You can't pet a fish. You can't take it for a ride in a car. You can't put a bandanna around its neck and call it Butch and bring it to college with you. Taco Bell and Red Dog Beer don't have catchy ads using fish as pitchmen. You can't teach it to repeat dirty words when your mother isn't around. When your boyfriend or girlfriend leaves you, your fish will never snuggle with you and make you feel better. Of course, fish don't shed on the couch or stain the carpet, either.
But in some respects, owning fish is about more than owning a dog or cat. I think it is important to understand that becoming an aquarist isn't really about keeping fish; it is about understanding and sustaining an ecosystem. It is about understanding the interaction of species and communities.
Like most people, I became fascinated with fish as a kid. In my case, it was when my parents brought home a goldfish that we had won at a local fair. After throwing a Ping-Pong ball into a crowded mountain of little goldfish bowls, we had brought home our smooth, flashy, golden trophy. I was thrilled. I was fascinated, and loved to watch it swim around and wait for food, or react when the bowl was moved or new things were placed near it on the counter. My mother was no fan of this new creature. It was yet another new pet she was responsible for, aside from the dog I had always promised to walk and feed, but never did, and the injured squirrel I had found and insisted we save.
Greg Skomal, my co-author, and I met when I was in fifth grade and he in sixth. Like other children our age, in the summers, bored with endless days of playing baseball, swimming, and capture the flag, we went to a small pond nearby. There with his brother Burt and another friend, Condo, we tried to catch frogs, turtles, and assorted wild fish, while avoiding snakes, water rats, and groundskeepers. This pond was on a golf course, and we knew for a fact that they were none too fond of their new “environmentalists.” This, of course, made it all the more fun. We had in fact discovered a new world, far more fascinating than Marlon Perkins’ Wild Kingdom ever showed us. It was real and up close, if not just a little less dangerous.
While we had already started to keep community tropical fish tanks, this gave us a fun new way of exploring the world. We brought home a huge array of sunnys, minnows, perches, and other wild fish and put them in the tank. There we watched them interact with the other fish. It was fascinating. While they were not nearly as pretty as some of the other fish, they were all the more intensely watched, because they were “real” fish, not purchased from pet stores, but daringly captured from the dangerous wilds of Connecticut golf courses.
Such was our introduction into the hobby of fishkeeping. Each of us moved forward, one ahead of the other, keeping more and more interesting fish. We all had community tanks, housing schools of neons, angelfish, swordtails, and various odd catfish. Then Greg moved up, as we perceived it, keeping wild fish in his tank. We all followed suit. Then he went on to some of the more incompatible fish, like oscars, Jack Dempseys, firemouths, and other cichlids. Then it was on to the mother of all fish tanks—saltwater.
It seems mean now, but I remember watching angelfish gang up on a group of other fish, and then watch a Siamese fighting fish chase the angelfish. We stood in horror as we watched the oscars dine first on food pellets, then on feeder goldfish. We experimented with tubifex worms and earthworms. We learned about chemistry, biology, and, in the long term, I think, learned many valuable lessons that went beyond the scope of just a hobbyist.
I had never enjoyed science in school, and didn't think of myself as a scientist. But, in setting up filters, learning how water is purified, learning about plants and how they are valuable to fish life, why algae is both good and bad, what nitrates are, and how babies are born to egg-layers and live-bearers, I became a participant in a mesmerizing show of nature's force and vibrancy. Fishkeeping was a crash course in how life works and an interesting one at that. Understanding these elements meant the difference between being able to keep first goldfish and then more interesting species. And in the end, I realized that many of us understood a lot more science than we thought we did.
As we became more involved, we learned more about the different species and interacted with those who bred and raised tropical fish and exchanged tips and information. And we felt proud whenever someone came to our house and marveled at our aquariums.
Today, Greg is a marine biologist, enjoying to this day a calling that started out as just a hobby. And for me, as my wife and I plan a new water garden, complete with goldfish, those lessons are still invaluable. And fishkeeping is still just as fun.
How This Information Is Organized
This book looks at three different categories of fish: cold freshwater fish (goldfish and koi); tropical freshwater fish; and marine (or saltwater) fish. The difference between cold freshwater fish and tropical fish is that tropical fish need a warmer water temperature to thrive, while koi and goldfish need colder temperatures. Community fish found in a common tropical fish tank usually require temperatures of 75° to 82°F. Goldfish and koi require waters generally 10 to 15 degrees colder. Though it is possible for goldfish and koi to survive in warmer water, they tend to be sluggish and more prone to diseases. In short, it would be inhumane to keep them at warmer temperatures. Marine fish can only survive in salt water, and therefore bring with them their own unique issues.
The essentials of fishkeeping—setup, care, and feeding—appear in each of the three sections both for your convenience's sake and because the specifics vary from species to species. What aquarist wants to keep searching from one section to another, looking for important information in far-flung sections of the book? The idea is that for the hobbyist only interested in freshwater tropical fish, he or she does not have to go flipping all over the book, but can stay within the section of their interest. Where things are common to most species, we have grouped them together—such as certain common information about feeding (or to be more specific, growing these foods), diseases among freshwater fish, and breeding.