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Fish Nutrition, Aquarium Foods & Retail


By Bob Fenner


"Birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim"; and that's not all; they've got to eat as well. And therein lies your best chance for attracting and retaining regular customer sales.

How much, how often and how to offer it are questions that need to be addressed by each aquarist per the species and system being maintained. Everyone knows that their aquatic charges appreciate and require variety and fresh offerings in their diets; but how and where to go about it is a mystery. One you and your staff should be able and willing to solve, with information and a range of live, frozen, liquid, air and freeze-dried, pellet and flake foods to offer.

Here's my brief rundown on the nutrition of fishes as this relates to what is available to sell at retail.


Captive aquatic animals in the way of fishes and most invertebrates have remarkably similar nutritional requirements as ourselves. At the atomic and molecular levels the same few fats and carbohydrates, ten (maybe eleven) amino acids (the "building blocks" of proteins), vitamins, minerals, "trace elements", and water. The same as humans, most can make other necessary materials (e.g. other amino acids) and must derive from outside sources (exogenously) others (e.g. vitamin C). Also, like "poor" folk, if they are offered too much of the "right" and/or "wrong" things, there is the possibility of lack of or mal- nutrition, poor developmental histories, nutritional disease (deviation from a "normal" or healthy state) and enhanced susceptibility to other co-stress factors.

Basically, our job as aquarists and dealers in the way of nutrition is the appropriate presentation of a suitable mix of food items, in an adequate format at a workable interval of enough of what it takes bio-chemically to make our stock do what we want it to do (e.g. reproduce, grow, color up...). Just like your own nutrition, too much deviation from the way it's supposed to be results in undesirable attributes; irritability, poor health, sterility, death and the like.

Food Formats: First my penchant against pushing live foods.

Natural Foods: If by natural, live is implied, allow me to present my opinions pro and con: First of all the negative:

1) Live foods are relatively more expensive per unit nutrition, due to the vagaries and costs associated with capture, transport, maintenance and service.

2) Live foods pose more of the possibility (than other formats) of introduction of pests, parasites, infectious disease and pollutants. Obviously, there are techniques for minimizing these risks; using marine foodstuffs for freshwater and vice versa, rinsing before use.

3) Live foods may be inconvenient. How many marriages have been rocked by live worms, feeders, crickets et al.? More than I would care to admit, being in the industry.

4) Live foods incite and intensify "predacious" behavior in a system.

5) They're very frequently a "loss-leader" for the retailer. Check out your real cost of sale per unit; you'll be surprised.

The "pro" argument:

1) It's more "natural" for captive aquatic life.

2) The difference in expense is negligible to the consumer.

3) Perhaps the only valid argument for using live foods; some "varieties" of livestock do poorly (or not at all) in captivity without their meals live and kicking.

A quick mention of one very profitable avenue for offering live foods; selling cultures and their supplies. Microworms, earthworms, insect larvae, brine shrimp, daphnia and more are great foods when the consumer does the labor, buying their starter stock, materials and possibly food to feed the feeders from you.

However, the fact of the matter is that for almost all systems, prepared foods are superior in nutrition, taste (palatability) to the livestock, and cost; including profit to the retailer. Prepared: foods of all types of formats; frozen, dried in a few ways, pelletized in even more, liquid...are/can be completely (this is a scientific term) nutritious.

Flake/Pelletized: are amongst the most popular formats. These foods are readily accepted by most species maintained, easy to store and use, less-fouling, "harder" to over-feed, and do the job in all ways food wise. They come in softer to harder, crumbly to crusty, flatter and fatter, colorful and not ways.

A few words concerning "freshness" as a function of palatability and nutritiousness. The legitimate manufacturers (e.g. Tetra, Sera, Aquarian, O.S.I. et al.) go to amazing lengths to compose, prepare, package and other ways assure the quality of their products. Do not thwart their efforts by exposing the food to air, moisture and time. Show your customers by example that you store yours in a cool, dark place in appropriate size containers.

Frozen foods are great! Though perhaps not as convenient as dried, they are available in a myriad of types, sizes and formats, appear more palatable to some stock, and are bargains compared to strictly "fresh" foods. If/where processed properly, frozen foods are just as nutritious as fresh.

Cubes, "packs" of single species (e.g. Brine shrimp, krill) or blends (like Discus "mixes", Ocean Nutrition's "Angel Formula") are the present epitome of attempts at complete nutrition in an appealing format to aquatics and their owners.

Some writers advocate defrosting before introducing into the system, some even rinsing; I have yet to experience/observe ill effects from just "sticking it in". For ease of dissemination and perhaps avoiding a cold tummy ache, frozen foods might be better off broken up through setting in a container and squirted or poured in.

"Dried" foods through air, sun, lyopholization ("freeze-drying"), are an appropriate means to the ends of getting nutritives to aquatic organisms in an attractive and convenient package.

Feedings Role in Nutrition: 

Over the range of species, sizes, even individual variation in such large groups of organisms it seems hard to make useful generalizations; but here goes. Know your livestock and system. What do they eat, have they been eating? What are the consequences of varying temperature, lighting, other aspects of water quality on their desire to ingest, ability to digest, utilize and egest (excrete through gills, urine, feces) any of the given/offered foodstuffs?

Feed more frequently, smaller amounts is good safe advice; never to where food lays about and rots. Occasionally "stuffing" or starving your livestock is not really a problem. As you might guess, this is probably a situation they run into in "the wild". My last pitch to your customers about over-versus-under feeding, underfeed.

Some (electrical, mechanical) automatic feeders are to be lauded and offered for sale, as are many of the "in-the' tank blocks" for short (one week or less) periods of time.

Merchandising Aquarium Foods:

So, is there money to be made in fish foods and related gear? You bet. Not only are these items high profit centers, but they're a key area for distinguishing your outlet(s) from other retailers, in particular the "big store" chains.

My best advice here is to present a "best" and "alternate" selection assortment in all categories, live, frozen, etc.. or if space, demand and staff sophistication warrant it a "good, better, best" philosophy in each food type with a economy, medium and premium line available.

The current trend is to "make a set" or display these lines size-wise by manufacturer, grouped together in a vertical arrangement, the "best" products placed highest, near or at eye-level. Whatever your array, avail yourself to adequate signage and shelf talkers where appropriate.

On Supplements: Should you sell, and your customers use vitamin additives and/or feeding stimulants? Possibly. Where in doubt as to the completeness of a nutritional regimen, such chemical adjuncts may well do some good, and will harm nothing. Such products make great impulse sales rotated as items placed near the cash register.

A viable alternative is pushing the use of "live rock" for marine and living plants for freshwater systems. Much as domestic animals seeking outdoor plant materials in their diets, fishes find these organic sources of decor to their nutritional advantage.


What is nutrition? The ready assimilation of a mix of nutrients (proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, water). Just like your customers, you need to become a conscientious consumer. What do you feed, in what quantity, how often and why?

Along with genetic potential, developmental history, chemical/physical/social suitability of the environment, presence and degree of infectiousness of disease-causing organisms, foods and feeding rank right up there as determinants of your livestock's vitality.

Your customers livestock is dependent on them entirely for supplying sufficient nutrition; they in turn rely on you and your staff's assistance in identifying and selling them proper foods and feeding information. Know what you're doing nutritionally and your store and customers' livestock will prosper.

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Anderson, Frank G. 1992. Food for beginners. FAMA 9/92.

Bartley, Devin M. & Christopher T. Turk. 1991. Nutrition and feeding in the marine environment. FAMA 2/91.

Blasiola, George. 1983. Maintaining good fish health through proper nutrition. FAMA 3/83.

Blasiola, George. 1996. Feeding Koi and pond fish for better health. FAMA 6/96.

Brousseau, Richard. 1992. A treatise on marine fish nutrition. FAMA 1/92.

Dulin, Mark P. 1979. Tropical fish nutrition. TFH 3/79.

Fenner, Bob. 1992. Foods, feeding, nutrition of nishikigoi (Koi carp), Cyprinus carpio and other cyprinid "pond" fishes. FAMA 8/92.

Fenner, Bob. 1993. An argument against "feeder" goldfish. FAMA 11/93.

Flood, A. Colin. 1992. Better by the bottle; Liquid foods in the miniature reef. FAMA 7/92.

Ford, David M. 1981. Fish nutrition, parts 1-3. FAMA 1,2,3/81.

Fruland, Robert & William Miller. 1980. Vitamins and the marine aquarium. FAMA 5/80.

Geisler, Rolf. 1988. The food of tropical fishes; what do they eat in the wild? Today's Aquarium 1/88.

Grimes, Charley. 1997. Feeding live food. AFM 4/97.

Halver, J.E. (ed.) 1989. Fish Nutrition. Academic Press, London. 798 pp.

Hayley, Art. 1987. Live foods: Good or bad? FAMA 1/87.

LeFever, Wyatt. 1992. The special needs of coldwater ornamentals. The Pet Dealer 6/92.

Masters, Charles O. 1982. All about Tubifex worms. TFH 1/82.

Meyer, Stephen. 1997. Feeding pond fish. AFM 4/97.

Montgomery, Bill. 1989. Nutrition in the reef aquarium. FAMA 10/89.

Paletta, Michael. 1990. Reef invertebrate feeding. SeaScope v. 7, Summer/90.

Pishvai, Emran. 1990. The nutrition of your fishes digestive

process, importance of nutrition, metric conversions. FAMA 3/90.

Pishvai, Emran. 1990. Digestion, the importance of a balanced diet. FAMA 4/90.

Pishvai, Emran. 1990. The role of minerals (proteins, fats, carbohydrates, etc.). FAMA 6/90.

Pishvai, Emran. 1990. Proteins. FAMA 7/90.

Sands, David D. 1995. the forces behind successfully feeding fishes: protein and palatability. FAMA 8/95.

Schreiber, Roland. 1993. Some live foods for aquarium fishes. TFH 2/93.

Shute, J.R. & John Tullock. 1995. The marine team: Fish food basics. TFH 2/95.

Spiers, Dale. Tubifex: manna from heaven or junk food? FAMA 3/90.

Steffens, W. 1989. Principles of Fish Nutrition. Ellis Horwood, Chichester. 384 pp.

Turk, Christopher T. 1988. Marine fish nutrition, parts 1 & 2. TFH 7,8/88.

Turk, Chris & Devin Bartley. 1989. Marine fish and invertebrate nutrition, parts 1-4. FAMA 6,7,9/89, 1/90.

Weigand, Ray. 1988. Feeding your fishes. TFH 1/88.

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