The rise and fall of ornamental fish culture

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The hobby of keeping exotic ornamental fish in a home aquarium is nowhere near as popular as it once was.

The rise and fall of ornamental fish culture
Unusual species such as this Tilapia ruweti collected by Nicholas James in the Chobe River in 2004 kept interest in the hobby alive.
Photo: Nicholas James

Fifteen years ago or so, rearing aquarium fish was an extremely attractive prospect, with some of these fish selling for upwards of R3 000/ kg.

Moreover, high-value aquarium fish could (and still can) be marketed live, with no need for processing or refrigeration. Sadly, this is no longer the lucrative business proposal it was once. What has changed?

The answer, quite simply, is the Computer Age. Years ago, aquariums were a common sight in homes and businesses.

Today, they are a rarity. In Germany, 20 years ago, 10% of the population of 80 million people owned a home aquarium.

That represents eight million or more fish tanks! Of those eight million fish-keepers, many were young; today, few young people keep fish. Laptops, cellphones, iPads, computer games and television have largely replaced the indoor hobby of keeping ornamental fish.

South African scenario
South Africa has seen a similar trend. The 1990s and early 2000s saw sustained demand for rare, expensive and specialised species such as the Rift Valley cichlids, but this has now declined to a fraction of its former level.

Reduced demand makes the running of specialised, dedicated ornamental fish hatcheries uneconomical, and many such small fish farms have disappeared.

There is now demand only for cheaper, staple species, with occasional imports of rare or exotic species for the wealthy or discerning customer.

This is a shame, as the arrival of ‘something new’ in ornamental fish shops encouraged fish-keepers to specialise and expand their hobbies by adding new tanks and even breeding rooms.

The ornamental fish trade has always been one of passing ‘fashions’, in which a particular species of fish becomes highly sought-after and hobbyists are prepared to pay almost anything for it.

In the 1990s, for example, freshwater angelfish were a staple in aquariums. These gave way to black and marbled angel fish, and then pearl-scale angels.

Finally, it was the long-finned Altum angel fish that seduced hobbyists into parting with large sums of cash. Alas, no more.

The discovery of Rift Valley cichlids and the distribution of a multitude of these from Africa’s Great Lakes in the 1970s led to an intense, 40-year-long interest in the species, even spawning the publication of quarterly journals, yearbooks and glossy coffee table books.

Few of these species have actually disappeared; their presence has just been greatly reduced in domestic aquariums.

Today, most ornamental fish are produced by Asian fish farmers in small earth ponds in equatorial countries such as Singapore, and marketed through large distribution co-ops to wholesalers around the globe.

Each producer tends to specialise in a certain grouping of species, for example live bearers, tetras, gouramies and barbs, all of which are relatively easy to mass-produce under tropical conditions.

These Asian farmers mostly produce very good quality fish, and are experts in mass production.

Retailers are reluctant to accept local fish that may not meet the high standards, low prices and regular supply of imported fish. This leaves little room for the local producer in which to compete.