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Age of Aquariums: Fish as Furniture

August 04, 1988|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

The hand that feeds them is apt to be a machine. And this new generation of fish-pets may be chosen as much for their color--do they match the living room's Southwestern decor?--as for their pedigrees.

Aquariums are in--in 10 million American households, according to a 1986 survey that also found that only 20% of them belong to serious hobbyists. Twice that many of the tanks are "ornamental or decorative," integral architectural statements stocked, planted and tended by fish professionals.

"Someone who hires a service like me really wants to see (the aquarium) but doesn't want to take out the dead fish," explains Lorin Ginsberg, co-owner of the Private Reef service. "A lot of people are squeamish."

Biweekly House Calls

Private Reef and similar services will set up aquariums for a fee, $1,000 to $3,000 for a decent-sized tank with fish. They charge $45-$75 a month (depending on tank size) to follow up with biweekly house calls to keep the water sparkling, the aquarium walls scraped and the fish disease-free.

Most services also offer the option of an automatic feeder, the ultimate in hands-off pet care. "We encourage this," says Larry Dodson, a partner in Another World. "It's very easy to feed your fish too much." Ginsberg, though, says he "kind of frowns" on feeding by rote, observing it's difficult at best "to have much rapport with your fish if somebody else is taking care of them."

But for some of his clients and their fish, it's decor before rapport, Ginsberg says: "Some people have me change their fish (to go with) the room. They'll say, 'Give me a blue one.' They're very apathetic about it."

So whatever happened to guppies in a bowl? What happened to $2 and $3 tropical fish that were lovingly carried home in water-filled baggies and introduced into a modest little aquarium that sat in the breakfast nook?

The saltwater craze, for one thing. Saltwater fish, most experts agree, are more colorful and have more personality. "Everyone wants saltwater," Dodson says.

But marine fish require more swimming room, non-fluctuating water temperatures and more expertise. "Saltwater is a little tricky to take care of," Dodson cautions.

Several thousand dollars buys a nice setup, say 100 gallons, fresh- or saltwater. But, Dodson says, "one job we did was $12,000. Our business is primarily on the upper end." He isn't naming names but notes, "We do work with a lot of celebrities."

Recently, tropical fish have gotten good press; there's said to be something stress-relieving in watching them undulate silently through the water. A few years back, an enterprising entrepreneur even introduced the ultimate in care-free aquariums--a videotape of fish swimming back and forth across a television screen.

Patients at the Westwood office of Dr. John Hertz, a chiropractor, are mesmerized by the creatures in the 500-gallon saltwater aquarium in his reception area.

"The doctor is kind of eccentric," office manager Monica O'Connor explained. "He likes strange things." One of his tank pets is a bizarre, purple, orange and white animal called a sea apple. "You can't even tell which end is up," O'Connor said.

O'Connor's favorite is the arrow crab, which "looks like a giant daddy longlegs" and spends most of its time collecting bits of coral and building itself caves.

Look, Don't Touch

There is fashion in fishes, Ginsberg says, noting, "The lion fish is right there at the top. It's got black stripes and red stripes and polka dots and lots of fins. It also happens to be slightly poisonous, not recommended for touching."

What the fish fancier of the '80s seeks is "something that not just any kid can go and pick up for $2," he says. "People like to spend money." Those who really like to spend money might go for a $100,000 Japanese koi. And though he has yet to sell one, there is an Arabian angelfish for about $6,000. "It has to travel through war zones" to get to Los Angeles, he explains.

But other specimens, fresh- and saltwater, can be had for as little as $5, or, commonly, on up to $50 or $75. In a well-maintained aquarium, and with proper diet, fish can live from two to five years. They need swimming space, say 100 gallons of saltwater for eight 2x4-inch fish. Anything less, one expert observes, is akin to "putting a horse in a closet."

The longevity of the fish depends to an extent on how they were handled during capture and shipping to wholesalers like Salt and Sea in Inglewood, which stocks 5,000-10,000 specimens--saltwater only--at a given time.

Specimens for aquariums in homes, reception rooms and lawyers' offices are caught--often at night while napping--in the South Pacific and off the coasts of Florida. They are sealed in small plastic bags, in which enough oxygen is pumped for a journey of about 40 hours.

The aquarium craze is such, Blue said, that "we're having difficulty getting enough" fish; there is the specter of depletion of some grounds if fish are not carefully harvested so as to let the species reproduce.

Fish sales nationwide are about $150 million annually, reports the Western World Pet Supply Assn., based in South Pasadena. But their lure transcends stress therapy.

"You get attached to them," Dodson explains. "They have their own personalities. Most fish tend to be shy" though "they do like to be around people."

The clown trigger, with its varicolored polka dots and stripes, is "the most beautiful of fish," in Ginsberg's view. But, he says, the fish "can bite like a son-of-a-gun and he'll take a big gulp of water and spit at you."

And the lowly goldfish? "Underrated," in Ginsberg's view.

He tells of a woman client who brought three little goldfish home in a bowl from a carnival. Through the years, the fish have grown to a foot in length. They now live happily in the luxury of a 250-gallon tank.

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