Bet you never knew this about Baltimore: It's always been "a good fish town" -- "a hotbed of fish lovers."
So says Dennis Hare, president of the Aquarium Center in Randallstown, who adds that local retailers often carry a greater variety of fish than dealers in New York and Philadelphia.
And what's more, area aquarium dealers report that sales are growing annually by as much as 30 percent.
Fish-collecting, in short, is making a big splash in Baltimore -- and elsewhere -- these days.
Smithsonian magazine reports that tropical fish have become a leading hobby, with one out of every 11 homes having a fish tank. Americans are spending $1 billion and more on fish, equipment and food every year.
Mr. Hare describes today's buyers as mainly couples in the 20 to 40 age group. School-age children at one time made up a large class of buyers, he says, but seem to have lost interest, perhaps lured away by Nintendo and other trendy TV games.
"Years ago the big attraction was fish as a hobby," he explains. "Owners bred a lot of fish and sold them to pet shops or traded them for other merchandise. You don't see much of the true hobbyist anymore. Nowadays keeping fish is more of a pastime, something to do to relax."
"I spend a lot of time down here," says Eddy Wade, 40, whkeeps a 300-gallon tank with a dozen or more species of fish in the downstairs rec room of his home in Canton. "When I have company and we're watching TV, we wind up looking at the fish more than anything else. It's relaxing."
According to one study, watching fish glide effortlessly through the water in a glass tank is almost mesmerizing and may actually lower blood pressure.
The 1983 fish study was similar to earlier dog studies that showed that people who interacted with their pets experienced a lowering of blood pressure. Alan M. Beck, then an ecologist at the University of Pennsylvania's school of veterinary medicine, carried out the study, which found that people contemplating a fish tank underwent a similar drop in blood pressure and heart rate even without the touching and close interaction that occurs between people and their pooch.
Now director of the Center for Applied Ethology and Human and Animal Interaction at Purdue University in Indiana, Dr. Beck, who trained at the Johns Hopkins University, says watching a fish tank should not be regarded as a cure for hypertension but simply as a good way to unwind.
The Beck study, widely publicized at the time, was credited bsome sources for boosting the sale of home aquariums.
Today, fish tanks appear in numerous waiting rooms of doctors and dentists as well as in the lobbies of nursing homes and hospitals. At Caton Harbor Nursing Center on South Ellwood Street, residents often sit in the bright, sunlit lobby and watch the fish in the aquarium. Center administrator Peter Costantini says residents, many of whom suffer from Alzheimer's disease and cannot communicate verbally, respond to the fish, following them closely with their eyes.
Al Intlekofer of Severna Park formed his Rent-a-Fish business in response to this need, and provides institutions and businesses with aquariums on a lease basis.
"You can have a painting by Picasso side by side with an aquarium, and the aquarium will attract more attention," he says. "It's entertaining."
During the last few years, the Aquarium Center has racked up a 30 percent increase in sales annually. Mr. Hare points out his operation is more like a supermarket than the usual neighborhood pet store and also sells wholesale. The store advertises widely and draws customers from Northern Virginia to nearby Pennsylvania.
"When I first got into this business in the late '50s, you saw very little activity on weekdays," he recalls. "If you opened your store at 10 a.m., you didn't see much trade at all with the exception of an occasional housewife. Then at 3 o'clock after school let out you'd see some kids coming in.
"Now we're busy all day long starting at 10 in the morning, with both male and female customers. We're busier, of course, on weekends, but we no longer have any slow days."
Pascale Meraldi, manager of Aquaria West on the Baltimore National Pike in Catonsville, reports similar speedy growth. Established five years ago, the store has already gone through several expansions.
"We started with 1,000 square feet and then took over the store next door, doubling our area to 2,000 square feet," she says. "Last August we moved across the way, doubling our area again to 4,000 square feet."
In explaining the appeal, dealers say an aquarium can be easily fitted into a small apartment or condominium. And unlike a cat or a dog, fish don't mess up the carpet, nor do they require walking at an awkward hour of the night. Start-up costs are low, as little as $15 for a basic goldfish bowl and $50 for a tropical fish aquarium. And the variety of fish available is enormous, costing from 59 cents for an ordinary goldfish to as much as $150 for a purple tang from the Red Sea.
Tom Dandy, manager of Sea Breeze North in Lutherville, believemany people become interested in fish by seeing them at such places as the National Aquarium in Baltimore, the Smithsonian Institution and Disney World. New equipment with high-tech features also has simplified the process of caring for a home aquarium.
A growing concern for ecology and appreciation of nature maalso play a part, according to Mr. Hare.
"It's a good way of having a bit of nature and an ecological system right in your own living room," he says.