Native Fish for Home Aquariums

For people who have home aquariums, native fish provide a way to keep a slice of summer in their lives all year round.

| November/December 1984

It's been estimated that as many as 26 million Americans keep fish in home aquariums. If that figure is accurate, the hobby is the second most popular in the U.S. right behind photography. And, as a glance at the yellow pages will show you, the term aquarium hobby is virtually interchangeable with tropical fish hobby.

Why the almost total emphasis on exotic fish? Well, it's certainly not because of any shortage of native ones. Over 700 species of freshwater fish are found in the U.S., and as you'd imagine, more than a few of them are suitable for the home tank. In fact, as a group, they possess several advantages over tropicals:

  • Native fish are less expensive than imported or specially bred fish. If you content yourself with a selection of species that can be collected near your home, the cost of the fish themselves can approach zero. (Of course, as with any avocation, you can "get technical" and spend a fortune, as some native-fish hobbyists do, on far-flung collecting trips for rare and unusual fish.)
  • The costly and energy-consuming electric heaters necessary to insure the survival of most tropicals can be dispensed with. This fact has misled many folks to think of all our northern fish as cold-water creatures. True, there are coldwater fish (the trouts being the most familiar examples), but they're a minority among the North American fauna. The difference between most of our native fish and true tropicals is that natives are able to tolerate cold water. Given their choice, though, many northern varieties would prefer to skip winter altogether and stay in water between 75°F and 85°F. (Because of this, natives can be kept with tropicals in heated tanks, if desired.)
  • Keeping native fish promotes an awareness of our own environment. I'd be the last to downplay the allure of the exotic; a tank full of jewel-like fish from the jungles of the Amazon is appealing, in part because it presents you with a slice of the unknown. On the other hand, aren't our nearby aquatic environments just as unfamiliar to many of us? And what does the geographic origin of a fish have to do with whether it is beautiful or homely, interesting or comparatively dull?

The fact is, the aquarium industry has played up the mystique of the exotic, and has built it into a sort of snob appeal. The purpose, of course, was to make money, but this kind of publicity has caused several generations of American aquarium hobbyists to virtually overlook our native fish.

Types of Fish

A standard joke in the aquarium trade has to do with the slick dealer who peddles minnows from the creek to unsuspecting hobbyists as "new imports from Timbuktu." I have in my possession a 1934 issue of The Aquarium magazine that features a cover story by William T. Innes on the "rainbow minnow" (Notropis lutrensis), officially known as the red shiner, which is native and abundant in most of the central United States. In the article, Innes extolled its "great beauty — a beauty different from that of all known aquarium fish" and went on to confess that, being "not averse to an occasional practical joke," he sent pairs to "two aquarist friends, with the statement that they were a new species of the genus so-and-so, just imported from Africa." But, as Innes later noted when he included another native (the sailfin shiner, Notropis hypselopterus, found in coastal drainages from South Carolina to Alabama) in his classic text Exotic Aquarium Fishes, the serious aquarist's "ardor soon cools when informed that it is a home product."

The late Dr. Innes might be amused to know that his joke is still playing. Today red shiners are actually bred in Singapore and sold by the aquarium trade in the U.S. as "flame barbs." The barbs are a large group of popular aquarium fish of mostly Asian origin, and most dealers and aquarists are doubtless unaware that the forebears of their precious flame barbs swim contentedly in the Missouri River.

No offense to the fish breeders of Singapore, but I'd derive more pleasure from Notropis lutrensis, the aforementioned red shiner, if I knew where it came from and could attempt to simulate its habitat in my home aquarium. Assuming that many of MOTHER EARTH NEWS' readers share my feelings, let me go on to mention a few of the native fish you might keep, saying a little about how you might obtain and maintain them.

Richard Fidler
12/14/2012 2:52:22 AM

Anxious to start an aquarium with native fish. I live on a relatively healthy river in town. Would like to stock aquarium with with dace or shiners from Grand Traverse Bay, (Lake Michigan) in the spring. Thinking I will have to make a plankton net and drag it through the water to get plankton for fish. Is that a reasonable plan? Hoping to borrow a seine to capture fish--don't want to buy anything. Like the idea of native fish because I can always let them go if I need to abandon them.

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