Lauren Hicks, 14, recently caused a stir among members of the North Jersey Aquarium Society (NJAS) when she showed up at a meeting with a discus fish that she had bred at home.
"That’s one of the harder fish there is to breed and raise. It took me almost 20 years to do that," says Bob Larsen Jr. of Washington Township, vice president of the aquarium club that meets monthly in Lyndhurst. "Lauren is like the diva of the fish club. She’s got a talent for raising fish that I’ve never seen before."
Lauren says it’s her ability to spot the eggs that contributes to her success. The teenager’s first fish was a goldfish in a 30-gallon tank. Today she has 40 tanks and more than a thousand fish. The Hasbrouck Heights resident is among a growing number of young people interested in the aquarium fish hobby.
For busy households, fish offer a nice alternative to keeping dogs and cats as pets. True, you can’t pet and cuddle them, but you also don’t have to walk or groom or clean up after the fish every day. And for families with members who suffer from allergies, fish offer the perfect pet solution. In addition, caring for fish teaches children responsibility as well as offering lessons in science and geography – learning where different fish species come from.
For beginners, freshwater fish aquariums are the way to go. Before rushing out to purchase fish, though, local experts recommend that families do some research by reading books, visiting online websites and speaking with fish experts in pet stores. Larsen says that the NJAS welcomes beginners to the monthly meetings where members are more than happy to offer advice.
It’s important than someone in the family has an interest in fish when getting into the hobby, Larsen adds. He developed his love for fish keeping early on from his father, Robert Larsen Sr., who serves as president of the NJAS.
"My dad had 130 fish tanks in our home when I was growing up. He was my idol and whatever he did I wanted to do," says Larsen, who got his first fishbowl when he was 7. "Caring for the fish together gave us a sense of camaraderie and companionship."
Today, two of Larsen’s own sons, Michael, 4, and Robert, 6, share their father’s interest in fish.
"They love when the maintenance is done and it’s time for feeding," says Larsen, who maintains 100 tanks in his fish room. "I have a couple of 12- and 14-inch fish and it’s exciting for the boys to watch them jumping up to get the food."
John Gerstenberger, senior manager of merchandise specialty operations for PetSmart, says when choosing an aquarium it’s important for families to consider why they are getting the tank in the first place. For instance, if it’s a child who is asking for the fish, a small 10-gallon tank with just one fish can be set up in the child’s room. On the other hand, if the family is interested in adding color and excitement to the home, then a larger 25- or 50-gallon tank with a community of fish might be a nice choice for the living room.
Larsen recommends that beginners consider a 20-gallon tank for starters.
"The rule of thumb is an inch of fish per gallon. With a 10-gallon tank you are limited in the number of fish you can have," says Larsen. "Also there’s more room for error in a larger tank if you make a mistake with the chemistry or temperature of the water."
When choosing a location for the aquarium, make sure that it is out of direct sunlight so as to prevent the growth of algae. It also needs to be placed away from air vents that can cause fluctuations in water temperatures. And, Gerstenberger cautions families to make sure that there is easy access to electrical outlets before settling on the perfect spot.
"Betta fish are a good choice for a young child because they are easy to maintain," says
Matthew Hickerson, associate merchandise manager of aquatic supplies for Petco. "They are also great starter fish because they are usually pretty hardy and they tend to have really fun personalities. I have one on my desk and I can tell that he recognizes me when I walk into the room."
Hickerson, who calls his blue-and-yellow betta fish, Charger, said that this species can live for up to 5 years depending on the care they receive. While bettas get along well in a community of fish, they cannot be put together with other betta fish.
"If there are a couple of kids in the home you can easily have small betta tanks set up in each child’s room," Hickerson says. "At home I have one in my living room and another in my kitchen. A one-gallon betta tank doesn’t take up much room and can easily sit on a table top or desk."
Gerstenberger recommends livebearers, swordtails, danios, small catfish and striped tetras as a good selection for a community of fish. Larsen suggests that newcomers consider purchasing the cheaper species like goldfish until they are comfortable with tank maintenance.
"Goldfish are great starter fish, and if cared for properly, most will live to be 15 years old," says Larsen.
Fish can be purchased at specialty fish stores, from breeders at clubs such as the NJAS or from the major pet chains. Fish for sale at PetsMart are captive bred and purchased from all over the world, says Gerstenberger. PetsMart offers a 14-day guarantee on their fish. Many of the fish for sale at Petco are raised domestically with some purchased from Thailand. The store offers a 30-day guarantee on its fish. Both stores offer free water testing to help customers maintain a healthy chemical balance in the aquarium.
Experts agree that overfeeding is one of the most common reasons that newcomers lose aquarium fish.
"I’ve worked in pet stores most of my life and it wasn’t at all unusual to have customers come in and tell us that, ‘this product killed my fish,’" says Gerstenberger. "When we asked more questions, we discovered that they were over feeding the fish and that messed up the water chemistry. That chemistry is the life support system for the fish and when it is out of balance it sends everything into chaos."
The second most common mistake is lack of patience. At Petco and PetSmart, when customers come in to purchase aquariums and accessories they go home without fish. That frustrates some families.
"We want our customers to know that they need to get the tank set up and the water cycling properly before they can add fish. It can take a week or 10 days before the water chemistry is right," says Hickerson.
Lauren’s advice to newcomers is to advance with care.
"Add fish slowly and then watch to see what happens. Nothing is going to change in a day. It takes time," she says.
Vera Lawlor is The Parent Paper’s pet columnist. You can contact Vera at Veralawlor@yahoo.com.
The North Jersey Aquarium Society meets the third Thursday of every month (except August when the club holds its annual picnic instead) at the Lyndhurst Elks Club, 251 Park Ave. For more information, visit www.njas.net