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Live Fish Foods

Stocking a variety of live offerings may help retailers boost repeat sales.

By David Lass

Stocking a variety of live offerings may help retailers boost repeat sales.
Feeder fish are still some of the most popular live food offerings.
Clay Jackson/BowTie Inc.
With manufacturing improvements in dry prepared and frozen fish foods, many in the industry do not consider it necessary to feed live foods, except potentially as a method to get fish into breeding condition. However, many aquatics retailers find that offering live foods is a good way to ensure their customers come into the store on a regular basis.

“We have a wide variety of live foods,” reported Joe Olenik, fishroom manager of Hoffer’s Tropic Life Pets in Milwaukee. “These include feeder goldfish in two sizes, rosy minnows, guppies, microworms, whiteworms, blackworms, redworms, adult brine, baby brine, mealworms, waxworms, and wingless fruitflies.”

As with most retailers, Olenik said live foods should be used by customers as “treats” for their fish.

“We let the customer decide,” said Steve Richmond, owner of Lovely Pets in Quincy, Mass. “If they buy a fish that does require live food, we always make sure the customer is aware of this.”

Of all the live foods offered by retail stores, there are three main groups that comprise the majority offered to customers: live brine shrimp, feeder fish, and worms of various kinds along with bugs.

Live brine shrimp are the live food customers are most familiar with. In addition to providing nutrition to fish, watching fish chase and capture live brine shrimp offers hobbyists an interactive experience.

“Live brine swims about and distributes well in the tank, making it accessible,” said Tim Troy, managing director of Brine Shrimp Direct in Ogden, Utah, one of the major producers of live brine shrimp and brine shrimp eggs.

This accessibility and distribution is important, and not just because it allows aquarists a chance to watch their fish display natural feeding behaviors. Because live foods move around and stimulate these natural predatory behaviors rather than simply settling to the bottom of the tank, they contribute to improving water quality.
 
“Live food generally has much less of an impact on water quality than does a formulated feed because it does not, as a rule, settle to the bottom and degrade as quickly as inert diets,” Troy said.

When it comes to keeping live brine shrimp in the retail store, retailers report the general rules are to keep the brine shrimp in clear, high-salinity water, the cooler the better, with lots of aeration.

“We keep a box of brine shrimp in a 40 [gallon] breeder and aerate it like mad,” Richmond said. “We use half aged seawater from our invertebrate tanks and half new saltwater.”

Another advantage of live brine shrimp, both adult and newly hatched nauplii, is they can easily be enriched to provide fish with the nutrition profiles they require.

“This is a common way to improve the fatty- acid profile of brine shrimp, particularly elevating the levels of DHA [docosahexaenoic acid] and EPA [eicosapentaenoic acid]” Troy said. “This involves a 6- to 12-hour ’bath’ in a seawater-lipid solution prior to feeding.” 

Though popular, brine shrimp aren’t the only live food option available to retailers and customers. While few fish species really require live fish to feed on, almost all stores carry feeder comets. “Tuffies” or “rosy reds” are a smaller feeder fish sometimes kept in stock, and feeder guppies round out the offerings.

The main problem retailers have with feeder fish is getting them to the retail store in good condition, as along the distribution route feeders are pretty much treated as third-class citizens.

“If they look good coming into the store, they will usually do fine” said Eric Majors, owner of Seven Seas Pet Store in Jasper, Ind. “If they look bad coming in you can tell it immediately, and you know there will be huge losses.”

As with brine shrimp, the key to keeping feeder fish is clean water, cool temperatures and heavy aeration. Rather than filtration, most stores rely on frequent large water changes.

“We use the MARS chiller display system, keeping the temperature for comets at 55 degrees Fahrenheit.” Majors said. “We can keep 1,000 comets in a 75-gallon system.”

Other dealers who do not keep their feeder goldfish refrigerated usually rely on a system with a lot of aeration and a large amount of biological filtration.
“We can hold up to 5,000 comets in our system,” said Kevin Mutschler, owner of Pet Kare I in Newark, Del. “The system has two 30-gallon breeder tanks, and two 40-gallon breeders, all connected to a 50-gallon sump with an oversized wet/dry filter, and large bio-towers.”

A number of retailers reported using black Rubbermaid watering troughs (between 60 and 100 gallons); these make excellent holding tanks for feeder comets.

“To keep our feeder fish, we rely on large sponge filters and frequent water changes,” said Ed Catalano, owner of Clearwater Aquatics in Jamestown, N.Y.

“We also treat our feeder goldfish with copper as needed,” he added.

Live worms and bugs--primarily mealworms and crickets--are another type of live food retailers can stock to benefit their customers. Retailers report that blackworms are the live worms sold most often, and that holding them in the store can be a problem.

“We are making RO water all the time,” said Joel Grambling, owner of Sea Dwellers and Friends in Angola, Ind. “We run the reject from the RO into a square cat litter bucket where we keep the worms.”

Kept this way, blackworms can be maintained for months, Joel added.
Another store that handles blackworms in a similar fashion is Something Fishy, in East Providence, R.I.

“Carrying live blackworms really makes a store stand out and brings in customers,” said Caroline Chalk, fishroom manager for the company. “In these tough times, it can be difficult for people to spring for the extra cost of worms for a community tank. [The blackworms] mostly go to discus and fish being conditioned to breed.”

Retailers uniformly reported that live foods are an excellent way to keep customers coming in to the store on a regular basis. When it comes to making a profit on live foods, nearly all of the retailers interviewed for this article doubted that they did much better than breaking even on live foods.

The only exception is Eric Majors of Seven Seas Pet Store.

“I make a good margin on feeders,” he said. “Because the Walmart near me gets 22₵ per feeder fish. As long as that is my only competition, I am a happy guy!”


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