What to look for when buying fish at your LFS

What to look for when buying fish at your LFS

Ideally, when you buy a fish you want it to be perfectly healthy, eating right away and have a guarantee that it won’t die right away. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case at most local fish stores. Our policy at the LFS I work at is “no returns, no exceptions” and I find this to be the case at every LFS I have visited. You may find a few exceptions to this rule and if you do covet that LFS and bring them lots of business so they can stay open.

Since we don’t get a return policy or a “guarantee” then we really need to know what to look for when we go to purchase fish. The first thing you need, before even leaving the house is a quarantine tank. No matter where you get your fish and no matter how great the fish looks, you should still run them through a QT. Observation for a few weeks at a minimum is advised. Let’s go forward assuming you will be using a QT for the purposes of this article. A small note about not using one: If you forgo QT and place any fish into your display, even following my advice on how to pick a healthy fish, you still run the risk of introducing parasites and/or illness and I claim no responsibility for any death and devastation that could occur. You can find how to set up a proper QT here: http://reef2reef.com/threads/how-to-quarantine.189815/

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Picking a good LFS is the first step to finding great fish. You’ll want to observe how the employees treat their customers and their livestock. Ask yourself a few questions: Are the tanks filthy? Can you see any dead fish in the tanks? Are the fish active and alert or laying on the bottom? These are all things you can see before even getting close to the tanks and will give you the first impression of the place. If you can answer, NO-NO-ACTIVE to those questions then feel free to start browsing.

photo by: melypr1985
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Now we are at the tanks. Some stores, like mine, house fish in a Fish Only system and others in systems with corals. There are reasons for this. In our case, we find that some fish don’t do well in a system with copper. While our Fish Only system always has therapeutic levels of copper in it, we never put fish in that system that we know can’t handle it. We put the more copper-sensitive fish in one of the coral systems so they have a better chance after their ruff ordeal of shipping and airport security.

Let’s look at the Fish Only system. You should assume this system currently has, or has had some level of copper in it. This is important because sub-therapeutic levels of copper can mask symptoms of parasites but not eradicate them. You can purchase a fish that shows no signs of ich, flukes or velvet only to have a break out of one, or more, of those as soon as you get it home. You can always ask an employee if there is copper in the system and what the level is, but unless they test it right there in front of you, you should take their word with a grain of salt. Another thing to consider is, this system is probably all connected to the same sump and part of one very large system. You’ve heard it before and I’ll say it again…. If you see one sick fish, they all have it.

photo by: melypr1985
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Now to the good stuff! Make sure to observe the fish at a little bit of a distance. Fish never act the same while you have your nose pressed to the glass as they would with you 5 feet away. You’re looking for aggression between the fish in each tank along with flashing, scratching, rubbing and twitching. Not sure what scratching and rubbing look like? You’ll typically see the fish very quickly dart toward a rock or the sand only to turn quickly away only grazing their body against it. These are all signs of parasites in the gills or on the body.

photo by: melypr1985
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Note that the yellow tangs in our system were housed together in a 125 but all started fighting. Now they are separated, but ratty looking.
Not seeing the flashing and scratching? The fish isn’t getting picked on by its tank mates or being overly aggressive itself? Great! Now let’s move closer. Get close and take a look. You’ll want to observe for any heavy breathing as it’s a sign of parasites in the gills or maybe something else causing the fish to not be able to get enough oxygen. Either way, it’s bad. Now look for spots (crypto) or a dusty/dirty appearance (velvet). The fish should be clear with bright color. Remember, even if you don’t see physical signs of a parasite, it can be lurking in the gills out of sight. This is why we checked for scratching, twitching and heavy breathing. The presence of less than therapeutic levels of copper in the system can mask these things as well, so this isn’t fool proof.

Let’s assume you didn’t see any of these things on the fish. Great! Now we need to assess the overall health of the fish. It should be of good weight and girth. If your able to see the spine running down the length of the fish, that’s a very underweight fish. Make sure the fins are intact and not torn and ragged. Also, look for any red spots on the body and near or on the gills, this can be a sign of infection or ammonia burn. You may see something on a fin or the body that looks like a small patch of white cauliflower. This is probably just lymphocystis which is viral and not usually a threat to the life of the fish. Think of it like a cold sore on us humans. Then we want to make sure the fish is eating. Any good fish store is going to feed the fish on request, so if they refuse for whatever reason, just walk out. Step back and watch from a short distance to see if the selected fish eats and eats well. You want to make sure it’s not just taking a bite then spitting it back out and is able to compete with its tank mates for food.

We’ve gone through the process and found the fish for you! Great! I have one more thing for you to remember. There are some things that we can’t predict. There are also some things that are easy to treat when you get a fish home. Maybe you found the perfect fish and it’s eating well at the store. You notice some scratching and maybe a white spot or two on an otherwise healthy fish. Should you forgo this fish just because of those things? If you have a quarantine tank and the meds you need for the basics, then there is no reason to leave him at the store. This whole article is to give you the tools you need to spot a healthy fish and to have an idea of what you’re dealing with if you choose to purchase a fish that may have a parasite. Do your research and have a QT in place before going shopping and you will save yourself many headaches and heartache down the road.

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About author
Meredith Presley started keeping marine aquariums in 2007. She’s done everything wrong that can be done in the hobby (mostly but not all in that first year) and that has afforded her to learn a lot of hard lessons. Recently she’s been focused on marine disease diagnosis and treatment and hopes to focus on breeding soon as well. She also keeps a blog with basic info on saltwater keeping and her experiences with her own tank and livestock.

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