$15.00 a Box

by birdfish
(Originally published 2006)

Update -

Just to clarify. We were never $15 a box people ourselves, but we were surrounded by them. It was never how we worked. We often did overnight acclimations! Or at the fastest a whole bunch of hours. Currently the acclimation done on our fish boxes is temp and pH adjusted for each shipment, and includes 100% all new bags, water, and ox. It is state of the art repacking. Our fish boxes have less than 10% losses as a rule, and many have none or one fish. Start with the best sources (costs a little more), handle them right (costs a little more), and they are great fish (priceless).

   ...back to the original article...

This is one of a series of articles that will appear here giving an insider's view of how the "fish biz" REALLY works.

If you clicked here because you thought there was a box of something available for $15, PLEASE leave the site ASAP!   smile   Most island sources of fish or corals charge a box charge of $10-$20 just for the box! This reflects the cost of getting a box back out to "Tuamotu," or wherever not just the box.

But, that is not what this is about. This is about the care your fish get in transit, which can make or break whether or not they live. The key factor is $15 a box. That's what determines life or death for your fish WAY too often! $15 a box.

I know you think there are a bunch of fish handling experts out here in L.A. watching the every move of an acclimating fish, just like you and I do, but the truth is, it often comes down to $15 a box.

The fish that come into the U.S. from the Pacific (except Hawai'i) have generally been bagged for nearly 24 hours when they reach the West Coast. One of two things happens here. They will be acclimated and then either put in tanks in a wholesale facility, or immediately reshipped out to a wholesaler or store east of here. If they are put in tanks here at a wholesalers', they are called wholesale fish. If they are re-shipped out immediately after acclimation, they are called "trans-shipped" fish. Many stores buy trans-shipped fish, because they are cheaper than tanked, wholesale fish.

The retailer takes a bit of a chance on a few more DOA's to get cheaper fish, so he can offer them for less to you. If his supplier is good, he can save money, and get good fish, if they are handled with the proper care here when reacclimated and repacked.

The main benefit of trans-shipped product is that a hundred local stores haven't been to the wholesaler first thing Monday morning to "pick all the cherries" before out-of-state store orders are packed for shipping. He gets the same boxes that the wholesaler gets, without other buyers picking the best stuff first.

There are only about a dozen big wholesale places in L.A. where most Pacific fish enter the U.S.; there are a hundred trans-shippers. So, I think it is safe to say, at least half of the stores in America carry fish and corals that were trans-shipped via Los Angeles.

Now we get to the meat of "$15 a box" .... like any business, labor costs are high. In the fish biz, the most common labor is minimum wage type. Few, if any, of these people have ever kept a fish tank or read a fish book. They get $15 a box to acclimate and repack each box of trans-shipped fish or corals. Most places have a group working as fast as possible to change as many boxes as possible, as quickly as possible, so when it's all done, at $15 a box, the group splits the money and made decent money for their time. Fair enough.

The flaw in this is that how fast you can do it is the driving force, not the welfare of the animal. When it comes to acclimating a fish, particularly one which has been in a bag for 24 hours and will be for 24 more, speed should be the least concern, except for getting it out of the bad water in the bag and starting acclimation! How long or fast they acclimate has nothing to do with it. It's more about the money that is made by the repackers at $15 a box. The animals' needs are of absolutely no concern whatsoever.

Of course, there are some places that just pay the minimum wage and not a per box rate. I've seen these places often acclimate in a manner that would make you cringe. Taking fish out of a bag and putting them in a box with new water running as fast as possible, like a hose at full blast, "to change the water quickly," or to "create current," with total disregard for differences in the pH of the water. Again, the fish doesn't come first, it's still all about how fast it can get done without regard for what is best for the animal. There are many things like this that are done while handling the animals in the fish biz. How can you tell a business owner how to run his business though?

It is what drove me to be a "little guy" on my own. As a hobbyist first, the animals mean too much to me to ever not put their needs first. I often acclimate my trans-shipped fish overnight! Unheard of in the industry. But, I would say losses are next to zero if it wasn't dead in the bag when it got here. It will ship better if given time to acclimate and get out of the bag, swim around, see daylight, etc., for more than an hour ... before it's reshipped. Of course trans-shipped fish are only sold to stores in volume, they are not available to the hobbyist. But, since many of the fish many of you are buying in your local stores are trans-shipped, I thought you'd be interested in how it actually happens.

Life or death is too often determined by $15 a box. In all fairness, I do know one place that puts carbon dioxide in the acclimating water to reduce the pH to something near what the fish are in (after 24 hours of excretion (ammonia) in the shipping water, it is very acid) before starting acclimation. This, so you can flush the bad water immediately and as the C02 dissipates, the oxygen content rises and the pH comes up slowly with it, and you greatly reduce the chance of pH shock.

I'm not trying to indict any segment of the fish biz, but the fact is we could do a way better job of handling the fish. We could have fewer losses. Fewer DOA's and longer lived fish. Surely, we could trim a couple or a few percent off current mortality levels if a higher standard of acclimation process were required (like it is in the fantasy land where I am King.) This should extend to the store and hobbyist where it shall be against the law to acclimate floating in the bag and all fish are dripped properly!  smile   (Please see our article on fish acclimation.)

While there are lots of little things that cause a percentage point of mortality here and a percentage point there, they all add up. Every one that we can do something about, we ought to.

There's no excuse for fish abuse!


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