Ignorant Fish People: A Corvallisite’s Experience Buying Pet Fish Locally

Having only been an aquarist (the hip term, I’ve been informed, for fish-keeper) for a few years, I make mistakes. Unfortunately, one recent and particularly fundamental mistake led to the accidental death of a pet—and that’s an unbelievably bitter pill to swallow.

About a month ago, I made some decisions that eventually killed a bumblebee goby. What did I do, exactly? I took the advice of a “fish expert” at a local big box retail chain—something that seems to get a lot of face-palms when mentioned to seasoned aquarists. And while this may be for a good reason, things are never quite that simple.

I won’t call this place out by name (because there’s a moral of the story I’m working towards), but what we’re talking about here is a living being for sale that as it turns out is not only being kept in suboptimal conditions in the store—freshwater over its native brackish water—but the food that is being touted as required is completely wrong. And not just that, but wrong multiple times over as different employees give different answers when questioned on the dietary requirements of the bumblebee goby.

When I first picked up the goby I didn’t want to make any major feeding alterations to my main tank setup. So I asked about its diet and was immediately told that fish flakes would be fine. In reality, these fish are carnivores with incredibly picky eating habits and will generally not accept flakes without a lengthy weaning process. What I thought was his eating of the flake bits turned out to be a taste test, and he was spitting them out later.

But, I don’t want to be too quick to judge. This is complicated stuff. There are even multiple bumblebee goby species that look quite similar (all quite cranky), and they have varying needs. Still, according to http://www.theaquariumwiki.com and other comprehensive sites, the breed this local store was carrying, Brachygobius doriae, was specifically the one that thrives in brackish water the most, despite still being able to “survive” in freshwater. It turns out that just surviving is apparently enough in many stores that supply aquarium fish.

To widen the perspective a bit, what we have here is a situation where a person can walk through an automatic door, purchase a living being that’s been bred (or possibly worse, taken from the wild), boxed, and shipped in the wrong living conditions, and then get instructed on how to perpetuate that trend. Additionally, this new pet owner will only avoid the animal’s imminent starvation if they happen to chat with the right “expert.”

After my goby passed away and I had done more research, I went back to the store and spoke about its diet with yet another “expert.” This time I was told that the goby should eat “veggie pellets, fish flakes, frozen shrimp, blood worms, spirulina, and live plants.” Regardless of the relative truths and falsehoods in that list, I’m honestly left wondering why they didn’t just throw in the kitchen sink and see if it’d eat that, too. Maybe some oil-stained cardboard from a pizza box and a pack of cigarettes. Smoke up, Johnny!

Whenever you have something as complex and sensitive as life being managed in unnatural conditions, the inherent issues are only exacerbated when you throw profit into the mix. Large corporate chains succeed by streamlining, and in the case of animal life it results in a lot of huge care mistakes. Bettas are delivered in small bowls of water simply because they can be dangerous to other fish, not because it is ideal for them to stay in that condition. Take a trip to your local Wells Fargo at the Timberhill Shopping Center and you’ll get an eye-full of the truth (if the bettas there are still alive, anyway).

“More often than not, [large fish stores] choose ‘survive’ over ‘thrive’ because it is cheaper and requires less training for employees to manage,” said one Linn County professional aquarist who wished to remain anonymous. “And you can’t universally blame the workers, because there is a lot going on that is out of their control.”

So even when people receive proper training, there are conditions imposed by the faceless decision-makers that nobody can really avoid.

But you, the consumer, can help: by not shopping at irresponsible aquarium stores, or at least by not purchasing from the departments of large stores that engage in practices that make you (and probably the creatures being housed there) uncomfortable. I know where I’ll never be going back to, and although it may be the larger chains that are prone to these problems, the rules apply to everyone.

That moral I promised earlier: We are ultimately responsible for absolutely everything when we make the decision to care for another life. Take your time and be sure that your sources of advice are as informed and invested as you yourself wish to be. Learn about the animals you plan on keeping so you don’t wind up cramming five fish into one of those abysmal “mini” tanks. And be conscious of where your money is going—it might not be to such a great cause. Don’t walk out of a store with a pet if the employees in the store did not make every effort to determine that you knew how to care for it.

Two places I can highly recommend visiting are Animal House (646 SW 4th St, Corvallis, OR 97333) here in Corvallis, and All For Fish (223 2nd Ave SW, Albany, OR 97321) in Albany. I’ve visited both places extensively and there’s not an employee there that doesn’t care for each and every creature in their ward.

by Johnny Beaver