SO YOU WANT TO BE A PROFESSIONAL FISHKEEPER?
Working in aquatics can be rewarding but challenging. Here are some pointers to set you off in the right direction.
From working in aquatics retail to teaching, conservation and more, here’s how to start getting paid for your passion.
WHAT IS better than fishkeeping as a hobby? Getting paid to do it, of course! Getting a job in an aquatics store is accessible to nearly everyone, and the only prerequisite is enthusiasm – most shop managers hire staff based on this above all else.
Before you send off your CV and covering letter though, you should know a little of what the job requires, what you’re going to be expected to do, and what you could possibly gain from this career path.
GETTING THE JOB Basic knowledge
While enthusiasm will get your foot in the door, a strong knowledge of water parameters, filter cleaning, basic fish compatibility and especially the nitrogen cycle will make you a strong candidate. Everything else can be taught on the job and picked up as you go along.
Numeracy skills are essential (you’ll be working out things like water volumes and pond liner sizes), but being able to communicate clearly may be most important of all.
Areas of interest
If there are several candidates for the job, then having an area of interest such as marines, rift valley cichlids, or aquascaping can give you a competitive edge. Make sure your experience in your specific area comes through on your covering letter and in your interview.
Most shops are generalised, but they might need someone with your specific knowledge to cover a gap in what they offer. Expressing your area of interest will never go against you.
KEEPING THE JOB Get scrubbing
Customers will base their first opinions of the shop on how tidy and clean it is. Once customers are served and fish are fed, pick up an algae scrubber, gravel cleaner, brush, duster or vacuum and get cleaning. When customers walk into
the shop and the tanks are dirty, that suggests staff don’t have the time – or worse, the desire – to look after tanks and livestock. While not always the case, the general trend is that tidier the shop is, the healthier the livestock. Not only that, but your boss will love you for it!
Customers or fishes’ needs?
At some point – possibly on your very first day – you’ll get a customer who wants to keep a fish in an aquarium it’s not suitable for. While there’s no ‘right’ way to address this issue, politely educating the customer normally changes their mind.
In some cases, you may be obliged to refuse a sale. If a customer is deliberately trying to buy a fish for which they have entirely the wrong set-up (for example, someone with a freshwater tank may try to buy marine fish and refuse to take no for an answer), they need to be told clearly of the ramifications – that they will be violating the Animal Welfare Act 2006 by willfully placing an animal into a situation that will harm it, as well as immediately voiding any kind of warranty by buying an item to use outside its designated purpose. If they are beyond reasoning on this point, always work the transaction up the line of authority – in this case, to the manager, who will be in a position to explain the store’s policies.
Don’t assume anything
Often, you’ll get a customer who will walk in and ask for something like a Clownfish and won’t ask for a shred of advice – there may be hardly any talking at all. In cases where there’s little or no interaction, be wary. There’s a chance this person has watched ‘Finding Nemo’ a few days before, bought a bowl, filled it with tapwater, and is hoping to drop in a Clownfish and hope for the best. Fishkeeping is a surprisingly knowledge dependent hobby and sometimes customers simply don’t know what they don’t know.
If you find yourself in this situation – as you invariably will – broad ‘small talk’ about the customer’s aquarium will come across as chatty and less like an interrogation. Open with everyday questions like, “How long has the tank been set up for?”. Ask what tank mates the fish will go in with, what the water parameters in the tank are – questions that even a slightly experienced aquarist will understand. This way you can spot any potential problems early.
In a nutshell, don’t just assume the person you’re serving is entirely competent, because often they aren’t (which is why aquatic stores need so many sales advisors!). As a retailer, you need to be constantly on your guard for mistakes people are making in their purchases.
The mainstay of the job is serving customers and giving advice. But like most hobbyists around the country, you can probably think back to a time you overheard a sales assistant giving out the wrong advice. It happens a lot.
Usually, this occurs either because the shop assistant genuinely thinks they are right, or is too nervous to say, “Sorry, I don’t know, but I’ll go and find out for you.” It’s always better to admit that you don’t know something and seek out the right answer, than to wing it. In a worstcase scenario, if a customer follows your advice and subsequently kills their fish, you could find yourself liable for their losses. Never wing it.
Weekends and bank holidays are the busiest times for aquatics stores, and that’s when they’ll need all hands on deck. if you’re precious about those days off, this job won’t be for you.
As you work up the ranks, you’ll be expected to come in on christmas day and boxing day too, because those fish still need looking after.
WHAT’S in it for you? Knowledge
by the sheer power of immersion, you’ll become a more knowledgeable fishkeeper. you’ll see hundreds of species of fish, shrimp, plants and corals and you’ll be required to learn about each one and advise people on them. As your knowledge accrues, you’ll find yourself more and more valuable to the company.
When i started my career, i was shy and terrible at public speaking. now, after talking to thousands of total strangers for 11 years, i’m a much more confident person and can comfortably speak publicly.
Once you’ve spent some time in retail, familiarised yourself with different species, and possibly found your own niche of expertise, you can look at transitioning to a different role in the industry.
Perhaps you have a gift for breeding – there’s a possible career in conservation. Maybe you can convey information so well that there’s a career for you in writing, blogging or videos. A wealth of jobs are available to you once you’ve served your time in the field.
Aquatics retail is a thankless task in many ways and, unfortunately, one of those ways is monetarily. Jobs start at the national minimum wage (£15,269 at time of writing) moving up to a typical £18,500-£22,000 for a managerial position.
To offset this, many aquatics stores have a generous discount policy for the staff, meaning that while you might not be taking home ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ money, you can be a whole lot closer to that dream tank you’ve always wanted!
Other JOBS TO consider Tank installation and maintenance
if you have experience in setting up aquariums, are familiar with plumbing, have aquascaping skills and have a clean driving licence, then tank installations and maintenance could be for you.
Work might be sporadic if you go independent, but salaries at the high-level installation companies start around £20K.
Once you’re a treasure trove of fishkeeping knowledge, why not teach it?
Colleges offer salaries in the region of £17K upwards for qualified staff to look after their fish houses and teach students all about aquarium care. Additional teaching qualifications may be required, though you may get these as part of the job.
You’ll not be doing much breeding of ornamental fish in the UK, although increasing numbers of companies are starting to culture marine fish on our local shores.
If you’re prepared to travel, and if you have skills, then a future in either the Far East or Eastern Europe could await you.
If you’re qualified to degree level in something like Marine biology, then you might want to look at a public aquarium job.
The hours are usually long, the pay is usually minimal – you’ll find folks with upper class honours degrees working for minimum wage, and many more working just as volunteers! – and the competition is fierce, but there is no better platform to the world of conservation and scientific research.
Despite being told that books no longer sell, the UK sold a record breaking £5.7 billion of them in 2017. Fish books are a tough pitch, admittedly, but specialist titles are still sought. Magazines are alive and well, as are blogs, and people who have a gift for writing and a knowledge of fish will always find someone willing to publish their work. Most roles in this area are freelance, and probably shouldn’t be relied upon for full-time income.
You’ll need to choose this career path early in life and you’ll face a minimum of five years of specialist training to be a vet.
You’ll then have to put in additional work to gain the expertise to be a fish vet, but at that point you will be one of a very select few. Expect to start on around £25K, but as you work up to partnership level, you can expect a salary of £70K or more.
Now that’s what we call being immersed in your work.
Tidy shops nail good first impressions. inset: Be prepared to hear the name ‘nemo’ more times than your own.
Being a specialist in something like African cichlids may help your prospects.
ABOVE: Maintaining private aquaria and ponds is one option to consider.
Fish farming or wholesale may require relocation.
Show off your specialism and stand out from the crowd.
Fish vets are financially well rewarded.