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Why do pet stores keep fish in bare-bottom tanks?

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A while back I asked myself: wouldn’t it be much more appealing for fish stores to keep their fish in planted tanks instead of the bare bottom, empty, plant-less tanks. But after I saw an employee of my local fish store catch our new female bristle-nose catfish I realized that there are way more benefits for stores to keep their fish in empty tanks.


When fish stores buy their fish they often buy them from a wholesaler. This can be big quantities, or just a couple when they order they for a specific customer. In either case the fish have to be shipped, this can range from local wholesalers where the fish are in their bags only for a day, to major orders from tropical countries where fish are in their bags for a couple of days. As much as we would like it, not all fish survive this long journey.

A part of the fish will die in their bags, but when they are released into their display tank (or quarantine tank in some stores) it takes a while before all fish are settled. In this settlement process some of the weaker fish will also die. If a store would keep the fish in a planted tank with substrate and hiding places, it might be the case that store employees can not spot all the fish and remove them in time, and this will severely affect the water quality as a decaying fish will add ammonia to the tank. When the ammonia quantities get to high this is lethal for the other fish.

Ability to catch the fish

Imagine you are the store employee which I just asked to catch the only female bristle-nose catfish in the tank. He got a net and a plastic container to hold the plastic bag, and proceeded to try and catch the beauty. But she was fast! And I have been coming to this specific store for a long time and I know that the employee I asked to catch the fish has been working there a long time and is skilled in his job. He struggled to catch the bristle-nose and the fish swam from left to right about 6 times I would say. I could not image how hard it would be for the employee to catch the fish when there would be multiple hiding places under heavy rocks and wood or in plants.


In the store I have going to for the past year they do not struggle with that all that often, but I remember going to other stores which almost always had a layer of brown algae on everything in the tank. Every once in a while they would clean the tank thoroughly by draining it and scrubbing the walls. I have said it a couple of times already in this article, but image that the tank would contain ornaments of the Eiffel tower, the London Eye and a shipwreck. Not to forget rocks with their ridges and cracks which one has to clean. This also is a good reason why stores keep their fish in bare-bottom undecorated tanks.

Display tanks

All the stores in my region where I went do however have display tanks where they show how beautiful the aquarium hobby can be. I absolutely LOVE these!! These are planted and these do contain substrate. They most of the times include rocks and wood in shapes and sizes I can only dream of to have at home. The reason that they can have multiple display tanks in the store is because there is no need to scoop in there with a net to catch a fish over 10 times a day. This tank will need water changes and requires other maintenance, but not nearly as often as the other tanks where people can buy their fish.

What I would do if I owned a store

This is something I have been thinking about for multiple times over the last year. Wouldn’t it be AMAZING to have my own store where I can display everything the way that I want! This is what I would do in the ideal scenario: I would display all the fish that my store was selling in a dedicated display tank (might also be a community tank with multiple species of fish of course) and next to that I would keep them in a bare bottom tank where my customers could buy theirs. This would show the potential of the fish, as I think the beauty of a fish is hard to see in the empty tanks they are kept in.


Banner image – Image from Sannse licensed under CC 3.0