DogsCatsFish & AquariumsReptiles & AmphibiansRodentsRabbitsExotic PetsBirdsFarm Animals as Pets

The Ethical Issues of Keeping Tropical Fish

Updated on July 20, 2017
Bruce is a 3 pound 15 inch long fancy goldfish living in China. He holds the record for the biggest Oranda goldfish.
Bruce is a 3 pound 15 inch long fancy goldfish living in China. He holds the record for the biggest Oranda goldfish.

Introduction

A lot of people have kept fish in their homes for many years. In fact goldfish were first given pet status sometime around 800AD in China, their home country. Since those early days people have bred them in different colors and varieties. They're iconic and common but what do we really know about them and their other fishy relatives? Did you know goldfish can grow to be over a foot in length with the record being kept by a goldfish in the Netherlands that measures in at one foot and seven inches? And did you know they can live past forty years of age when kept correctly? In fact the oldest goldfish on record was supposed to be 49 years old when it finally passed away. That's as old as some parrots! So why is it that we have so many inaccurate ideas about them? In this article I hope to discuss not just goldfish but all tropical fish in the hobby, perhaps with a mention to their saltwater cousins too. We'll learn where some of our crazy ideas come from and in the process hopefully become better fish owners in the future.

Clown Loaches can get 16 inches in length and require lots of swimming space and companions of the same species.
Clown Loaches can get 16 inches in length and require lots of swimming space and companions of the same species.

The Problem with Size

When I was young we always had a ten gallon fish tank set up. It didn't have anything particularly fancy in it, some neon tetras, a pleco, and whatever live bearing species was popular at the time. The pet store, as well as many others in the hobby, liked to tell people their fish would only get as large as the environment they're put in and the sad part of this statement is that it is half true. Some tropical fish do have stunted growth when they're in a small environment. However this isn't natural or healthy to the fish. Currently we think this happens because stress hormones are released into the fish that inhibit their growth but as you can probably guess being under constant stress isn't good for anyone. Many of these species, like the goldfish, can breed in captivity but you still end up with these weird stunted little animals that die pretty young. I can't remember having a goldfish past five years. I thought that was their natural lifespan but it just isn't so. As I stated before they can live into their 40's and the common plecos I loved so much could potentially grow to be over two feet long. Perhaps this is why mine always seemed so grumpy, harassing the other fish as they swam by.

The sad truth is that there are only a small handful of fish that are appropriate for a ten gallon tank. Some fish like pea puffers and neon tetras stay really small so they can do well under these circumstances but a lot of others are going to suffer from the lack of swimming space, the lack of schooling buddies, or both.

Silver-tipped shark catfish are common in every pet store here. I am guilty of watching them swim around and smiling but what they don't tell you is these fish cannot stay in a small tank or alone. They're a severely active schooling fish that needs a lot of swimming space (preferably a tank 6 feet long or bigger) and more catfish buddies, particularly as they grow past a foot in length. If you try to keep them in a smaller tank for too long they literally go out of their minds, leaping from the tank, bashing their head repeatedly into the walls, and damaging everything they can get a hold of. This is not the behavior pattern of a happy animal.

An additional problem is the fact most pet stores buy babies for resale. When you see a three inch arowana you might not realize these things can grow over four feet long and eat anything they can fit into their enormous mouths. To make my point here is a youtube video of an arowana eating a dead bunny in one gulp. I don't know about anyone else but I find just the idea of that terrifying.

This Arowana Eats a Dead Rabbit in One Bite

These rose line sharks are only starting to be bred by dedicated enthusiasts but not at nearly a large enough number to supply demand.
These rose line sharks are only starting to be bred by dedicated enthusiasts but not at nearly a large enough number to supply demand.

The Problem with Wild Caught

Many fish retailers buy their animals in bulk from farms or get them wild caught. The farmed fish may be farmed in aquariums, but more likely they are farmed in large pools and ponds like clown loaches. Clown loaches can be seen in almost every pet store when they are little babies but they're another schooling fish that grows very large, and as luck would have it they also are pretty impossible to breed in an aquarium, in fact I've looked for proof of this and couldn't find any. It's because of this difficulty breeding that it is fortunate that clown loaches can be bred on fish farms. Some other species aren't so lucky so we have to rely on wild caught specimens

Recently rose-line sharks have been popular here. They haven't been popular on the fish market for very long but there are rumors that these hard-to-breed fish are being captured and sold to the point that wild populations may be decreasing at a dangerous rate. This can be a particular problem in Asian countries where the fish trade is always booming - sending an estimated 500 million fish into the illegal fish trade every year in addition to legal bounties.

Some fish can fetch quite a price. For instance some "L-series" catfish (fancy plecos to all of us out of the loop) can fetch several hundred dollars a piece. People are just starting to breed them in captivity and doing so is allegedly very difficult so most specimens are still wild caught.

Pet Store Unpacking L-Series Cat Fish (Most likely wild caught)

Plants can be simple and small when maintained.
Plants can be simple and small when maintained.

The Importance of Habitat & Diet to a Fish

Not all fish who are sold in stores are from ponds and lakes. Some of them are from rivers where the current is always flowing past them and some are from rice paddies like Betta fish. Some are used to experiencing their habitats shrink and expand with the rainy and dry seasons. Others are from coral reefs and there is even a small trade in cold water marine fish who live farther out to sea. The reason I mention this is because most fresh water fish are treated the same, they are given a tank with some gravel, a filtration system, and a few ornaments but is this what they need to be happy? In a lot of cases I'd say no.

Many fish love plants, live plants, that they can hide in and munch on. River fish like the extra exercise afforded to them by having strong pumps move the water in their tank around. Many marine fish are kept in tanks devoid of a coral reef, either because they eat corals (which are expensive in their own right) or because the purpose of the tank was just to have fish on display, nothing else. Large fish in particular tend to be very intelligent, even capable of learning tricks, so giving them an environment devoid of stimulation might be stressing to them. Still other fish like to dig in the sand while others prefer rocks and caves. Even things like temperature and PH might vary with different species.

Food is another thing that is little thought about. So many of us buy fish flakes at the store without thinking twice about it. Some of them are labelled specifically for one species or another but many of them have bizarre ingredients like beef listed. When was the last time you saw a goldfish take down a cow? I'm still waiting on that one. Besides this most fish flakes are either made of beef or ground up scrap fish, what no one wanted for human consumption (be it heads and tails or whole fish that aren't big enough for resale.) That sounds OK until you realize not all fish are predators. In fact most aren't. Most would be happier munching off live plants or the occasional vegetable leaf. I even found this article on How to make Your Own Freshwater Fish Flakes. Or if you have a saltwater aquarium feel free to check out How To Make Saltwater Reef Food.

Adding plants to your aquarium can make it even more beautiful and some designs can get pretty elaborate.
Adding plants to your aquarium can make it even more beautiful and some designs can get pretty elaborate.

LumpSucker Blowing Bubbles (proving fish can learn tricks too!)

What You Can Do to Solve these Problems

The best thing to do when considering setting up an aquarium is researching the fish you want to put in it. This might include going to the pet store, writing down all the species that might interest you, and then going home and doing some reading before actually buying any of them. If you want a large aquarium, great! But if you want a smaller aquarium make sure the fish you pick are appropriately sized for it and will remain that way. Also ask about the fish. Many people feel that wild caught fish are more colorful but other people have moral and ethical issues with wild caught fish. Your local pet store should be able to tell you which ones have been raised in an aquarium, farmed, or wild caught. Be a conscientious buyer.

Try to pick fish that come from a similar environment and set up the tank as naturally as possible. If you like river fish or marine fish expect to sink quite a bit of money into this. If you're satisfied with fish that take less effort then that's OK too. There are a lot of options out there! And finally consider making your own food - you might even save yourself some money.

Cichlids are commonly bred in captivity and can give freshwater tanks the same color variety as their saltwater counterparts. some cichlids do grow very large and most prefer rocky structures.
Cichlids are commonly bred in captivity and can give freshwater tanks the same color variety as their saltwater counterparts. some cichlids do grow very large and most prefer rocky structures.

More from this Author:

Blogs:

Catching Marbles - A New England based travel blog

Tales from the Birdello - For all homesteading and farming matters

Deranged Thoughts from a Cluttered Mind - For funny personal anecdotes

FaceBook:

Through the Looking Glass Farm

Typhani Brooks - Artist

Instagram

Twitter

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • Sharkye11 profile image

      Jayme Kinsey 4 years ago from Oklahoma

      Very good information here. I love the idea of goldfish in cute little bubble bowls, but can't stand the thought of keeping them that confined. That's why I don't have a fish. If I don't the space for a large aquarium, then I figure it is better to not keep a fish. We are however planning on building a super-fancy outdoor goldfish pond sometime this year. :) Voting this up!

    • Theophanes profile image
      Author

      Theophanes 4 years ago from New England

      Good luck with that! I've seen a few very well set up "macro aquariums" - 6 gallons in size, but it takes a special person to know what works in those! I am contemplating having a large river-based aquarium someday when we move to a bigger place. We already have a 120 saltwater. It is enough for now. :)

    • djseldomridge profile image

      Donna Seldomridge 4 years ago from Delaware

      Excellent, I had no idea...Voted up!

    • Melissa A Smith profile image

      Melissa A Smith 4 years ago from New York

      This hub provides a good example of how many common pet animals are more demanding than conventionally perceived.

    • EricDockett profile image

      Eric Dockett 4 years ago from USA

      This is a fantastic Hub and should be required reading for new aquarium owners. I share your concern about the abuses of the aquarium industry. TV shows like Tanked don't help when they show so-called experts making horrible stocking decisions. All that can be done is for those who care to continue to explain to anyone who will listen.

    • Travis OfEarth profile image

      Travis OfEarth 4 years ago from Auburn, Georgia

      I work at a petstore and am constantly being yelled at by angry customers because i tell them comet goldfish don't do well in bowls and live 20+ years when properly cared for. It astonishes me that this stereotype of fish is so common.

    • Theophanes profile image
      Author

      Theophanes 4 years ago from New England

      EricDockett: Oh don't get me started on Tanked. Those people are IDIOTS. Every time I see a commercial I cringe... last clip I saw they made a tank under a skating ramp. Hellooo... what kind of fish is going to like their tank being thumped constantly by fast moving objects?! They seem know absolutely nothing about any fish.... putting wrong ones together, making schools of solitary animals, and throwing them all together without proper quarantine. I want to know what the people think 3 weeks down the line when all their fish are dead. SIGH.

      Melissa A Smith: Absolutely! Just because something is common doesn't always mean it is being kept correctly.

      djseldomridge: Thank you, I am happy you have learned something!

    • Theophanes profile image
      Author

      Theophanes 4 years ago from New England

      Travis OfEarth: I am sorry to hear that. I am always delighted when I meet a store employee that actually does know their stuff. Hopefully you'll get through to someone...

    • EricDockett profile image

      Eric Dockett 4 years ago from USA

      Theophanes: I know what you mean. I caught a few minutes of the show recently and my wife had ask why I was screaming at the television. They had what looked like a single bala shark, a red-tail shark, 2 albino sharks, an iridescent shark cat and a bunch of guppies all in like a ten-gallon tank . . . because some kid said he wanted a "shark tank". Yikes.

    • Theophanes profile image
      Author

      Theophanes 4 years ago from New England

      Yeah... at that rate the poor boy's going to get a reenactment of Jaws. Fun! I didn't realize they did freshwater too. All I know is I started hissing and pissing when I saw them drag a puffer out of the water and then let it inflate with AIR. They're not meant to fill up with air! That KILLS them. Anyone with half a brain could figure this one out.

      My boyfriend is the one with the saltwater tank. He know a lot - I just casually observe. But when I can point out a blatant error like that - something's dreadfully wrong. There's another show like Tanked but with people who seem to actually know their fish. I wish I remember what it was called...

    Click to Rate This Article