”

Fish Fry

When you say “fish fry” to an aquarist, it generally doesn’t have anything to do with lunchtime.

“Baby fish are called fry,” Charley Pratt says. “This is a fry-raising setup over here.” Pratt indicates a row of small, square tanks with partitions in them. “So you’ll see lots of baby fish here. Fry.”

The fry are almost incomprehensibly small. Each one is about as long as the word long in this typed sentence. Hundreds of little fry as long as the word long.

“And then, of course, the mothers, you’ll see one fish to a cell,” Pratt says. “And there’s places in here for the babies to hide when they’re born. Interestingly enough, she gave birth to four young yesterday and they’re not there today, so she obviously ate them. That does happen frequently.”

Breeding Fish

“I think one of the big draws for keeping tropical fish is breeding them,” says Charley Pratt, who happens to be one of the foremost fish breeders on the West Coast. “For instance, with guppies, manipulating them genetically, coming up with ways of making them look different: more colorful, or different color, or a bigger tail. I showed you that big-tailed guppy back there in the corner. Guppies originated with practically no tail. A little bit of a clear tail, with maybe a spot of color in it. But guppy breeders have created a beautiful thing to watch in the aquarium.”

Pratt used to teach computer information systems at Southwestern College in Chula Vista. His gray hair has disappeared from the top of his head though it still clusters around the sides. His accent is from North Carolina.

Kirk Bean, listening to Pratt talk about breeding, picks up where Pratt left off.

“It’s fun learning about the biology of the animals, the ecology of the systems that they live in, and trying to keep things alive,” says Bean. “The other part of it is trying to breed things that aren’t easy to breed in captivity. A lot of fish have environmental triggers that cause them to think that it’s time to breed.”

Bean has an earnest face and always seems to be thinking deeply about something. He looks sort of like Kirk Douglas, with the dimpled chin, clenched teeth, and blue eyes.

“Let me give you an example,” Bean says. “Had a fish that was very difficult to breed. No one had figured out what a trigger for this fish was. And it turns out that in order to induce it to breed, you let the water get bad. You let the water get stagnant a little bit. You let the water feel like life is bad. And that, in its natural habitat, is what happens during the dry season, when the water flow stops, and the ponds that it gets stuck in start to get low in oxygen, high in temperature, and full of pollutants. So, you let the tank do something that you normally wouldn’t do, which is, become close to dead. And then, all of a sudden, you simulate a rainstorm. And if you can do it when an actual rainstorm is about to happen — when the barometric pressure drops — you then go in and say, ‘All right, let’s just psych out this fish.’ You drop the temperature, as though rainwater has now hit at a lower temperature, you increase oxygen, you increase food supply, and you let these fish go crazy, and, poof! You’ve got fish eggs all over the place.”

These were Bean’s zebra plecos. But he’s also used this technique with a species of wild angelfish that he couldn’t get to breed for three years.

“It’s like playing ten-dimensional checkers,” adds Craig Fries. Bean laughs and Fries says, “Or something along that line. Each dimension you add just gives you a huge number of other variables that you have to consider.”

Breeding Fish, Part Two: And Here’s Where It Starts to Get Weird

“A lot of fish will keep live sperm in their bodies for months,” Charley Pratt says. “The females have what’s known as nurse cells. When a male fertilizes her, the sperm is kept alive on the nurse cells until the female needs it. She could have more eggs come down a month later and just use sperm from that one male.”

Pratt chats as the tanks of his hatchery bubble and glisten all around him. There is motion everywhere. Something in this room is always, always moving.

“Here’s a male and a female guppy,” says Pratt, bending toward a small tank with two little fish in it. “If you can see underneath that male guppy there, the guy with the big red tail, there’s a little straight fin. That’s called a gonopodium, and if you look at the female, she has a big floppy fin there, called an anal fin. So the male’s anal fin is modified into a gonopodium. And he uses that, in combination with his two pelvic fins, to form a little tube, and he goes up, side to side, and he brings it forward, and he just barely touches the female to insert the sperm. He doesn’t really go inside her.”

Bill Cline, who’s been lingering nearby as Pratt talks, chimes in with a quirky breeding story of his own.

“There’s an amusing little fish down in Mexico called a four-eyed fish,” says Cline. Apparently, four-eyed fish have nature’s version of built-in bifocals, and as a result, they can see equally well above and below the water. “They’re also live-bearers, like the guppy. And the male four-eyed fish either develops right-handed gonopodiums or left-handed gonopodiums. And they have to breed with either a left-handed female or a right-handed female. A right-handed male can’t breed with a left-handed female. A very interesting adaptation.”

So it isn’t only mammals that breed live young?

“Guppies, platys, swordtails, and mollies are four of the more common tropical fish that bear live young,” says Pratt. “And there are others. But even more interesting, perhaps, are the mouth breeders. Take these Corydoras aeneus catfish, for instance. If you look down here in the corner, you’ll see some eggs scattered all around.” The eggs look like a teaspoon of tapioca without the pudding. “They have just been spawning. And what happens there is, the female takes sperm from the male into her mouth, and she already has the eggs at that point caught in between her anal fin. She’s expelled them already. And she goes up and presses the eggs to the glass and then puts the sperm from the male right onto the eggs. And generally there are groups of spawners all doing that at one time. Up to seven, eight, or nine of them.”

Pratt ambles over to another tank full of little darting swatches of bright color.

“In this tank, we have a lot of African cichlids,” Pratt says. “These particular ones are called electric blue peacocks. And they are mouth breeders. The females lay the eggs, and the males fertilize them as they’re being laid. And then the female gathers them up in her mouth and keeps them in her mouth for, oh, ten days, two weeks. Until they hatch. And during that time, she doesn’t eat. In some species, the mother will eat very carefully. She’ll shift the eggs around and eat a shrimp or something. And still other species will find a hiding place, dump their eggs, go up and eat, and go back down and pick up their eggs again.”

After the eggs have hatched, their mouth-time isn’t over yet.

Says Pratt, “When the young have hatched, she’ll let them out so she can eat, and if there’s any danger, they’ll all swim back into her mouth.”

Not all mouth-breeders use their own mouths to breed their young.

“These are Synodontis multipunctatus,” says Pratt, standing before yet another tank. “They’re living in this cave right here. They are a catfish, from Africa. And they have a very interesting symbiotic relationship with a lot of these mouth-breeders. The multipunctatus, when they find peacocks spawning somewhere, they will go there and lay their eggs right amongst the eggs of the peacock. And the peacock female will then pick up their eggs with her own and protect them in her mouth. So those catfish are called ‘cuckoo catfish.’ Because the young will hatch in the mouth with the other fish, and then, as they grow, they will eat the other babies, and before you know it, the peacock has got a mouth full of cuckoo catfish instead of her own young.”

At this, Pratt reaches his arm down into the tank and picks up and shakes the cave where he says the catfish are living. Out swim a few tiny, inch-long, whiskered fish. “Kind of neat little guys,” he says.

Fish People, People Fish

“I’m a geek,” Kirk Bean says, without a trace of humor or irony. Hundreds of fish in dozens of tanks are fluttering their fins behind him as he speaks. It’s later the same morning, at Pratt’s back-office hatchery. Charley Pratt, Craig Fries, Bill Cline, and Debbie Lara are “schooling” nearby, adding to the conversation.

Aren’t all fish people geeks?

“Oh, absolutely,” agrees Bean. “There’s a side to every true fish person that really wanted to be a scientist growing up.”

Fries laughs. “We’re geeks, and we don’t mind taking constant shit from our families.”

“Oh, yes,” says Bean, nodding vigorously. “And this is the thing. Yes, there are fascinating fish. But a lot of this really winds up being more of a people story than a fish story. There are as many different approaches to the fish hobby as there are people doing it. I personally get a very deep intellectual curiosity satisfied through this. It is, for me, this perfect combination of research and experimentation and interaction with people who have gone through the same thing.”

Do fish-keepers end up having a lot in common with the fish they keep?

“They say dog people look like their dogs,” says Bill Cline. “It doesn’t apply to fish, though.”

Adds Pratt, “There’s a YouTube video I just saw about koi that look like people. But they don’t look very much like people.”

Lara chimes in, “I used to be told that I swam like a fish. And I’ve always had a fascination with the water. But no one’s ever told me that I look like a fish. I do have the same hair color as one of my dogs…”

Perhaps this line of thinking is all wet. Cline sums it up: “People think of fish as being like people that are swimming. That’s called anthropomorphism. But it’s just not right.”

Fish Doctors

Debbie Lara is a longtime San Diego Tropical Fish Society member. “I’ve been coming to the meetings since I was a little kid,” she says. “By now, everybody in the club is like family.”

Lara is a registered veterinary technician.

“We have a doctor at our practice who does exotic animals, and he actually really likes to see fish,” Lara says.

But how do you examine a fish?

“I’ve helped him take X-rays on koi,” says Lara. “You put some anesthesia in the water, and the fish kind of get quiet, and then you pull them out and put them on the table and take their X-rays. He’s done surgery on fish.”

And you’ve got what, like, two minutes maybe to work on them?

“No, no,” Lara says. “You keep them moist, and you can really keep them out a while. He’s done surgeries that take quite a while. You just pump water over the gills and make sure they stay moist. He’s replaced swim bladders. He’s taken tumors out of fish. He’s done all sorts of kooky things. Most recently, there was a goldfish that came in. His swim bladders were all in the wrong places, making him swim upside-down. And so he actually put weights into the swim bladders so the fish would swim right side up.”

The Aquarium as Microcosm of the World at Large

“If nothing else, this hobby gives you a tremendous appreciation of how delicate some of our environmental issues are,” says Kirk Bean. “The native San Diego sticklebacks make these little nests at the top of the water. Their population virtually disappeared after the Cedar Fires and is slowly making its way back.”

Bean takes a sip of coffee and continues. “You wind up being able to extrapolate this very bizarre, tightly focused interest into what is effectively a very broad understanding. For example, I went to Panama with a couple of other fish people. We spent two days going through rivers with nets collecting fish and came back with eight different species, seven of which I’d never seen before in my life. I had read about them, but I’d actually never seen them. And they certainly don’t exist anywhere that I know of to actually get, other than going and collecting them yourself. But the fascinating part of it was, you’d go out there and find that some of these rivers are just chock full of life, as you’d expect of a tropical river. And other rivers, there was nothing living there. There’s not a snail, there’s not a plant, there’s not a fish. And you’d know, something’s upstream of that.”

The Aquarist as Microcosm of the Population at Large

“There aren’t many places where we can actually make a contribution to human understanding about how things live,” says Kirk Bean. “You just can’t easily do that with any other amateur fascination that I can think of. Except maybe astronomy. There are amateur astronomers who continue to discover things like comets. There are amateur fish-keepers who continue to discover ways of keeping and breeding fish in captivity that no one’s been able to figure out before. And in that regard, it’s kind of exciting. And with the disappearance of habitat, it winds up being a series of skills that are, I think, valuable to have.”

One of Bean’s original fascinations was with fish that were extinct in the wild and that basically needed people to continue to exist. He and his ex-wife eventually wound up with 30 fish tanks, ranging from 10 gallons all the way up to 500 gallons, all of them planted, all of them looking as much like native habitat as possible.

“We also had six ponds in the backyard,” Bean says, “each of them stocked with species of fish that were either extinct in the wild or about to go extinct in the wild.”

Going Once, Going Twice

The San Diego Tropical Fish Society throws a once-a-year show every November, in room 101 of the Casa del Prado building in Balboa Park, where it has competitions for Most Beautiful Tank and dozens of prizes for everything from Best Catfish to Best Cichlid to Most Odd Fish and on.

But tonight, this is just the monthly auction.

Still, room 101 is swimming with fish fanatics, pisciphiles, ichthyo-enthusiasts, lovers of everything finned, gilled, and scaled. They’ve come together to talk, buy, sell, view — and not eat — fish.

By 6:30, 30–40 people of all ages have arrived. Dozens of water-filled bags lie on tables with little critters swimming in them.

San Diego Tropical Fish Society president Kirk Bean sits at a laptop checking in society members for the upcoming auction.

Before the auction, people file past the displayed fish. The fish react like puppies — some seem happy to see you, some don’t.

Even the aquarium plants are interesting, lush and colorful in their watery bags.

Fish-lovers hold the bags up and squint at them, discussing habits, pedigrees, and tendencies. Most bagged fish will live three to four days.

This is fish enthusiasts’ one night a month to tell all their fish stories to others who will understand them. They’re passionate and discerning, and they don’t care what the rest of the world thinks of their hobby.

They “aha!” at angelfish, coo about catfish, get gaga for guppies, and preen over aquatic plants.

Soon enough, the auction begins.

The first item is a heavy ceramic ornamental turtle that goes for $4.

Second is a “classic” aquarium reference book that goes for $4 as well.

A bag of hornwort is next. This bright green plant sells to an eager young aquarist for $3.

Society members John Flanagan and Elaine Thompson serve as informal auctioneers. Other members hold up numbered paper plates to place bids. Still others carry the sold items out into the audience and hand them to the winners.

A trio of blue delta guppies goes for $8.

Three black lace angelfish bring in $6.

Of the proceeds, 75 percent will go to the sellers, and 25 percent is for the club to buy new equipment and cover expenses. Today, it’s about $300 for the sellers and $100 for the club.

The big auctions, however, take place in April and November, where over $4000 might change hands. Those auctions last three to four hours. Tonight, it only goes about 45 minutes.

Flanagan, in particular, infuses his auctioneering with humor. At one point, selling angelfish bred by Charley Pratt, he says, “Here’s your chance to go home with Charley’s angels.”

“The nice thing about a club like we have,” says Debbie Lara, referring to the San Diego Tropical Fish Society, “is that you can get fish and plants at our club meetings and at our auctions that you can’t get at stores, and for prices that you’ll never see in stores.”

Even You Can Raise Fish

“We have 10,000 to 30,000 fish in here at any given time,” says the manager of Aquatic Warehouse, Sam Garcia Jr. Located among the unremarkable buildings behind the courthouse on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, Aquatic Warehouse is cluttered with all kinds of aquarium equipment and fish paraphernalia. But the bread and butter of the store are the 400 storage tanks and the seven large display tanks.

In fact, the biggest display tank in the store is also the biggest display tank in San Diego, at 715 gallons. It has tree stumps in it and dozens of river fish from three continents. Purple-spot gobies, Siamese tiger fish, and peacock bass mill around in the tank very much as they might in their natural habitats.

Garcia Jr., 34, has been in the fish business since he was 14. He’s been at the Aquatic Warehouse for the past three years.

“The thing that really sets us apart,” Garcia Jr. says, “is our focus on the natural aquarium. It’s what draws people here from Los Angeles and Las Vegas and Riverside. There are very few stores that have a healthy understanding of where the fish come from and how to properly duplicate their natural habitat. First and foremost, we have to be wards for the creatures that are living in the tanks. They’re sharing their beauty with us, and we have to try to make them as comfortable as possible.”

The results of this focus on natural habitat are evident all over the store. The saltwater coral tank could hold your attention for an hour, easy. You could bring a bag of popcorn and a fold-up chair into the store and just sit in front of this bright and vital tank.

The store is divided into five major sections, each for fish from a different area of the world, with fresh and saltwater tanks all over the place. The staff consists of four service techs and eight salespeople.

The most expensive fish at the warehouse is a $400 catfish, Synodontis granulosus. It looks, well, like a small catfish with white-tipped fins. No more or less special than any other fish in its tank. “Nondescript as it is, it’s a rare fish,” says Garcia Jr. “And this little guy is one of the reasons why a lot of people come here. Because we will take the risk and carry things that other people won’t carry. This is a fairly newly described species, and uncommon in the wild, and very difficult to get out of its native Congo.”

Garcia Jr. explains how sometimes the prettiest fish are the cheapest, and vice versa.

How much does it cost to get started in this hobby? Presumably, all kinds of equipment are needed to keep fish.

“We always recommend,” says Garcia Jr., “prior to anyone starting an aquarium, you should purchase a book. You shouldn’t purchase an aquarium on your first trip. Get a book, get a feeling for how it’s going to work and how much maintenance is going to be involved.”

The average marine tank requires a full two to four hours a week of maintenance, according to Garcia Jr. And a freshwater tank might need one to two hours per week. Scrubbing, cleaning, changing the water, feeding the fish.

For a freshwater tank setup, you’d need, let’s say, a 20- to 50-gallon tank, a heater, filter, substrate, lighting, and decoration. For a saltwater setup, you’d need a pump to provide for additional water flow, a protein skimmer, and higher-intensity lighting.

Here’s an itemized list of possible prices, provided by Aquatic Warehouse:

For freshwater setups:

20- to 50-gallon tank: $30–$100

Heater: $25

Filter, hang-on: $20–$60

Filter, under-tank canister: $60–$200

Substrate (gravel/sand): $10–$75

Standard lighting: $30–$100

Live plants: $1–$30

Live rocks and wood (pulled from sanctioned aquaculture sites): $1–$20

High-intensity lighting: $60–$300

Possible additional costs for saltwater tanks:

Pumps or power heads: $30–$200

Calcium-based saltwater substrate: $50–$200

Protein skimmer: $60–$300

Special high-intensity lighting: $100–$450

Sump-style filter: $300 and up

Garcia Jr. also stresses the importance of natural decor. It’s healthier for the fish, replicates the natural environment, and can be recycled.

Also, you can’t just put tap water into your tank. “Tap water sources are so harmful to fish,” Garcia Jr. says. “It’s always best to use a reverse-osmosis or deionized water source. Part of what fuels our store, and the volumes of people coming in, is that we provide reverse osmosis or DI water for only 30 cents a gallon.”

For saltwater tanks, you either have to make your own saltwater or buy it from a place like Aquatic Warehouse.

And then, finally, it’s time to buy some fish. Koi and Synodontis granulosus notwithstanding, most fish aren’t expensive. After dropping $200–$1000 or more on your setup, the $50 you spend on a bunch of fish won’t seem like much.

“And then you have your work of art,” Garcia Jr. says. “Your aquarium is basically a frame for an art piece. But it’s a high-maintenance art piece, because it has living things inside. So you can spend all you want, but it won’t look nice unless you love it and take care of it.”

And Koi Is King

At the yearly koi show at the Del Mar Fairgrounds in February, pool after pool of colorful koi abound. Koi of all sizes, tiny to huge. Fish of mostly motley oranges, whites, and blacks, with some yellows and reds mixed in. Like gems in the water.

Koi are another branch of the fish-keeping hobby altogether, and many consider koi to be the pinnacle of the hobby. They are certainly the most expensive fish in the world. Last year, one koi in Japan sold for $1,000,000.

Tom Graham is walking from pool to pool in one of the convention halls at the fairgrounds, pointing out various fish. Graham is chairman of the San Diego Koi Show. “Take this fish here,” Graham says. “If you look at a koi and you see that it’s got red patches that are evenly distributed and it’s got black patches that are evenly distributed and nice white in the background, then that is a well-balanced fish. Now, if the front two-thirds is red and the back end is black and there’s some white here and there, then that’s not a balanced fish, and it won’t be prized as highly.”

At this year’s show, 256 koi are being judged.

“Koi do not breed true,” Graham says. “They’re created animals, and they haven’t been around long enough to breed true. Most of them are junk. Most of them get destroyed when they’re a quarter of an inch long. They get used as feed or fertilizer. A mother koi will hatch thousands of fry, but only three or four or five might be good enough to keep. Most of them will be all white, or all black, or all red.”

But some koi have interesting color markings, and those fry are fostered, to see if they’ll develop truly beautiful physical characteristics.

The koi at the show fill blue plastic pools in two rings around the convention hall. The outer ring of pools is full of koi that are for sale. And the inner ring features privately owned koi that are being judged for their beauty. Three Japanese men with colorful sashes and ribbons are among the crowds going from pool to pool and craning to see the fish. These are the judges for today’s show.

“The judges are selecting the best fish in the show in one of a number of different sizes and classes,” says Graham. “There’s 14 classes and seven sizes for each class. The smallest size is 6 inches and under, then 6 to 9, 9 to 12, all the way up to 24, and then it’s 24 and above. And the thing is, with koi, some are beautiful young, and some get better later. They’re always improving or declining. But a beautiful fish that’s large is always valued more than a beautiful fish that’s small.”

The largest koi will grow to over three feet in length. Koi are never weighed, though, because that would entail rough handling and taking them out of the water, which might damage them.

But what are koi? And why are they so special?

Graham tells the following tale: “As legend has it — and this story is widely told and I don’t know how well documented — 300 to 500 years ago, the rice farmers in Japan in the high mountains used to keep carp in their rice paddies. And they’d get snowed in every winter, and in order to have protein over the winter, they’d take these carp and put them in ponds underneath their houses. And they’d have fresh fish over the winter. And these fish would go out in the paddies and back under the house and out in the paddies and back under the house for many years. And what happened is that, as they spawned for generations, flecks of color started to show up on these fish. And I think you can imagine, if the young children saw one of these colorful fish and it came time to make dinner, they’d say, ‘No, no, no, keep that one, let’s eat that one instead.’ And so the fish that had color were kept, and they would have babies with more color, and they would have babies with more color. And pretty soon, these carp were becoming interesting. And, as the story goes, a farmer who had these fish brought some of them down to market, and the emperor wandered through and saw these carp and was taken with them. And so they went into the moat around the castle. And pretty soon, everyone was looking for these colored carp, and a business was born.”

The word “koi” is a shortened form of a Japanese word, nishikigoi, which means “colored carp.”

Funny, but carp were the bottom-feeders you never wanted to catch when you were fishing for bass or trout. Ironic that you add a few touches of color to those undesirable carp and they can cost as much as a car, or even a house.

Graham himself owns 50 koi in pools in his yard. The most he ever paid for a koi was $800.

The grand champion of today’s show is a truly huge fish. It’s 32 magisterial inches long, and it has a hump on its back like a bull. But this fish is also quite beautiful, as Graham points out.

“If you look around the edges of the red pattern,” Graham says, pointing, “there’s no smudginess. It’s either red or white. And you see that all the red patches are the same color. In lesser-quality koi, it tends to fade at the tail. And you see around the edges, that’s called kiwa. The edge where the red meets the white is called kiwa, and to have good kiwa means that the edge is sharp like a knife. You’ll see that, on the leading edge, there’s a white scale lying on top of a red scale. That’s called sashi. That’s okay, because there’s only one row of that. If it had multiple rows of sashi, then that would be a demerit. And the scales have real sheen and luster, which is something else these fish are judged on. There’s also the fish’s power. How it swims. Is it confident and strong? Does it dominate? Is it fearless? You know, some of them are skittish, or they just sit on the bottom. And the judges want to see a powerful fish.”

Graham estimates that today’s grand-champion koi would easily cost at least $20,000. It would also require a pool with over 10,000 gallons of water in it, about half the size of a swimming pool.

Graham himself is the proud owner of two fish that will take first place in the show. One of them is the best fish in the 9- to 12-inch class, a pretty little black, orange, and white number. “This is about a two-year-old fish,” Graham says. “Last year, he was about half this size. And two-year-old fish can be twice this size in some bloodlines. And you can see how solid and jet-black the black is. And the white is brilliant white. White tends to turn yellow in koi. And so, if the white is nice and bright like that, that’s a real plus. In bad water, with bad food, the colors fade.”

Graham feeds his fish a high-quality koi food mixture and keeps them in clean, well-aerated pools in his yard. His pools are also deep-sided, to keep egrets and herons from wading in and eating his fish.

“Look at this fish here,” Graham says, using a net to isolate a second black, orange, and white fish in his pool. “I can do this because it’s my pool,” he chuckles. “You see how its head is all one color? That’s a sign of good quality. The cheap ones — about 95 percent of them — are all dirty and smudgy on the head. So, a nice, clean head makes the whole fish look clean.”

Graham continues to point out qualities to look for in high-quality koi. “Notice the black on the scales. It’s pretty even, but some more than others. It’s not perfect. You see in the middle how the black scales aren’t as outlined as they are on the upper back? That’s a quality thing. So you look at the sheen of the fish, you look at the shape of the fish, you look at how each of those scales and colors relates to the scales and colors around it. You want the colors to be in balance, and you want each area of color to be well defined.”

It’s estimated that close to 10,000 people will shuffle through the koi show over the weekend. Graham coordinates the activities of over 50 volunteers who run the show.

“When you look at a koi, it’s like a piece of art,” Graham says. “And you can really understand koi by thinking about them as art. That’s what they are. Living art.”

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