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Troubled Waters : Growing Popularity of Pet Tropical Fish Has Spawned an Environmental Crisis

January 13, 1990|SUSAN CHRISTIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There's only one plausible explanation: The walking batfish was Mother Nature's idea of a joke.

So ugly it's endearing, the toadlike creature hovered at rock bottom, maneuvering itself on six gnarled appendages.

"You wonder what God had in mind," remarked Rick Becktell, owner of Aquarium International in Westminster.

And for what possible reason did evolution precisely split the bicolor Royal Gramma fish's beautiful exterior into half fuchsia, half gold?

To make you ooh and ah.

They make you smile. They make you appreciate nature's artistic flare and infinite imagination.

They--the creatures from Earth's mysterious underside--are the hottest pets on dry land.

Since the mid-'80s, sales of saltwater fish have more than doubled in the United States, with Southern California alone representing 15% of the billion-dollar-a-year industry.

"Over the past two years, fish stores have been popping up like yogurt shops on every street corner," said Kevin Kerns, owner of 'Tis Tropical Fish in Fountain Valley.

"It would be a conservative estimate to say that since 'Tis opened 19 years ago, the number of fish stores in Orange County has multiplied fivefold."

Freshwater aquariums--for goldfish, Oscars, guppies--have long been a staple in college dorms and children's playrooms. But until recently, the jewels of the sea--which are generally more colorful and exquisite than their salt-free counterparts--have been considered too troublesome and expensive for a mass market.

Recent advances in aquarium technology have minimized the disadvantages: now saltwater fish can live longer and their glass houses are easier to clean.

"We've come to understand more about the ocean's ecosystem and how to duplicate it in the aquarium," said Raul Valentini, owner of Anaheim-based Fish By Design, an aquarium maintenance service.

"Saltwater fish have had the reputation of dying quickly, which discourages people from buying them. But now we have the sophistication and equipment to give them a longer life in captivity than they would have in the ocean."

Some fish sellers have expressed concern about the number of fish caught.

In the Philippines, sodium cyanide poisoning is used to sedate the fish, making them easier to catch but at the same time contaminating coral reefs.

Consumers, however, seem to be unaware of the controversy.

High-income households are pushing up the popularity of saltwater fish.

After all, caring for blue-line triggers and Australian sea apples requires disposable income.

"My average saltwater aquarium fish buyer is a career-type person in his 30s or 40s who can afford to invest in this hobby," said Bob Tetreault, manager of Russo's World's Largest Pet Store in Santa Ana. "I call them 'yuppie pets.' "

"We have a special parking lot reserved for Beemers," Kerns joked about his store, 'Tis.

While many of the fish themselves cost under $20, the aquarium and filter system can run into the thousands. "It's common for someone to spend $3,000 to $10,000 here on an aquarium," Kerns said.

Hectic schedules and compact condominiums help to make contained pets sell swimmingly.

Roommates Tony Napoli, 26, and Mark Garcia, 30, decided that their Newport Beach duplex was too small for man's best friend, so they opted for fish.

"They don't smell, they don't make noise," said Napoli, a schoolteacher. "Dogs and cats run all over the place--they're kind of like having children. Fish mind their own business, and they add beauty to your home.

"Once you get the fish, you want more fish and a bigger aquarium," Napoli said. "It's an addictive hobby."

Garcia added that he "could just sit and stare at the fish tank for two or three hours straight. It's very relaxing--the sound of bubbles in the tank, watching the fish move. I get a lot of gratification out of my fish. I can't pick them up and hold them like I could a cat or a dog, but they're still my little pets."

"I go on a lot of business trips, and I can leave my fish for two or three days at a time without having to worry about them," said Gary Brenkman, 35, a marketing consultant in Irvine. "You would have to board a dog or a cat."

But San Juan Capistrano resident Mary Callahan, 32, warned that in the case of lengthy out-of-town excursions, fish can present more inconvenience than movable beasts.

"When we go on trips we can leave our golden retriever with a friend or at a kennel, but we have to arrange to have someone come to our house to feed our fish," she said.

The homemaker admitted that she and her husband, Daniel, are more attached to their dog than to their fish. "Your fish don't crawl up on the bed with you," she said.

Even though they must be admired from afar, Callahan has developed an affinity for her finned friends. "Each fish has its own personality and temperament," Callahan said. "I hate it when one dies."

Condominium dweller Charlie Brooks, 40, a director of property management in San Juan Capistrano, has come to know her fish as individuals.

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