The Aquatics Hobby Heads in New Direction
Legislative issues continue to hamper the marine hobby, but a resurgence of interest in freshwater and a shift to maintenance services is helping retailers fill the gap.
Patrick Donston, owner of Absolutely Fish in Clifton, N.J.
Auden Heitzler, lead associate and medical specialist for Wet Spot Tropical Fish in Portland, Ore.
James Paulson, CFO and manager of Aquatics Unlimited in Greenfield, Wis.
Kirbay Preuss, manager at Preuss Pets in Lansing, Mich.
Stacy M. Davis, purchasing director for That Fish Place/That Pet Place in Lancaster, Pa.
Pet Product News: What’s the current state of the aquarium hobby, and what trends are you seeing?
Patrick Donston: Overall, to me the industry seems to be more unsettled right at this moment. … Coral sales are really where I’m hurting most. And it’s been that way for around a year and a half. Everything is up across the board, except for coral. In some quarters, the coral has been down so much that it can take away every other segment’s small increase.
I can say from a couple of the shows that I’ve attended this past year that I’m noticing way more freshwater enthusiasts then marine hobbyists. The freshwater segment of the hobby is continuing to show a healthy growth rate.
Auden Heitzler: I’ve noticed a lot of people showing interest in nano tanks. Nano popularity has expanded greatly, especially because of the amount of younger people getting into the hobby. Many millennials are living in smaller houses and apartments, and they want a smaller, more manageable aquarium that fits in better and that they’re able to move around easily.
Another long-term trend I’ve observed is the continued growth in popularity of planted aquariums. We’ve seen an explosion of brands, such as Ultum Nature and Tropica. After Aqua Design Amano (ADA) came on the scene, a lot of brands came out that aren’t necessarily mimicking ADA, but they’re going for the same sort of “nature aquarium” aesthetic that Takashi Amano pioneered.
James Paulson: Freshwater fish are still the most popular segment of the hobby. That’s just due to availability and new species still coming in. Aquariums designed for use with planted setups are very popular. Hobbyists aren’t as reliant on DIY anymore, which encourages a lot more success for the customers too.
We consider freshwater the cash cow of the business. All-in-one kits and rimless designs both seem to be big trends right now. Rimless aquariums are the eye-catching option many prefer, in contrast to the classic tank, stand and canopy look.
Kirbay Preuss: Aquatics is definitely in an upswing. Aquatics hobbyists who are maybe not as technically or mechanically inclined are looking to streamline maintenance tasks and products that offer easier system assembly. We’ve had a lot more requests from customers seeking to diversify the diet of their fish. We’re selling a lot of insects specifically for fish, such as soldier fly larva. [Fluval] Bug Bites is a really popular brand of food that is doing well for us.
Stacy Davis: The freshwater segment of the hobby is becoming more popular for us. Manufacturers are coming out with improved models rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, so to speak. It seems like they are listening to consumers and making the changes that they want.
PPN: How are legislative developments impacting the aquarium hobby?
Donston: I am on the Aquatic Defense Fund of PIJAC [Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council]. We had a conference call recently, and I really can’t talk about certain things, but it’s pretty scary. The legislative issues are only going to come at us harder. The big deal is always Hawaii, because if Hawaii falls, that leaves the door open for animal activist groups to go into other areas. It gives them a template to how to get it done.
Some people think we’re out of the woods. We’re not out of the woods, and PIJAC is a huge ally to us. It’s imperative for the industry and retailers, especially aquatic retailers, to support PIJAC. Everyone should be members of PIJAC. Dues are cheap. They need our support.
Regarding Indonesian corals, I don’t see an end to [the export ban] anytime soon. It’s so funny because we have wholesalers in our area telling us it’s going to open up soon. I’m listening to the people on the front lines. Nothing’s opening up. They’re not even sure if it will open up in 2020.
Heitzler: On the freshwater side of the hobby, there are not as many regulatory issues pertaining to endangered species as there are with marine species. There’s a lot of focus on ocean life for reasons that make sense but that ultimately feel slightly misguided. I think a lot of it has to do with media coverage of marine life. Movies like “Finding Nemo,” and documentaries such as “Blackfish” and “Chasing Coral” create a lot of interest and raise awareness of marine conservation issues.
There really isn’t that drive to preserve freshwater ecosystems, which I think is extremely important and neglected as a result. These freshwater ecosystems are much more limited than marine ecosystems, and they are extremely important.
Preuss: We’ve been impacted by the Indonesian coral export ban, for sure. We expanded our propagation area around the same time that the ban took effect. We just installed a 1,300-gallon system full of frags. I’m also seeing a move toward captive-bred fish, which has become more common over the past few years. We’re seeing a rise of captive-bred specimens being available to us.
Davis: Our fish room has been ahead of this for years. We had a room dedicated to frags and are now redesigning our saltwater section to better house the frags that are going up for sale.
PPN: Are consumer attitudes toward aquatic livestock changing? Are conservation and animal welfare increasingly important to hobbyists?
Donston: The zeitgeist has shifted hugely. I’ll give a perfect example of that. A couple of younger employees wanted to know why we didn’t advocate fishless cycling. Some of my older managers who’ve been working with me for 20-some years were saying there’s no reason for fishless cycling, that it isn’t necessary.
The younger members of my staff were concerned about harming fish through [cycling with fish]. It turned into a little bit of an argument, and I said, “I’m not having an argument about whether fish feel pain and fish are being harmed through that process. I’m just saying, that’s the consumer mindset now.”At one time, fishless cycling was very rare. Nobody really talked about it in the 1980s or 1990s. Today, fishless cycling is a common thing people do. They’re willing to wait to add fish to a system. It’s a different mindset.
Think about how many fish we kill now. It’s way lower than it ever has been. We acclimate fish better now, and shipping practices are much better. Transportation is also better. That’s because as an industry as a whole, we are more in tune with the pathogenesis of fish. That’s a very positive thing.
Heitzler: There is a lot more interest in animal welfare today. It’s definitely generational. I’ve seen a lot of younger people against cycling with fish because of the potential for loss of life, and also just the stress it creates on the animals themselves. Hobbyists are steering away from that approach for moral reasons.
It also could be because we’re learning a lot more about fish and their behavior. I think that the idea that fish are not as smart as other animals, such as dogs, is still around. But with more behavioral researchers realizing fish are actually extremely smart organisms that can feel pain, many people are more considerate about their welfare. Fish were traditionally viewed as disposable pets in a way. That mentality has changed in all areas of the hobby though.
Paulson: I’m 29, so I’m part of the millennial generation. When I first entered college, environmental science was not a major. Well, I graduated with a degree in environmental science. There’s a trend toward caring for the environment and the well-being of animals. There’s no denying that. Increasingly, customers do not see fish as disposable, for example.
PPN: Where is the greatest opportunity for growth in the aquatics industry, and what are its greatest challenges?
Donston: We may not have the best opportunities, but this is why it’s important to flip our perspective and try to see it from another point of view. We always feel our greatest opportunity is to become serviceable. Services are always going to be something people need. We’ve increased our service and maintenance departments in the last six months.
We found that if we can increase the maintenance department, we can grow our business. Of course, it’s really easy to say that we want to do that. I’m trying to actually invest more of my own personal time, heart and soul into finding and training quality technicians. That’s part of the problem we’ve run into. It’s a roadblock for me. I can’t find enough quality technicians. I’m turning work away because I don’t have enough people to take it on.
We’d love to move more into private labeling, because people can’t price match it. Selling your own stuff is definitely worthwhile.
The largest challenge for brick-and-mortars is internet sales. That’s a fact. I don’t know how any brick-and-mortar retailers could say there’s anything more challenging than that.
Heitzler: The aquarium industry is growing, and a large part of it is actually being driven by YouTube. Content creators such as Aquarium Co-op and SerpaDesign are really inspiring people, and especially younger kids. I’ve seen so many kids come in to the store who already know the names of all these rare fish. It’s really sparking interest for a lot of younger people, and as these younger people start to grow up, they will come in to start up their own setups.
I’m 22 years old, but I haven’t met a lot of people in my age group who are interested in the hobby. The younger kids, though, between 8 and 16, are the ones following the YouTube aquarium channels, and I’m seeing a lot of them starting to get really interested in fish. I think as they start getting older, there’s going to be a pretty large boom of younger people interested in the hobby.
Paulson: The trend toward providing livestock sales, maintenance and services is industrywide. You have to be professional and caring. This is something that customers are investing in, and it’s going to be a part of their home.
We try to offer everything. We offer vacation services, for example. If a customer has a cat, for example, we’ll make sure the cat has food and water while the customer is away. That way, they don’t need a separate service to take care of other pets, even though we focus on aquariums.
One of the toughest challenges is to find the right people to perform maintenance services. When you hire a technician, the biggest thing is trust. You have to be able to trust them to go into a customer’s home, sometimes by themselves, without any possible chance of delinquent action of any kind. A lot of our candidates are friends of friends or family members of our current staff. We encourage that for our service providers a lot because we already know what type of person this is beyond their resume.
Preuss: We have a lot of aquarium services clients, and that segment of our business seems to be growing a lot. Some customers don’t want to take care of their aquariums, so they pay us to do it for them. There’s definitely opportunity to expand that part of the business.
Davis: Livestock sales are growing for us, yet supply sales are breaking even. Kits of all sizes are selling well, and are a great opportunity to get new people into the hobby. Customers like seeing the desktop kits set up as wet displays; this shows them what the tanks can look like in their home. I believe doing wet displays is beneficial so that customers can see how the tanks could look. •