R5 Fish Tales

Home Schooling For The Wet Set

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Interested in creating your own aquarium?

We’ll help you get your feet wet.

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By Meredith Blum

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Toni Lubetsky hadn’t planned on owning fish. With her family and three dogs to look after, how could the Chappaqua resident spare any time and affection for another creature? Yet a few years back, when her father persuaded Lubetsky to create a fish pond next to her porch, it was true love.


“The fish have become like my friends,” she says of the two dozen koi and goldfish that bend their way through the shallow pond like orange rays of light. Pond fish are particularly social, and Lubetsky notes that they know the hand that feeds them. “Whenever they see me,” she explains, “they swim over to me and look up!” Even Lubetsky’s husband, Paul, who she claims eschews home-improvement projects, “will do anything for the fish—he’s become very attached to them as well.”


The Lubetskys aren’t the only ones to fall head-over-tail for pet fish: the popularity of fish and aquaria is soaring. Thanks in part to the box-office success of the 2003 Disney fish-flick Finding Nemo and increasing numbers of fans flocking to scuba diving and other aqua sports, the number of U.S. homes owning tropical fish has more than doubled in the last few years, to some 12 million households in 2005, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association; it’s estimated that Americans now own some 192 million finny pets. And tropical fish are no longer restricted to geriatrics or to those wet behind the ears: even hip-hop star Nelly showed off his four custom-made aquaria on a recent edition of MTV’s Cribs.


Fish can be wonderful pets, a beautiful addition to a home, and a satisfying hobby. But there are plenty of caveats. If you think all it takes is some tap water, a handful of flakes, and a little plastic fern, your fish may not survive longer than you can say “ich” (short for ichthyophthirius, a nasty parasite that’s one of the biggest killers of pet fish).


But if you do your homework before you get started, things should go swimmingly. The first step toward becoming an aquarist is to read everything you can. “And don’t impulse buy,” advises Eastchester resident Chris DiFalco, 23, who maintains a 135-gallon saltwater tank in his parents’ Scarsdale basement and is setting up his own reef tank in his apartment. “You can’t just go to the store and get fish—it takes a lot of prep work for those living organisms.” Indeed, a new tank can take six months or more to “cycle”—to build up just the right water conditions and levels of beneficial bacteria—for some of the more delicate varieties of fish.


It’s equally important to decide beforehand what types of fish you want to stock your tank with. “Each one has unique characteristics,” says Terry Rubin of Harrison, whose 135-gallon saltwater aquarium contains a foot-long grouper, a six-year-old pufferfish, and a rare emperor angelfish, among others. “I had one species that was too aggressive and I had to take it back.” Some territorial fish will bully others, and having live plants in a tank can be ill suited for species that eat vegetation.


One thing you’ll have to decide first is whether your tank will be freshwater or salt. Freshwater fish, which are easier to care for and generally less expensive than marine varieties, are well suited for novices. They come in a slew of varieties, and are fairly tolerant of environmental fluctuations. These fish run the gamut from catfish to killifish to cichlids and more. Some freshwater fish owners prefer “specialty” tanks, which contain only aquatic life from a specific region, to “try to recreate the habitat in the wild,” according to Rob Grande, store manager of House of Fins in Greenwich, CT.


Once you’ve gained some experience, you might be tempted to try a marine tank. In general, saltwater fish are bigger and brighter than their freshwater cousins, but such beauty comes at a price. Most saltwater fish are so colorful because they live among the ocean’s coral reefs, where the water temperature and quality are fairly constant; this environment is harder to recreate in a home aquarium. “Saltwater fish are a lot of work,” says Joe Castillo of Pelham Manor, whose lifelong love affair with fish now has him caring for 40 tanks in his basement. Popular saltwater species include clown fish and tangs (Disney’s Nemo was a clownfish), gobies, angelfish, and triggers.


Other possibilities are reef tanks, which are a joy to observe but can be difficult to maintain, making them best for advanced hobbyists. The primary reason to choose a reef tank is to grow a dazzling variety of coral and other aquatic plants; the fish are secondary. Ray Bennett, owner of Ray’s Aquarium Service in Stamford, CT, points out that reef tanks “are more like a garden with live coral, but with the same problems as flowers—you’re battling weeds, you have to bring in animals to eat predators; it’s a complex ecosystem.” Be prepared to spend big bucks on all the lighting, additives, and other equipment you’ll need.


Finally, you might also consider an outdoor pond stocked with koi or goldfish. You’ll need a pond liner, a pump, and a filter to start; water monitoring and filter changes are less frequent than with aquaria. A heater may be advisable in the dead of winter, but these hardy fish can withstand freezing temps by going into a hibernation-like state and settling at the bottom, where the water’s warmer.  Owners must be prepared for a different set of challenges than tanks present: algae that blooms in the summer, leaves and vegetation that can rot in the pond, even other wildlife.


If you learn as much as possible and treat your fish with the same care and kindness as you would any other pet, your pond or tank should bring you enjoyment for years to come (or, in the case of koi, decades). “Fish are very relaxing,” remarks Lubetsky. “Sitting and watching the fish swim is a meditative experience.” So go ahead and take the plunge.


If writer Meredith Blum had learned so much about fish years ago, a lot fewer church-fair door prizes would have met a porcelain fate.



Getting Your Feet Wet


If you’re thinking of dipping your toes into the world of fish and home acquaria, here are some points to keep in mind.


Start Small. Jerry O’Farrell has 13 tanks with roughly 100 fish in his Yonkers home, but he started the hobby as a boy with a 10-gallon tank of goldfish. “So many people go out and buy big, expensive setups and hard-to-keep fish because they look colorful, only to have them die,” he says.


But not too small. When starting out, get a tank and filter larger than you need. “A 30- to 55-gallon tank is a nice starter,” says Ray Bennett of Ray’s Aquarium Service, Stamford, CT. “Don’t go too small; it’s harder to keep because the water quality changes too quickly.”


Know your fish. “A lot of people want to mix together every pretty fish they see, which spells disaster,” cautions Rob Grande of the House of Fins in Greenwich, CT. Different fish have different temperaments, and different nutritional and environmental requirements. “Figure out what fish you want first,” Grande says, “and build around that.”


Don’t overfeed. This is a common beginner’s mistake. “If the fish don’t eat the extra food, it pollutes the water,” notes hobbyist Joe Castillo of Pelham Manor. And if they do eat every last morsel you toss in, fish—just like people—can grow obese; overfeeding also causes the fish to produce more waste, which throws off the water balance.


Be prepared. Fish get sick, even in the best-kept aquaria; set up a “hospital tank,” to avoid spreading the illness to other fish. This is also useful for quarantining new fish before permitting them to join the tank. Also, have a back-up plan ready in case the power goes out, since filtration and aeration can mean the difference between life and death: consider buying a generator or other alternative power source.


Find some finny friends. The Internet is a great place to look for other fish fans. Some recommended hobbyists sites: Fins.Actwin.com, LiveAquaria.com, PetEducation.com, MelevsReef.com, and ReefCentral.com. But to locate other local fish owners, you may need to look a little further afield for support. Westchester hasn’t had an active aquarium club for more than 30 years, notes Joe Ferdenzi, president of the Greater City Aquarium Society based in Queens. As a result, many Westchester hobbyists travel to Putnam and Fairfield Counties, New York City, and even Long Island to meet like-minded fish owners.


Resources For The Home Hobbyist




Danbury Area

Aquarium Society


(845) 896-4793

(845) 228-0372


Greater City

Aquarium Society




Hudson Valley

Reef Keepers




Manhattan Reefs



Services and Shops


Blue Lagoon

Aquarium Services

Port Chester

(914) 646-6029


City Aquarium

New York, NY

(212) 243-0503



Exotic Pet Warehouse


(914) 963-6557



House of Fins

Greenwich, CT

(203) 661-8131



Jawz Net Aquarium Service


(914) 345-5855


Long Island Fish Hospital

Shirley, NY

(631) 281-5612 (makes house calls to Westchester)


New York Aquaria


 (914) 777-2570



Ray’s Aquarium Service

Stamford, CT

(203) 253-2030


Reef & Fin

Stamford, CT

(203) 325-3562


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