When it comes to reef systems, fishkeepers are looking for color, vibrancy and life. As the category continues to grow and evolve, hobbyists are building more balanced systems with a variety of livestock, rather than the coral-only tanks of the past. And thanks to the result of years of research and advances in captive breeding and aquaculture, these customer demands are able to be met in a way that is affordable and successful.
“What we’re seeing more is people moving away from large coral show tanks to something with more live rock, smaller fish and a variety of invertebrates,” said Kevin Gaines, owner of Biota Aquariums. “This creates a more balanced, healthier reef environment.”
The changing focus of reefkeeping is translating to growth on the retail side of things. This fall, Triad Reef Critters, a full-service aquarium store in Greensboro, North Carolina, which opened in 2012, plans to move to a new facility, expanding from its current size of 2,600 square feet to 5,000 square feet.
“We want to be able to provide our customers with more choices and variety when they come to our store,” owner Dexter Hill said.
Triad Reef Critters is just one example of the growth seen in the saltwater category. According to the latest survey by the American Pet Products Association, ownership of saltwater fish is at 2.5 million households, the highest ever noted. That growth can be attributed to more sources, types of farming and a greater awareness regarding sustainable practices go.
In the case of corals, the rule is, “the more color, the better.”
“What seems to be most popular right now are the Acan corals,” said Michael Griffith, marketing manager at Segrest Farms. “They have a bigger polyp which some people find interesting, and we’re offering a variety of colors in those. We’re also constantly offering new colors and varieties in the Montipora genus.”
Birds nest, hammer and staghorn corals are popular, and with bright colors such as green, purple, turquoise and even rainbow varieties, there are plenty of options from which to choose.
In addition to color, corals that provide movement are also popular, specifically frogspawn and torch varieties.
“I tend to find women prefer the more flowy corals, where men will choose the stick varieties,” Hill said.
The biggest changes in the fish category are being seen in how they’re brought to market. After years of research, great progress is being made in captive breeding of saltwater fish, a process that has proved more challenging than with freshwater species, which means more species are available in greater numbers to the retail market.
Biota Marine Life Nursery offers captive bred Mandarin goby and coral beauty angel fish, both of which have been very popular.
“In order to meet the demand, we are expanding our Mandarin fish production,” Gaines said. One of the advantages of Biota’s fish is they are able to be grown out for six to eight months at the farm in Palau where they are weaned on prepared food, which helps ensure a successful transition into the home aquarium.
Other varieties of gobies are also popular, including Segrest Farms’ greenbanded goby.
“These are aquacultured now, which makes them easier to find,” Griffith said. With an adult size of about two inches, they’re good for reefs because they won’t bother the corals. Fairy wrasses are another popular reef-safe fish, and they come in a variety of bright colors including reds, blues and greens.
Whether captive bred, sustainably caught or aquacultured, it’s important to look for suppliers that use responsible practices. All three forms of production have their benefits and provide a good supply of fish to the end user. Wild caught fish still play an important role in the aquarium hobby, and fishing provides a viable career for people in remote areas of the equatorial region.
“There are many responsible fishers in developing countries that need this high-value marine product for survival,” Gaines said.
On the other hand, the growth of aquaculture and captive breeding provides a sustainable way to meet customer demands with fish that are already adapted to captivity and more likely to be disease free.
Rounding out the livestock are the invertebrates, and two of the more popular types are clams and shrimp. Fire shrimp are a popular mainstay, thanks to their bright colors. Biota Marine Life is adding to its offerings with five species of giant clams, including derasa, spermosa and maxima. As filter feeders, clams don’t require additional food, making them relatively easy to care for, and they’re also helpful in cleaning the water in the tank.
Having the right variety of livestock in your store to be ready for any customer’s needs can be challenging. Rather than trying to satisfy every person, form good relationships with your distributors so that you’re not limited by space or facilities.
“We really take time to talk with customers and get to know what they’re looking for,” Hill said. “Rather than trying to sell you something we’ve got in stock that you don’t really want, we will try to sell you what you’re looking for, even if it’s not in our store. With good contacts and shipping, we can usually get things in within a week.”
Communication is key to building relationships with your customers, and helping them find success with their aquariums. Make sure all staff are well trained and knowledgeable about reef keeping, so they can help customers at any level, from beginner to advanced.
Communicating through email and social media is also important with growing livestock sales. Facebook or Instagram are great places to announce new additions to your store, and email blasts or newsletters are another way to keep customers up to date on what’s new.
Whatever steps you take with livestock, the primary goal is to help your customers find success with each and every animal they place in their tank. It’s easy to earn the reputation of being the go-to place for healthy, unique specimens by buying from reputable sources and staying on top of the trends.