As tropical show fish swim in the backdrop, people peruse exotic, aquatic Amazonian and African plants and fish before the night's auction begins.
The North Jersey Aquarium Society (NJAS) held its monthly meeting at the Meadowlands Environment Center in Lyndhurst on Feb. 16. As members filed in, and crowds gathered around some dozen species, including sword, pleco, guppy and synodontis catfish. Taking out a flashlight and inching closer to each tank, the judge, Rick Bolger, flashes the light on and off directly on each fish to test reactions, then shines it steady, examining each species carefully.
"I judge them by fins, color, condition, deportment [how they act] and size. They should be at 80 percent [of their optimal size]," says Bolger. "Condition goes with color. I look to see if they're missing scales, if they have pitted heads and clouded eyes. Different clubs have different rules."
A red mayae and a hyfin are new to New Jersey. "Right now, they're not accessible to the public. The hyfin was bred with a regular [species] fin and produced a higher fin. It was segregated and developed into hyfin," says NJAS member Al Bennet.
Longtime member Bob Larsen, Sr. announces that a winner this year, at the end of year, with the most bowl show wins, gets $100 worth of fish as part of a breeding program, and would be responsible for bringing some back for the club. Tonight, Larsen Jr. wins first place for his species of synodontis catfish, a fish species with no scales and a cheetah print-like design.
"I like the challenge of trying all fish. These [catfish] are nocturnal," Larsen Jr. says.
He has guppies and sword tails in over 100 tanks. He notes that the hobby is often passed down to generations, adding that he has two sons and he got his first fish when he was 6 years old.
NJAS member Kevin Carr says that hobby can become overwhelming. "A lot of people have the intent of only having one or two tanks," Carr says, noting that mom and pop stores are the best places to find the healthiest fish. "There was an African cichlid explosion…cichlid catfish became popular in the 1970s. They're very pretty, very well-bred. Now I see a lot of hybrids, painted fish, tattooed fish," Carr says. "I don't get a tattoo…how do they tattoo a fish?" Carr muses, noting that some groups use food coloring.
The NJAS is one of the largest aquarium clubs in New Jersey. It hosts a tropical fish show every fall, trips, picnics, a rare fish program to promote endangered breeds and more. "You have to be conscious about keeping tropical fish. They're pets. You can't release them. It's good to get the kids involved, but it's hard for [the hobby] to compete with iPhones and computers," Carr reflects. "The best part of the hobby is the people. NJAS is more than a fish club. We're a social club."
Carr, an NJAS member since he was 16, began his hobby with betas. "Tetras and catfish are nice. I like oscars too," Carr explains.
Maintenance and care are keys to successful hobbyists and breeders. Breeder Chuck Davis detailed the best ways with his "Gadgets and Gizmos" slide show. The presentation featured accolades to prominent fish breeders and specialists, who touted artificial insemination. "Make your own fish. Be your own Frankenstein," Davis says.
In his one bedroom condo, Davis says he has 23 fish tanks, in which he uses a multitude of products, some professional, others he creates. An automatic water changer is one, but he also jokes that some fish can be kept alive in a toilet tank, with fresh water pumped in "after every flush." Commercial gravel cleaners are a must. "There's a world of problems in [dirty gravel]," Davis cautions. "You can't keep healthy fish without that equipment. If my fish get sick, they go down the toilet. I'm done with them."
Do-it-yourself items include caves. "I glue rocks onto cracked flowerpots. They look like natural caves, keep cichlids from killing each other, because they have a place to hide," Davis says.
He cleans his filters every 16-18 months. "As long as there's water coming out of it, I'm not cleaning it. If you're fat and lazy like me, that's what you do," Davis jokes. He also promoted stick floating thermometers attached to filters so they're easier to get to. Unique everyday items like egg crates make good tank dividers. Natural filters can be fashioned from sponges.
Once you have the optimal fish environment, it's time to stock up on healthy tropical fish and aquatic plants.
"Who's got $3?" NJAS member Jim Costello begins the auction, holding up a bag of zebra cichlids. "I've got five in the back….once five, going once…twice…SOLD!"
A collection of seven neon swords is next. "Five dollars…who's got five? Gimme seven," Costello says. They're sold for seven.
Black angelfish breeder Chris White of Montclair buys three catfish species for seven dollars. "These are $9 each in a store," White explains.
Other fish and plants in the auction include Amazon swords, H20 sprite, giant hydro, and species from Africa and South America that Costello can barely pronounce. Species sold include albino cove catfish, breeding blue swords, Amazon sword plants, green swordtails, tetras—the latter among member Yianni Maris's favorites.
"For school fish, it's important that they're in groups," Maris says. "If they fit in other fishes' mouths, you don't put them together. You can put different schools of tetras together though. There's safety in numbers and they look cool swimming in sync."
Colonia residents Robert Gil Jr., 22, of and his dad, also bid on some fish. The pair had winning bid on shell dwellers, seven for $4. The species is normally $7 a piece in pet stores.
"I'm a biology student, so the aspect of recreating nature contained is what I like about it," Gil Jr. says of the hobby. "The biotrope…I try to emulate the environment that they're in."
As general rule, Amazonian and African fish and their corresponding plants should be kept separate. "African fish need hard water with salt. South American fish need soft, acidic water," says Robert Gil, Sr.
PH levels are key in breeding fish, he notes. "Nine times out of 10, the biggest mistakes people make is not doing the research," Gil Jr. says.