Fish Foods Are Meeting Species-Specific Requirements

Owners are increasingly aware of the nutritional aspects of the food they are feeding to their pets, and aquarium hobbyists are no exception to this trend. Aquarists want to offer dietary items that better meet aquatic species’ nutritional requirements, industry experts reported, and are seeking balanced and varied food options.

"Customers are definitely paying more attention to fish nutrition," said Sean Malloy, manager of Azalea Aquariums in Richmond, Va. "People are looking at it more like how they view nutrition for themselves. We need a balanced diet. We need a varied amount of food… The same thing is true for fish."

Hikari Sales USA seeks to meet consumer demand by providing nutritionally complete options that address the needs of various species.

"Different species require different nutrients in different amounts," said Chris Clevers, president of the Hayward, Calif.-based company. "This is where our ‘species specific’ trademark was born. We do lots of testing and spend lots of time and money working to get the nutrient profile fine-tuned for each diet. The best thing for fish is to give them a daily diet that offers all the necessary nutrients in a balanced format that will allow them to utilize everything that is being offered. This helps reduce waste and the aquarium environmental issues associated with a lack of nutrient utilization.

"Avoid feeding frozen only, as this can cause longer-term deficiencies that negatively impact the health of the fish," he added.

Fish and other aquatic species are receiving more consideration when it comes to meeting their needs, experts noted.

"Pet humanization is happening in the aquatics industry," said Steve Rodich, manager of Aquatics Unlimited in Greenfield, Wis. "A lot of people check those first few ingredients, whether it’s a whole fish meal or whole fillets."

Traditionally, dietary offerings were marketed less toward health-conscious aquarists, and more toward hobbyists looking to enhance the color of their pet fish.

"In the past, it always used to be about color," Rodich said, adding that today’s fish foods are focused on "providing for the overall health of the fish, which can help with color [too]."

Now that customers are checking labels more carefully, filler materials are also changing.

"A lot of manufacturers have been pushing away from using flour and starch to hold everything together in their products, because customers have actually been reading the back of the ingredients more," Malloy said. "That’s definitely a good thing to see too."

Driving Repeat Sales

Fish foods still hold an important place in local fish retailer business models, serving to bring customers back in-store and helping to drive impulse purchases.

"We get a lot of people that stop in just for foods," Rodich said. "Then we can catch them with an impulse buy at the same time."

He noted that several brands sell well for him.

"Tetra has always kind of been a big staple in the hobby," Rodich said. "We sell a lot of Spectrum food as well. Hikari is one of the better-quality foods. I’d say the majority of people that raise fish for us, the ones that use Hikari tend to bring us nicer specimens."

Some types of food, such as live offerings or frozen diets, keep customers coming back more frequently, as well.

"We find a lot of customers come back in for live foods," Malloy said. "We sell a lot of black worms and a lot of live brine shrimp. Those customers are coming in every other day, or every week or so. We definitely see a lot of repeat business with pellet sales, but they’re coming in for the fish, too."

Sera and NorthFin are the two diets that sell best in his store, he added.

"Both of those companies put a really good selection of ingredients into their foods," Malloy said. "NorthFin uses a lot of krill, a lot of like different types of kelp and spirulina. Sera uses a lot of fish meal. They are really good for marine and freshwater, which we like a lot."

Retailers might find optimal success when they carefully calibrate sales to match customers’ needs.

"Retailers are always looking for ways to get more customers in the store," Clevers asserted. "Many complain that customer counts are their biggest issue these days. One of the easiest ways to help this is to make sure they help their customers right-size their food purchases."

On the Market

New, Natural and Innovative

Innovative formulations and dietary formats are helping keep the aquarium foods segment fresh and exciting for hobbyists, industry insiders report.

Hikari, for example, developed a pellet designed to look like a frozen bloodworm in the aquarium, said Chris Clevers, president of Hikari Sales USA in Hayward, Calif. This formulation, Hikari Vibra-Bites, is meant to offer a nutritionally complete food to their fish while stimulating natural feeding behaviors.

The company has also introduced probiotics for fish as well as other novel ingredients to promote health and wellness, which highlights the trend toward nutritionally complete diets in the hobby.

"We use the Hikari Aquatic Lab to study the nutritional needs of fish and inverts and the impact the food’s profile has on them," Clevers said. "Nothing is left to chance. It is also important to remember that our sister company, [Kamihata Fish Industries Ltd.], is one of the largest fish breeders and wholesalers in the world, so we have a lot of real-world experience over a long period of time. This helps us to know what really works and how each diet impacts the fish and their environment from a firsthand perspective."

Several diets on the market are geared toward offering classic live foods in new formats. San Francisco Bay Brand introduced Cultivated Bloodworms and Freeze-dried Cyclops this year.

The bloodworms are sustainably farm-raised, said Jason Oneppo, research and development manager for San Francisco Bay Brand and Ocean Nutrition Americas, headquartered in Newark, Calif., and will be available in 3.5-ounce, 28-cube blister packs and 3.5-ounce break-apart bar flat packs. The Freeze-dried Cyclops will be available in small- and large-sized jars and will include scoops, he added.

Ocean Nutrition Formula One and Formula Two XL soft and moist slow-sinking pellets will be available later this year, Oneppo added, and the company will begin offering its Nano Reef Fish Food pellets in a 2.6-ounce jar size.

Oneppo noted that the trend in new products focuses on natural ingredients.

"There is a continued trend towards natural ingredients," Oneppo said. "Most new products go this route. Some brands are updating their products by replacing synthetic ingredients with natural ones. For instance, over the past several years we have updated our flake foods by removing the synthetic preservatives—which are antioxidants—as well as dyes, and replacing them with natural alternatives. We are also replacing any terrestrial ingredients with those from aquatic environments."

Dietary product innovation continues at all levels within the hobby, and popular species such as bettas are benefiting from new offerings become available as well. Tetra’s most recent addition to its Betta line is its Betta Worm-Shaped Bites.

These are designed to float and mimic the swimming behavior of live bloodworms, said Sean Raines, director of aquatic marketing product development for Spectrum Brands’ Pet, Home & Garden Division in Blacksburg, Va.

"It contains shrimp and carotenoids to enhance color, as well as omega-3 and proteins for energy and growth," Raines said. "The pet industry, in general, has been moving toward simulating human-grade food types and additives, and pet owners often identify with the philosophy of ‘what is good for me must be good for my pet.’"

Consumer Education

Offering Knowledge and Superior Service

Customers are increasingly in need of education when it comes to fish nutrition, industry insiders noted.

"Quite frankly, sometimes customers make feeding decisions just based on what’s easier for them," said Mike Calli, president of Global Aquatics & Pet Supplies in Ontario, Calif. "I have to re-educate so many people every day on food issues. Most people want to know what they can throw in their system to fix it. They want a ‘magic pill.’"

Calli focuses on answering aquarists’ questions and making sure they understand why they’re adding a particular food item to their system, he added.

Keeping customers well informed is something local fish stores are particularly good at, insiders reported, distinguishing them from big-box and online competitors.

"Education is the whole reason local fish stores are still around," said Sean Malloy, manager of Azalea Aquariums in Richmond, Va. "I encourage customers to feed a wide variety of foods. I also tell customers not to rely solely on trust when it comes to choosing foods. I encourage them to read labels and understand what ingredients they’re putting into their tank. If it looks like a food has good ingredients to your standards, then it’ll be good ingredients for your fish."

Providing superior customer service helps build the hobby, and highlighting preferred products encourages sales.

"Helping customers and educating them definitely drives fish food sales," said Steve Rodich, manager of Aquatics Unlimited in Greenfield, Wis. "Our recommendations always sell the best. The better informed customers are, the more they pass that along. Everyone benefits."