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Pet Product News Editorial Blog:

January 3, 2012

Painted, Tattooed and Dyed Fish: Pros & Cons

By Patrick Donston and David Lass


Painted, Tattooed and Dyed Fish: Pro

For our first blog where Patrick and I each take a different side of an issue, I drew the short straw, and am thus writing in favor of painted, dyed and tattooed fish. Virtually all of the fish we offer for sale in a typical local fish store are commercially raised, with only a handful of species coming from the wild. And many of these are “created” fish by breeders, making for different combinations of colors and body and fin configurations.

Tattoo gun
After all, the fancy guppies and goldfish we all have kept and that hobbyists really like bear very little similarity to the “true” wild fish. Cases in point: “Glowfish” zebras are very hardy and come in some pretty wild colors; and “bloody” parrots and flowerhorns are cross-species hybrids. What really is the difference between these that are “produced” or “created” by the art of fish breeders and those that are dyed different colors or even tattooed? Not much. Plus, the methods used today really do not harm to the fish—we are way beyond women in Indonesia using batik techniques of injecting dyes into glassfish (although that is still done).

The continuation of the tropical fish hobby is dependent on kids constantly getting involved with their first tanks, being successful with said tanks and then, hopefully, moving on to bigger tanks and more of them. Kids really like brightly colored fish, and I guess it really doesn’t make any difference if they want to keep glowfish or blueberry tetras as opposed to Odessa barbs or red Irian Jaya rainbows. What’s important is that kids get started in the hobby and can keep their fish alive.

The reality of the fish biz today is that everyone is fighting for every dollar being spent on fish, and painted and dyed fish do sell. If your store doesn’t carry them, customers will buy them at other stores—a practice you very much want to discourage. —DL

Painted, Tattooed and Dyed Fish: Con

I’m glad we started with this one because this issue has perplexed me over and over again. I’ve taken both sides throughout the years and have flip-flopped my stance many times.

I’d start off by saying all of us in the pet industry have an ethical and moral obligation to eliminate the harming of all animals. The question is: “Are painted fish experiencing pain or being harmed by the process?”

The process of painting or tattooing fish usually starts where the slime coat must be lifted by an acid or hydroxyl solvent. In some cases, fish are dyed like an “Easter egg” or tattooed with a curcumin-based dye that is lasered onto the scales. There is also the process of injecting the dye into the epidermal layer under the scales or down the spinal column such as painted glassfish. I think most of us would agree that a fish’s immune system is seriously compromised through injection. Evidence can be found in the ratio of painted glassfish exhibiting lymphocystis to those left unpainted. (Lymphocystis is a virus that causes white, cotton-like spots on the fins of the fish). It can also be found in the number of glassfish that are euthanized in shops and wholesalers after showing signs of the virus thus making them unsellable.

Scientists have argued whether fish feel pain. A noted ichthyologist, Judith Weiss, references a study in her book “Do Fish Sleep.” The study’s findings were interpreted to positively indicate that fish do indeed feel pain. The investigators looked for nociceptors (receptors that transmit signals along the nervous system to the brain, usually causing the perception of pain) and found that fish responded to tissue-damaging stimuli similar to stressed mammals. Weiss noted that other individuals, including angling groups, dispute the findings of this study. Whether we believe fish feel pain or not, it is noteworthy to suggest a “non-natural” reflex response.

Do we have an obligation to stop the demand?

From a business standpoint we do. Image is everything in sales. People want to buy from people they like. Harming or poaching animals is dishonorable. We don’t sell dried seahorses, puffers or other “animal trophies” do we? This is because it is not right and looked down upon by the general public, thus giving us a bad image. A few months ago we made the mistake of buying a tattooed Osperemus gourami and posting a picture of it on our Facebook page. Whoa—the responses we received. I wish we got that much feedback from a really cool natural fish photo. We then removed the photo, internally discussed the negative responses, and decided that our customers are indeed right. After apologizing and answering their email, I leave you with a comment made by one of our concerned customers:

“Fish are naturally beautiful the way they are, they don’t need to be painted or tattooed for one to admire and see this.” —PD

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