The Ethical Issues of Keeping Tropical Fish
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.
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
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)
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.
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.