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Go-Go Fish

A little eye candy for your aquarium?

October 08, 2006|Ann Herold | Ann Herold is managing editor of West.

This, I think, is what fish would look like if Mother Goose, rather than Mother Nature, were in charge. The lollipop reds, blues, greens and tangerines are too fairy tale to be anything but the invention of man.

Which they are. What started life as the most innocuous looking of freshwater fish--the transparent glass fish--are being tarted up with dyes to make them as bright as a bag of Skittles. "We sell right out of them," I am told at Allan's Aquarium in Venice, which attributes the brisk business to kids' love of bright colors. And the fish, at 99 cents apiece, are certainly affordable, should you be looking for just the right day-glo yellow to go with your new furniture.

But at Medusa LA a few miles away, store manager Robert Harden won't carry them. The problem, he says, is that when the dye is injected into the fish, it collapses a vein. And although it's still debated whether the fish feel pain, you have to wonder, he says.

Still, there's a whole industry in colorizing fish, whether it's through injection or dipping them in dyes, as in the case of a tank of white-skirt tetras I see at Allan's in pink, green, blue and orange.

Certainly the injected fish are more susceptible to disease, says Vern Allan, co-owner of Aquatic Village and 22 years in the pet store business. And the dyes eventually fade. He doesn't sell them at his Ventura store, where his and wife Dottie's inventory is heavily into saltwater. He gets me hooked as he talks about the ease of bringing tropical colors into your living room.

Back in the '80s, I broke my heart and my bankbook trying to keep a saltwater aquarium. Although my tank was a mini-oceanic 125 gallons, "20 years ago you had to have a 180-gallon aquarium just to keep four fish alive," Allan explains. The more water, the less chance there was for the chemical fluctuations that quickly killed off my expensive and beloved creatures. (I still mourn one lionfish.)

But since then, Allan points out, the Germans have refined saltwater aquarium technology to where modern filtration systems have taken the stress of constant testing and chemical correction out of the equation.

Nowadays you can easily keep a 12-gallon saltwater tank happy. Allan shows me one that has been flourishing for a year with no fatalities. Not that the saltwater industry hasn't come up with its own color enhancements. Allan points to a rose anemone that is as beautiful as its floral namesake. It retails for $129. To bring down the cost to the seller, some suppliers are taking less expensive anemones and dying them, he says.

As for freshwater fish, I'm a little puzzled why, when you see the brilliant blues and yellows of some African cichlids (OK, so they'll kill most other fish, given half the chance) or the Asian rainbows (I have one in a gorgeous turquoise and another in ruby red that I wish I could wear) there's even a market for dyed fish. When I marvel at the natural Halloween colors of a tank of guppies, the salesman at Allan's quips, "Yeah, and God painted those."

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