A woman picks fish in the tank

sSometimes retailing can be fun when the demand for a product is so great that people are willing to wait in line to get it. The event I’m talking about happens on the days when your weekly live food shipments appear. Thankfully, airlines are starting to return to a dependable schedule now that COVID has waned. As they say in air travel, sometimes it’s necessary to do “hit and pack.” When a lot of people want live food at the same time, pull up a “take a number” machine, as they would in a deli. Don’t worry, the eruption usually only lasts a few hours. This is a small price to pay to keep your customers coming back on a regular basis.

Selling live foods for fish and aquatic invertebrates can be an important part of your bottom line. But if you don’t do it right, it can be a disaster for your business. The main pitfall to avoid is selling live foods that may be compromised. Your maintenance systems must be at a high level or live foods can quickly succumb to many environmental or internal issues.

Keeping fresh food alive

Let’s take a look at the most common live foods of the tropics and discuss what it takes to keep them alive in your store. First and foremost, housing for live foods should always be off the main showroom floor. If you allow customers to see live items, they will always try to ‘pick them up’. You don’t have the luxury of allowing it – because time is money – and if you think people are slow to choose fish for their home aquariums, you can multiply that factor by four when it comes to live foods.


Therefore, storage facilities for live foods should be behind closed doors. This can be easily achieved if you have a back room that is temperature controlled with plenty of cabinet space, adequately lit, and hot and cold running water connected through the utility sink. With these facilities, you should be able to keep any live food in good health. First, what live foods are you considering? The two most common types are marine shrimp and blackworms. True, this leaves the feeding fish out of the picture, but fortunately, you already have experience with live fish. Let’s look at brine shrimp first.

So, you need a really big tank – or even better – a very large tub or plastic tub. The best poured concrete bowl is laying on the ground and containing the plumbing needed to install an open blade recirculation pump and a huge UV sterilizer. Your goal is to give the shrimp plenty of water with minimal filtration, but still virtually bacteria-free due to the UV sterilizer. And yes, you can feed sea shrimp with food powder, if you wish. Remember, the aquarium/swimming pool must be wide open to allow you to collect animals for sale. Use only enough light to facilitate the collection of brine shrimp. Fishing nets should be woven tightly, allowing only water to pass through.

Blackworms and earthworms

We turn to black worms – and this is a bit more problematic, because they work best when they clump together and form a live ball. Initially, these little worms come from cool/cold mountain streams with fast-moving water. These conditions are difficult to breed in captivity and gradually, farmers learned to spread the worms over large areas of shallow ponds or reservoirs (in India). Here they grow well and are easily collected. Unfortunately, this will not work for your water store. Instead, I recommend a series of small plastic puddles that overlap and drain by gravity (very slowly). Finally, the flow reaches the “mother pond” where a coolant is placed and the water is returned to the top of the cantilevered ponds. In each level, it is important to collect worms separated from any family ball that may form. Obviously, the lower container must have a return pump. It must have an open blade and operate at the lowest permissible speed (RPM) to get the job done.

The lighting can be dim as you hope you won’t have too many worms left by the time your next shipment arrives.

The easiest living food to obtain and maintain is undoubtedly earthworms. In the fishing trade, these things can be called a variety of earthworms, to red wobblers, to nocturnal reptiles, and finally bloodworms (true worms – unrelated to the animal in the pet trade). Let me assure you—for a home aquarium—that red curlers will be suitable for 95 percent of the fish your customers may keep. In fact, even these are a little large, and it might be wise to feed them to tropical fish by cutting them in half. You can probably buy this wholesale from any company that sells to sporting goods stores or to fishing equipment dealers. They come in plastic tubs containing a certain number of worms, give or take. Store them in the refrigerator in the tubs you come to them or make your own bathtubs.

Turn the refrigerator to its lowest setting. Make sure to write the date of arrival on each container. If they go past the expiration date (2-3 weeks), take them out and feed them to the fish at your store. For sale, these worms should always be preserved in algae. This substance is organic, so it will degrade even if some of it is swallowed by a predatory fish inside the worm. Breeding these worms is simple, but who needs something else to do, so I suggest the quick and easy way.

specialty foods

Over the years, I’ve seen a variety of items sold as live food to tropical aquariums. In the old days, daphnia was a staple, but farming this animal required quite a bit of work. Live bloodworms—which are actually the larval form of the chronomid fly—are excellent for fish, but very few people collect them to sell alive. Tobifix worms were the gold standard until marine shrimp appeared. The problem with Tubifex was that the worms lived in filthy conditions, usually on substrate near municipal sanitation facilities. Glassworms were very popular. They came from the frozen ponds of the Great Lakes. They needed a cooler or the larva would turn into a fly.

Feeding fish is a key component, and most species that fit into this category require cool water, such as goldfish and minnows native to North America. Florida fish farms produce huge quantities of live guppy, platy, and molly that are labeled as feeders. There is no attempt to develop fictional versions of these breeds, in fact, they are sold mixed in size from newborn larvae to whole fry.

Marketing common elements

What is your advantage over a global product in the trade? I hesitate to say you need a gimmick, but other than low prices, what can you do to sell more frozen foods than your competition? One of my bright ideas was to sell small Styrofoam containers and insulated cooler bags. These foods will prevent frozen fish from defrosting on the way home. I encourage customers to return their containers from previous trips. When they do, I give them a 10 percent discount on all frozen food sales.

Frozen fish foods come in all shapes, sizes, and prices. In terms of providing the best nutrition outside of live foods, I use mysis shrimp and bloodworm. Mysis is great for larger specimens or species, and bloodworms are a favorite of traditional school fish, such as: tetras, barbs, danios, rasboras, Corydoras catfish, rainbowfish as well as Angelfish and discus.

Cow heart is a great fish food for carnivorous fish or those on an omnivorous diet. I would definitely recommend it as a regular feature in a varied diet. Likewise, shrimp, scallops, mussels and even crab meat are good for predatory fish species. All of these items are sold in the aquarium trade, but they should be used in moderation. As you might expect, brine shrimp is the gold standard for frozen foods. This is not because it is the most nutritious, but because it is abundant and bred by trade supplier companies.

A well-stocked aquatic store should have at least two glass-top freezers for frozen fish food. Make sure all your employees are trained in frozen foods to recommend to your customers. This should include any permanent clerks who do not walk the store floor. Place the freezers directly across from the checkout lines. This gives customers one last chance to remember to bring food home for their fish. PB

Leave a Reply