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Rate your tropical fish store; 

Use these 20 questions to find out if your local retailer is at top of the tank or the bottom of the filter!


By Neale Monks


You'll often read in these pages how important it is to build up a relationship with a good retailer, but if you're new to the hobby, how do you know a good retailer from a bad one? This quiz should help: simply read the questions, circle the answer that fits your retailer, and then add up your score at the end. 

Part 1: Livestock 

Question 1 -- All stores need to divide up their stock, at the very least into coldwater, tropical, and marine species. But good retailers divide up their stock even further, to make it easier to find and identify the fish you're looking for. How are the tanks in your tropical fish shop arranged? 

  1. The tanks are arranged into coldwater, tropical, and marine sections, but there isn't any obvious separation within them.
  2. Mostly everything is lumped together, with only a few special tanks for marine invertebrates and extra-large tropicals like adult Plecs and Oscars.
  3. The tanks are arranged into useful groupings, so there's a section for community fish, another for cichlids, a third for fancy goldfish, and so on.
  4. As well as being arranged into useful sections, there are sections for species with special needs, such as a bright-light tank for corals, a soft water tank for discus, and a hard water tank for African cichlids.


Question 2 -- You should always identify a fish before you buy it. How well are the tanks in your retailer labeled? 

  1. The names and prices are written on the tanks with a marker pen, but sometimes these labels are smudged or don't apply to the fish in the tank, so you need to ask one of the salespeople to translate.
  2. There are easy to read printed labels fixed to each tank.
  3. The printed labels on each tank give the common and Latin names, the price, and some basic information like how big the fish grows as well.
  4. The printed labels not only have the name and price of the fish, but include a small photograph that helps you understand which fish the label refers to.


Question 3 -- How would you rate the range of species offered for sale? 

  1. Poor: there is only a limited range of species, and many of those are problematical, e.g., tiger barbs, aggressive cichlids, and potentially large catfish.
  2. Average: there is a fair range of reliable community tank species but there isn't much variation from month to month.
  3. Good: while the focus is on reliable community fish, there are also specialty tanks with things like koi, marines, Rift Valley cichlids, and catfish.
  4. Excellent: the range of community fish is solid, but the store is best known for its specialty stock.


Question 4 -- Variety is the spice of life. How does your retailer rate when it comes to getting in rare and unusual species? 

  1. My retailer only trades in bread and butter stuff like guppies and angelfish.
  2. Most of the time the stock at my retailer is pretty ordinary, but once in a while there will be a cool new fish or invertebrate I've not seen before.
  3. Although most of the tanks contain the usual stuff, there is usually a liberal scattering of unusual stuff as well, such as L-number catfish and oddballs like gobies and puffers.
  4. My retailer maintains a special section for oddball fish, with a row of tanks for African killifish, rare Corydoras, dwarf cichlids, and other less commonly seen animals.


Question 5 -- Brackish water fish need conditions that set them apart from marines and tropical freshwater fish. How does your retailer look after brackish water fish? 

  1. They aren't stocked as such, apart from mollies and glassfish, and they're kept in freshwater along with the other tropicals.
  2. Brackish water fish are sometimes in stock, but kept in freshwater, although there is a notice that these fish will need some salt in their water when mature.
  3. Brackish water fish are often in stock, and usually kept in slightly salty water along with salt-tolerant freshwater fish such as cichlids and livebearers.
  4. There is a dedicated brackish water section, with the tanks clearly marked as containing fish with special requirements.


Question 6 -- Several types of fish are inexpensive but grow very large, such as giant gouramis, black sharks (Labeo chrysophekadion), Clarias catfish, and tilapias. Does your retailer do anything to keep these 'tank-busters' from falling into the wrong hands? 

  1. Juveniles of these species are mixed liberally among traditional community fish, and there are no obvious notices or warnings to inform the unwary.
  2. Juveniles of these species are in stock, but there are warnings that these fish will grow big posted near the tanks.
  3. Juveniles of these species are not normally kept in stock, though there are large tanks containing partially or fully grown specimens.
  4. Juveniles of these species are not normally kept in stock, and giant fish are normally only brought in as special orders for experienced aquarists.


Question 7 -- If you want to breed good quality livebearers, you need to begin with 'virgin' females. Mixing female livebearers with males, even of other varieties or species, practically guarantees that any females you buy will already be pregnant. How does your retailer keep their livebearers? 

  1. Males and females of more than one different species and/or variety are kept together in each tank.
  2. Although only a single species are kept in each tank, males and females of different varieties are mixed together.
  3. Only a single variety is kept in each tank, but males and females are mixed together.
  4. Females of each variety are kept by themselves without males, ensuring their 'virgin' status.


Question 8 -- It's easy to end up with too many fish, or specimens too large for your tank. Will your retailer take in your unwanted stock? 

  1. No, my retailer only sells fish, and has no interest in my surplus livestock.
  2. Yes, but only if I've arranged this before hand, for example if I bought six juvenile cichlids from them in the hope of getting one breeding pair down the line.
  3. Yes, my retailer will accept surplus stock, but I don't get any credit.
  4. Yes, my retailer will accept surplus stock, and even gives me credit towards my next purchase!


Question 9 -- The cleanliness of the show tanks is a good clue to the amount of effort being expended on keeping the fish happy and healthy. What are the tanks like at your retailer? 

  1. The tanks are messy, and many of them contain dead fish.
  2. While the fish appear healthy, the tanks are scruffy, with remains of dead food and things like decaying plant matter and fish faeces in some of them..
  3. All the tanks are reasonably clean, with only a few traces of uneaten food, fish waste, or dead plant material.
  4. All the tanks are spotlessly clean, and while the fish look well fed, there's no sign of excess food.


Question 10 -- Even good retailers will get outbreaks of diseases like Whitespot from time to time. What counts is what steps they take to prevent it spreading to other tanks, including those of their customers. 

  1. Many tanks contain sick fish, and there's no sign that these fish are being treated or isolated.
  2. Only a few tanks have sick fish in them, and these tanks are clearly labeled as 'not for sale' while they are being treated.
  3. None of the fish appear to be sick, and nets are sterilised after every use.
  4. Recently imported fish are quarantined before being put into the display tanks, and all the fish in the display tanks look to be healthy. Nets are sterilised between use.


Part 2: Plants 

Question 11 -- How are the plants maintained at your retailer? 

  1. The plants are bunched but not potted, and scattered about the display tanks exposed only to the ambient room lighting.
  2. The plants are bunched but not potted, either scattered about the display tanks or kept in one or more tanks of their own, and exposed to normal aquarium (i.e., fluorescent) lighting.
  3. The plants are potted and planted in gravel or sand and exposed to normal aquarium lighting.
  4. The plants are potted and kept in their own tank and exposed to intense (e.g., halogen) lighting.


Question 12 -- Non-aquatic plants such as the 'dragon plant' Dracaena, the 'wheat plant' Chlorophytum, and the 'stardust plant' Syngonium are regularly sold to aquarists despite the fact they cannot survive underwater for long. Does your retailer sell non-aquatic plants such as these? 

  1. Yes, there are a lot of non-aquatics for sale, and they're not marked out as being unsuitable for the average aquarium.
  2. Yes, but only a few, with most of the stock being reliable, truly aquatic species of plant.
  3. No, but some marginals with only very limited value to aquarists, such as Acorus gramineus, are on sale alongside reliable aquatic species.
  4. No, the only plants sold are true aquatics.


Question 13 -- To succeed with plants takes more than just dumping a plant into some gravel and hoping for the best. What level of support does your retailer offer the aquatic gardener? 

  1. Minimal: only standard aquarium lights and gravel are on offer.
  2. Basic: plant fertilisers and high-output fluorescent lights are available but not much more.
  3. Good: besides chemical fertilisers and lights, laterite substrate supplements and carbon dioxide fertilisation systems are available as well.
  4. Excellent: advanced lighting systems (such as mercury vapour and halogen lamps) and under tank / in-gravel heating systems are on sale for advanced hobbyists.


Part 3: Store & Staff


Question 14 -- What type of store is your local tropical fish store? 

  1. Nothing fancy, just a few tanks in the corner of a garden centre or pet shop and without any specialist staff.
  2. Part of a generalised pet store, but with a decent sized fish section and at least one member of staff who seems to be a 'fish expert'.
  3. A small but dedicated tropical fish shop selling a variety of species as well as having a fair range of dry goods.
  4. A large store with lots of tanks and dry goods, and a great place to find specialties such as African cichlids, catfish, or reef tanks.


Question 15 -- Knowledgeable staff are a valuable resource and a credit to any retailer. How would you rate the staff at your store? 

  1. Terrible; the staff have no interest in the fish beyond wanting to sell them, and some of their advice is positively misleading.
  2. Poor; as far as I can tell the staff don't know anything more than what is written on the tanks, and the advice they give is not very detailed.
  3. Average; most of the staff know the basics, but they're a bit vague when it comes to specialties like fish breeding, marine invertebrates, or brackish water fish.
  4. Excellent; everyone seems to know the basics, and some of the people having plenty of experience of specialist topics like fish breeding and reef tanks.


Question 16 -- Information is the key to keeping fish well. Does your retailer provide customers with any books or free leaflets to help them choose and look after their fish? 

  1. No, although you can always talk to the staff or buy a book.
  2. Nothing specific, but there are some leaflets from aquarium hardware manufacturers that you can take and read.
  3. Besides leaflets produced by the aquarium hardware manufacturers there is a stack of aquarium books marked for use by customers that they are free to read in the shop.
  4. There are free leaflets on the major fish types available for customers to take and read before they make their purchase.


Question 17 -- How healthy are then fish you've brought home from your retailer? 

  1. Poor; several have died quickly, and invariably new stock is followed by outbreaks of parasitic diseases such as Whitespot.
  2. Average; only rarely do fish die within a few days of being introduced, but there have been outbreaks of Whitespot suspiciously soon after introducing new fish.
  3. Good; new fish don't seem to be bringing in any diseases, and most live long and healthy lives.
  4. Excellent; all the fish have done well, but if a fish does die within a few days of getting home, my retailer will replace it or sell me another at a discount.


Question 18 -- When you buy the fish, how are the fish packaged for sale? 

  1. The fish are squeezed into a few small bags and not wrapped in brown paper.
  2. The fish are divided out among several roomy bags and wrapped in brown paper to keep the light out.
  3. The fish are put in roomy bags topped off with oxygen, and then wrapped in brown paper.
  4. The fish are in roomy bags topped off with oxygen, wrapped in brown paper, and the retailer checks you know the right way to adapt the fish to the aquarium once you get home.


Question 19 -- Does your retailer have a web site? 

  1. No.
  2. Yes, but it isn't well designed, lacks information on the current livestock, or makes unnecessary use of things like Java that interfere with my use of the site.
  3. Yes, it's simple but has all the basics covered, such as new stock, special offers, and a map showing how to find the shop.
  4. Yes, besides covering the basics it also has advanced resources such as stock lists, links to informative web sites, and online shopping.


Question 20 -- Ethical retailers avoid stocking stock that have been unnecessarily manipulated, as with dyed glassfish, or giant fish that invariably outgrow home aquaria, as with red tail catfish. Does your retailer do this? 

  1. My retailer routinely stocks painted glassfish, tail-less 'butterfly discus', and baby red tail catfish.
  2. My retailer isn't obviously a member of any trade bodies or campaigns, but I've never seen them stock painted glassfish or giant catfish either.
  3. My retailer doesn't stock painted glassfish, but once in a while juvenile giant catfish are offered for sale.
  4. My retailer is a member of the Ornamental Aquatic Trade Association, is committed to good practise pledges such as the Practical Fishkeeping campaign against dyed fish, and doesn't normally trade in giant catfish and other tank-busters.



The scoring system is currently set up thus: 

  1. 0
  2. 1
  3. 4
  4. 5

We could shuffle the questions about before publication, but I wanted to arrange them by 'rank' at first so you can see my judgment on each question more clearly. 

Poor score, mostly As and Bs: 10 x 0, 10 x 1 = 10

Below average score, mostly Bs and Cs: 10 x 1, 10 x 4 = 50

Acceptable score, mostly Cs: 20 x 4 = 80

Outstanding score, mostly Cs and Ds: 10 x 4, 10 x 5 = 90 

[This following bit is the bit to be printed in the article] 

So how did your retailer score?

Under 25                    Your retailer has a lot of work to do. A visit to the Ornamental Aquatic Trade Association web site would give them some useful tips on improving the healthy and quality of the stock they offer. But for the time being, not a great place to buy your fish. 

26 - 50                        Though they may be trying hard, your retailer is missing out on some of the basics. Any fish bought from a place like this will need to be quarantined carefully, so approach with caution. 

51 - 80                        While they may not be at the leading edge as far as the selection of fish and plants go, your retailer is offering good quality stock and they can be relied upon to give you useful advice should you need it. 

81+                             You're lucky to be have such an outstanding retailer to buy from! The best retailers choose their fish and plants with care, look after them carefully, and provided shoppers with useful information on how to keep them properly. Shop here with confidence.

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