Pitfalls of Buying Fish from Retail Fish Stores

Fish Store

by Tom Lang

If you’re considering stocking your aquarium with fish and other aquatic life from your local retail fish store (LFS), you should be aware of the risks associated with this practice.

This article isn’t meant to criticize the retail fish industry, but hopefully educate consumers about typical problems encountered when establishing an aquarium.

Even clients of professional aquarium maintenance companies such as Aquarius Aquarium, Inc. often succumb to the temptation of adding “just one more fish” to their established aquatic communities.

Buying a new tank and fish at the same time

It’s always amazing to us to see customers walking out the doors of retail fish stores with a brand new tank and bags of fish in the same shopping cart! A good local fish store will strongly discourage this.

A new aquarium takes time to establish – not just because of the chlorine most municipalities add to their tap water, but also because the nitrogen cycle takes at least several weeks to complete.

This natural beneficial bacterial culture is the key to success in keeping all fish, whether freshwater or saltwater, in a closed environment. If you don’t know how the nitrogen cycle works (or how to test for it) then you should not be purchasing fish until you do.

For all new aquariums installed by Aquarius Aquarium, Inc., we carefully monitor critical water quality parameters frequently during the early weeks when adding new fish.

Once an aquarium is established, it is not as critical to constantly test the water, but many problems can be prevented by paying regular attention to the basic parameters. Taking appropriate corrective action when such action is warranted by testing can save not only the cost, but also the lives of your new fish.

Introducing disease to your new or established aquarium

Click on this photo to see if you can you spot signs of disease on these beautiful saltwater fish offered for sale at a local fish store.

Whether you have a new aquarium or a long-established community, the number one cause of disease being introduced to your aquarium is through the addition of new fish, living plants, corals or any other aquatic life. Retail fish stores receive frequent deliveries of fish, often from multiple sources.

The busiest stores can bring in multiple shipments in a week with an accompanying high turnover of fish in their sales tanks. These are the stores that gain a reputation for their “great selection,” which in turn attracts many customers!

The main problem with this is that even one newly-arrived diseased fish can infect all the other fish in its tank even if these other fish have been disease-free up to the day of the arrival of the sick one.

Add to this the common practice of linking all the tanks in a store together on one master plumbing system, and it is very likely that a disease can run through an entire section of interconnected tanks.

Free-swimming stages of parasites, viruses, bacteria and fungi can easily travel through the pipes from tank-to-tank and the water going home with an unsuspecting customer can be teeming with microscopic disease agents even if the fish in the bag appears completely healthy.

Buyer beware and the benefits of quarantine

So, how can you avoid the pitfalls of buying fish at your local fish store (LFS)? There are a couple of ways.

First, consider buying your fish through a local aquarium service company like Aquarius Aquarium, Inc. that is committed to only selling fish after quarantining them for a period of at least two weeks.

But if you still wish to purchase your fish at a LFS, be very sure that the fish you are considering adding to your aquarium is in good health. If the fish exhibits obvious signs of distress (rapid breathing or mad dashing around the tank), damage (torn fins. missing scales) or disease (cloudy eyes, fungus-like growths, or tiny white spots that look like salt stuck to the fish) you should not buy that fish, no matter how tempting it may be to try to “save” it or what discount the store offers you.

Also, if after asking a store staff member to feed the fish, the fish is not eating, do not buy that fish. When a fish isn’t eating in the store tank, it is unlikely it will in your tank.

Finally, if the fish appears healthy and is actively feeding, you can contract with a local aquarium service company like Aquarius Aquarium, Inc. to quarantine your new purchase for you or you can set up your own quarantine aquarium.

Keep in mind that any quarantine tank must also have a fully established biological filter just like any aquarium before you purchase your new fish or fishes. If not, you will encounter the same problems as those customers who buy their new aquarium and fish on the same day.