What is a Fish Worth?

Expensive aquarium fish

I recently saw an article in the Buntbarsche Bulletin about how many supposed F0 (wild) African cichlids are actually farmed there at the shore of the lakes. When people are paying premium prices for wild caught fish and they don’t get wild caught fish, they are being gypped, aren’t they? This issue got me to thinking about an even more general issue and that is how much you should have to pay for a fish and why do we assign the values to them that we do?

My step-son has an 8″ red oscar (named Racso) living in a tank in his bedroom. He’s (the fish not the step-son) not an exceptional specimen, in fact he has a small notch in his anal fin, but he’s very much a pet and his value is immeasurable in that respect. This is despite the fact that it would be easy to come up with the money to get another one like him.

Aside from the sentimental value, what else do we value in a fish? How about color and beauty? Is an emperor angelfish really any more colorful and beautiful than a cardinal tetra? Actually, for my taste the cardinal tetra is the prettier fish, yet the difference in price is orders of magnitude. The cardinal goes for anywhere from a dollar to three dollars while the emperor angel usually can’t be had for less than a hundred dollars and a nice big one is going to be priced at nearly two hundred dollars. Granted, a lot of that price difference is due to the expense in collection and transport and that there are not a lot of emperors to be had compared with cardinals.

So I’m not suggesting that emperors are overpriced and cardinals are too cheap. What I am suggesting is that for someone like me, my money is probably better spent on a school of cardinals than an emperor angel. I’m also leading up to another issue. I think a lot of hobbyists get caught up in sort of a hobby version of “keeping up with the Joneses”. I’ve seen situations where people will point to their expensive fish and say with a tone of pride “I paid $300 for that fish”. My usual reaction is to think that they got ripped off on that fish for paying so much, but I think the reaction that they are hoping for is that I will be so impressed with their aquatic skill that they feel confident in risking that much money on a fish (which could easily die). I’m much more impressed by people who breed their fish; I don’t care if they’re platies, convict cichlids or mandarins.

So if somebody is breeding mandarins, does that entitle them to more respect than the platy breeder? I have to admit that the level of difficulty is considerably different, but I believe the level of passion required for each endeavor is just about equal. These considerations should be included in bowl shows, but I think they rarely are.

Consider a bowl show where the category is something we’ll call Bigfamilids. In this show we might have entries that include some fairly common members and a few not so common, but also includes the rare and elusive Bigfamilsomus expensivus. I’ve seen time and again where the B. expensivus is not such an outstanding specimen and certainly not as nice a representative of its species as the B. commoncheapus in the tank next to it. Yet the B. expensivus is judged a winner, even though there’s no judging category for rarity or price. I contend that this is not only unfair to the person who brought the B. commoncheapus, but also perpetuates an artificial valuation system whereby hobbyists have difficulty appreciating fish for what they are.

One of the worst cases of not being able to appreciate a fish on its own merits is the painted or dyed fish that are routinely offered for sale. I’m referring to the painted glassfish, mixed fruit tetras and bizarrely colored “blood” parrot cichlids. How does painting a fish (with a paint that isn’t going to last by the way) improve the value of a fish? My feeling is that if you can’t appreciate a glassfish as they occur in nature, then why bother with one that has been painted? Why not just stock your tank with plastic replica fish? The glassfish is a remarkable fish that has a transparent body. This particular aspect should merit our appreciation on its own.

Aside from the glassfish, how many other fish are prized for their unique shape, habits and other non-color related traits? I know I tend to prize expensive Synodontis spp. This has been born out of my love for the cheapest one of the bunch, the upside-down cat (S. nigriventris). I tend to look at things like S. angelicus, S. decorus, S. flavitaeniatus and S. brichardi etc. as being just nicely colored and larger versions of the upside-down cat, even though they are not as prone to the endearing trait of upside-down swimming as S. nigriventris.

The difference in price between S. nigriventris and S. granulosus is comparable to the difference between those cardinals and emperor angels I was writing about earlier. I’ve never had the money for a S. granulosus when I could find one, so I’ve never had one, but I’ve had (and still do have) some relatively expensive Synodontis cats, but I’m also never without my beloved S. nigriventris. I know that many hobbyists are the same way. They may have some rare and expensive species that they are quite proud of, but they are equally proud of those old favorites that may not be so expensive, but they are the ones that really got their interest in the early days and they still have that intrinsic value.

So how do we value our fish? Like many commodities, a fish is worth as much as someone is willing to pay. So why are people willing to pay hundreds of dollars for one fish? Is it a status thing? Is it because they are going to start breeding them and make a fortune selling these expensive fish? What is it that drives the hobbyist to be a collector? I’m not sure that I’ll ever know the answers to these questions. My intent in writing this article was not to berate those who have spent a lot of money on one fish; heaven knows I am just as guilty of that as anyone could be. On the other hand, I think the aquarium in my home office could really be colored up nicely with the addition of some regular old red wag swordtails and it wouldn’t cost me all that much to get some would it?

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