Around midnight the auctioneer threw up his hands in dismay.
“Tough crowd!” he shouted. “Where are my saltwater people? Unbelievable!”
On the block, a stupefied yellow tang — one of the world’s most popular aquarium fish, who prefers a brackish environment — swam suspended in a clear plastic bag. On his head was a starting bid of $10. It was a fraction of the retail price of $50 and up for a two-inch specimen. But no bidders were biting — yet.
It was business as usual at a lengthy Friday evening meeting of the Brooklyn Aquarium Society (BAS) where a crowd of about 100 hobbyists had convened for their monthly confab at the New York Aquarium in Coney Island.
It’s an ideal spot to plumb the depths of New Yorkers’ obsession with aquariums.
The pastime manifests itself across the city in forms high and low, eclectic and chic (think massive, awe-inspiring displays at area hotels). Aficionados include local collectors with dozens of tanks, as well as high-end interior designers and installers for posh pads.
But at the BAS meeting, members wanted to grow their collections — and discuss them ad nauseam, of course. The next parcel up for bids: a monster pearlscale goldfish (which can weigh up to two pounds!) sparked a fierce price war, finally going for $95 to a man in the back of the packed room.
The sophistication of the craze has ramped up in recent years.
“Back when I joined in ’74, this was known as a goldfish-and-guppy club,” says former club president Joe Graffagnino, a freshwater stalwart who has 37 tanks in his Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, home. They are mostly used for breeding exotic fish, including the rare wild betta, a colorful specimen with impressive fins.
He currently pampers about 200 gilled friends with a monthly cost of about $150, most of which goes towards his electric bill (for lights, pumps, filtration, etc.).
Decdes ago BAS discussion was limited. “You couldn’t talk about cichlids or catfish,” he recalls. “So then I’d go to the North Jersey club. Each club had their own special niche. But now it’s different. Anywhere you go is so mixed.” (Yes, that means including saltwater aficionados, too.)
A century ago, fishkeeping was an aristocratic pursuit. Today, the 1 percent still holds claim to the coolest-looking tanks. The colorful (quite literally!) pursuit has even sparked a reality TV show on Animal Planet called “Tanked,” on which Neil Patrick Harris, Shaquille O’Neal, Howie Mandel, Nick Carter, David Hasselhoff and Tracy Morgan have showed off their sizable at-home fishbowls.
But love of aquariums is hardly limited to the rich. The 1911-founded Brooklyn Aquarium Society is the oldest continually running club of its kind in North America, at times boasting as many as 500 members. The ragtag meetings include a social hour, guest speaker and the main event: the live fish auction, which sometimes lasts into the wee hours of the morning. Proceeds go back into the non-profit club, to pay for speakers, field trips to regional aquariums and environmental conservation efforts.
Back on the high end, one of the tri-state area’s foremost custom luxury tank installers is Robert Bray.
He began working at a shop in the ’70s at 12 years old, and took it over 10 years later. Today his business — House of Fins in Greenwich, Conn. — does millions of dollars a year in fish sales, new tank design and routine tank maintenance, he says.
“Very often our customers are people who had aquariums as kids. Once you’ve had one, you get hooked, and you tend to have them later in life,” Bray says. “They’re very relaxing. Especially around Sultanbet here, we have such busy lives. To get lost in an aquarium is a very nice thing.”
For children, they can also be an education, but check your budget first. Bray’s estimated initial set-up costs for a 250- to 600-gallon marine tank in a home or office: $30,000 to $40,000. Expect to spend another $2,000 to stock up on fish, says Bray, although in his shop it’s not uncommon to sell a single $20,000 peppermint angelfish or masked angelfish.
His stock mirrors changing trends in aquarium contents — and what it means to make a statement over the years. “Back in the ’80s, we used to do a lot of huge predatory fish: sharks and eels,” Bray says. “The tendency now is reef tanks — the coral, the shrimp, crabs, the colorful fish.”
House of Fins clients run the gamut from A-list celebs to Wall Street power brokers — for privacy reasons, Bray would only identify one, Howard Stern, whose tank is rumored to be 7,500 gallons. Price tags can reach into the millions. “We did a shark tank that was 27 feet long here in Greenwich,” Bray says. “That was a $1.4 million dollar installation.”
But that shouldn’t frighten the fin-curious on a budget. D. Patrick Donston of Absolutely Fish in Clifton, NJ, says there’s room for everyone in this aquamarine avocation. Freshwater tanks tend to be smaller and thus cheaper to start up and maintain. Those into saltwater tanks, which tend to start at 55 gallons, can expect to pay more.
“The most successful hobbyists are the ones who take it slow,” says Donston. “When the aquarium ends up in the garage sale is when people buy the tank and don’t consider the total sum cost of what it takes to set up.”
Once your tank is up and humming, don’t let your fish go belly up. The most common reason they’ll end up in that great fishbowl in the sky is due to overfeeding and infrequent water changes, which allow deadly ammonia and nitrates to build up, experts say.
For those who want only the occasional serenity of an aquarium but can’t make it to Coney Island every weekend, venues offer some worthy sights to ogle. The Kimberly Hotel (145 E. 50th St.) has a 2,300-gallon marine aquarium in its lobby with some 340 tropical fish. Midtown’s Dream Hotel (210 W. 55th St.) has a floor-through cylindrical marine aquarium that connects its lobby to a downstairs event space called the Fishbowl. A few years ago, the city spent $750,000 to install two 8-foot-tall saltwater tanks stocked with 400 fish at the Staten Island ferry’s St. George terminal. And insiders say that Bloomberg LLP’s Lexington Avenue headquarters keeps impressive saltwater tanks on each floor and employs a full-time aquarist.
An analysis of die-hard fish fans seem to confirm two facts: it’s an overwhelmingly male-dominated hobby, and it tends to run in families. Marine Park resident Steven Matassa, current president of BAS, says his family now claims four generations of fin fans.
“My dad is 90, and I just had to cut him down to one large tank from eight, because he couldn’t care for them all,” Matassa says. “My son is also into fish tanks. My grandson is now 7, he’s into it. Since he was 4 years old, he could name all the fish.”
Matassa, who recently downsized from 20 saltwater tanks to two large ones, is also on a mission to spread the aquarium gospel to the next generation of club members.
In a community of aging traditionalists, this meant pushing buttons.
”We’ve been trying new, innovative things to get young people interested,” he adds. “We launched our website 5 years ago — but even then some of the board members fought us on it!”
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