Hooked on fish

March 13, 1993|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,Staff Writer

Jim Skinner was about 12 years old when he got his first fis tank.

"It was a community tank -- I had a little bit of everything in it," says Mr. Skinner, now 39. He got hooked.

"You get to know about a whole part of the Earth that you usually don't learn about. You get to learn about what's underneath. It's a fascinating hobby," the Olney resident says.

And fish-keeping is a growing hobby as well, enjoyed by more than 85 million Americans, according to Chris Andrews, a director of husbandry and operations at Baltimore's National Aquarium.

If you've been thinking about fish-keeping as a hobby, you can get a quick education tomorrow through the "Home Aquarium Techniques" program at the National Aquarium.

"The reason we are running this program is that 8 [percent] to 10 percent of American homes keep fish," Mr. Andrews says. "This is a big hobby. At least 150 million fish are sold every year. And currently the annual retail sales [amount to] about $800 million, which includes fish and products associated with the aquarium hobby. The majority of people keep the fish indoors, although keeping fish in a pond is also becoming more popular."

Mr. Skinner loved fish-keeping so much that he turned his avocation into a vocation: He now owns a business that services aquariums. He and his wife, Janet, who have 20- and 70-gallon tanks in their home, also recently began a group for enthusiasts, the Chesapeake Marine Aquaria Society (3157 Benton Square Drive, Olney; [301] 570-4262).

"There were more than 100 people" at the first meeting, which was held last week, Mr. Skinner says. "They were from all over -- Fredericksburg, Va.; York, Pa.; Baltimore; and Washington, D.C."

Mr. Skinner, who is president of the organization, says one of its ++ purposes is to "educate . . on the correct way of keeping the fish. We try to keep them as close to being in their natural environment as they can be."

The Skinners' tanks includes "live rocks" -- rocks that came from the ocean with living organisms on them -- mushroom rocks, and a variety of soft or stony coral such as bubble coral, elegance coral and plate coral.

Marine fish, which come from the ocean, are much more interesting to observe than tropical fish, the Skinners believe. "They are so much more colorful than tropical fish," Mrs. Skinner says. "They are absolutely phenomenal."

But beginners might prefer to start with tropical fish, which are easier to take care of, Mr. Andrews says. Tropical fish, which include goldfish, guppies, barbs and angel fish, are freshwater and can come from fish farms located anywhere from Florida to Singapore.

"Marine fish-keeping is usually something that people progress to. They are incredibly beautiful but more delicate," Mr. Andrews says. "Marine fish are coming from a stable environment, and they don't adapt too well to change. Also, they have quite-specialized feeding habits."

As a first step, "go visit your local pet store," Mr. Andrews says. "And there are plenty of good books on fish-keeping."

He says it's actually better to start out with a tank of at least 10 to 15 gallons, rather than a smaller one. "If you go too small, then it's more work. The larger tanks are more stable," he says.

With one exception: "If you are not interested in keeping tropical fish and just want to keep goldfish, then a 5-gallon tank is fine."

Along with the tank, pick up a fluorescent strip light -- "It fits right in the lid of the top of the tank," Mr. Andrews says -- as well as a water pump, filter, thermostat and gravel. And don't forget to buy a good brand of flake fish food.

After setting up the tank, let it stabilize a few days before adding the fish. "Talk to the people at the pet store and initially buy a few of a hardy, tough species" like guppies to start with, Mr. Andrews says.

How to spot healthy fish? They should be active, have good coloration and should be feeding. "Avoid fish that are kind of hanging in a corner looking very dark," he says.

And don't forget to ask about the temperament of the fish you are buying. "If you are choosing social fishes [such as tetras] that like to live in a school, buy several. Some fish have social needs. Also, some fish have different requirements when it comes to setting up the water."

Then there are fish that like to eat other fish; one type, oscars, is commonly used.

As for maintenance, aquarium owners are advised to drain off a quarter of the tank water every three or four weeks and replace it with tap water that has been dechlorinated.

Getting started will set you back about $150, according to Mr. Skinner. But he says the joys of the hobby are well worth the expense.

Observing fish is "a wonderful sensation," he says. "It provides such a sense of calmness and peace."

SCHOOLED ON FISH

What: Home Aquarium Techniques: demonstration of how to set up a tank; lectures; self-guided tour of the aquarium

Where: National Aquarium in Baltimore

When: 12:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. tomorrow

Cost: $8 for aquarium members; $15 for non-members

Call: (410) 727-FISH for reservations

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