By Sharon Barnett
Reprinted from Modern Aquarium magazine
My first adventure in actually shipping fish myself occurred when I received an e-mail from a guy from whom I'd previously bought fish. He'd read one of my on-line posts regarding the Lake Victoria cichlid Pundamillia igneopinnis, and wanted to know if I had any extra females. As it happened, I did. I warned him that I had no experience shipping fish, but felt confident that I could do it since I had fish-shipping instructions from various sources, in addition to what I'd learned from receiving fish shipments. He agreed that I probably had enough information to work with, and so the first adventure began.
I was very happy with the condition of the fish which I'd previously received shipped in breather bags, and figured that they would provide me with a larger margin for error than if I used regular bags. In addition to the igneopinnis females, I decided to send some Victorian Haplochromis sp. "Blue Fire Fin", and Malawian Labeotropheus trewavasae "Mpanga Red" fry since I had an abundance of both at the time. The night before shipping, I netted the targeted fish and prepared the shipping water. Next day, as I was bagging the fish, I discovered to my dismay, that the breather bags that I had were too small for the adult female fish, so I packed them in regular polyurethane bags using "Bag Buddies" to compensate. The bags were kind of small, but I only had a small shipping box, and needed to fit them in. This was my first mistake. I should have delayed shipping until I could get a larger box, so that I could use larger polyurethane bags, or until I could get larger breather bags. The fry were only about 1 1/2", so I packed them 2 to a bag. I packed the box without newspaper between the bags because of the limited space in the box--since they were so tightly packed, I knew that the bags would not bounce around, but I didn't consider the fact that instead of being in contact with air many of the bag surfaces would be in contact with each other. That was my second mistake. Well, the box arrived in Pennsylvania within 2 days, but I was disappointed to learn that one of the adult females and some of the fry didn't make it; I had about a 60% survival rate. Not a total loss, but unacceptable when shipping rare or uncommonly available fish.
I approached my next adventure armed with the painful lessons learned from the first. One of my on-line buddies was setting up Lake Victoria cichlid tanks in his new apartment and craved some of my Haplochromis sp. "Blue Bar" and Astatotilapia latifasciata. This time, I made sure that I had a large enough box. I followed most of the same procedures as last time, but this trip, I packed the fish one to a bag. It was at this time that I discovered that it was a bad idea to leave some species of juvenile cichlid males in the same 1 gallon container for a day, even if they are only 1 3/4" long. When I went to begin packing, I discovered that two of the male sp. " Blue Bar" were dead, with the murderer triumphantly swimming over their still carcasses. That meant that I had to catch 2 more males, and take the risk of shipping them, even though they'd been fed the night before. I added extra "Amquel" to their bags and hoped for the best since I would have had to delay shipping for a whole week if I didn't ship that day. Another revelation was the extraordinary jumping capabilities of juvie A. latifasciata--veritable Mexican jumping beans! By the time that I'd finished scooping up jumpers from the floor and getting all 24 fish packed in their individual bags, I was wiping my sweaty brow and wondering what could possibly have possessed me to agree to this proposition. Remembering my previous error, I made sure to wrap each bag in a sheet of newspaper, so that the bags could come into contact with the air between the crumpled paper. The box arrived in San Francisco two days later, and happily, all of the fish survived--including the 2 that had not been properly fasted. The fish-shipping gods were smiling down upon me.
Flush with my recent success, I began planning the next adventure. With newfound confidence, I would be sending out 2 boxes at the same time! I only have one remaining pair of a prized Victorian cichlid-- "Lithochromis rufus", and they stubbornly refuse to spawn. They are several years old, and many Victorian species lose all interest in mating after they are just a few years old. As it happened, I knew of one guy who had some, but I had to come up with some rare fish with which to tempt him. After waiting a couple of frustrating years, my Paralabidochromis chilotes had finally blessed me with some offspring, and I was in possession of eight 2" fry. I also had some remaining sp. "Blue Bar" fry, so I was able to arrange a trade. Around the same time, I read the post of a fellow who was complaining that his group of Malawian Melanochromis dialeptos was male-heavy, and he needed to thin them out. I had lost a couple of males, and remembered that some months earlier this same guy had expressed interest in my latifasciata(I still had a ton of these!). When I approached him about a trade, he indicated that he was in need of a male Cynotilapia afra "Cobue", and I just happened to have an extra male!
With all of the trade details worked out, shipping day approached. I prepared in much the same way as before, but this time, I had a supply of larger-sized breather bags on hand, so I could accommodate the adult male afra(a dwarf mbuna that maxes out at about 3"). All went smoothly until the morning of shipping day, when I discovered a slow leak in the afra's bag. I would have expected him to be pale and stressed since he'd spent the night in a bag, but he was colored-up with fins flaring, and charging the sides of the bag! I removed him from that bag and replaced it, then inverted that one inside another bag(breather bags are less efficient when doubled, but still work). I prayed that he would settle down and not puncture the new bags. I also dropped in a "Bag Buddy" to sedate him a bit. The chilotes and sp. Blue Bar were sent on their way to Utah, and the Cobue and latifasciata to Utica, NY. Then the worries began. The second day came and went, and neither box had arrived! On the third day, the box sent to Utica reached it's destination, and all of the fish were alive and well. But I was still biting my nails because the box sent to Utah hadn't yet arrived. I had a lot of confidence in the breather bags, coupled with the fact that the fish were fasted for 3 days, but it was the dead of winter, and time had run out on the heat packs! More time passed, and I became convinced that I'd lost the gamble of shipping such valuable fish via Priority Mail. On the eighth day, I received notification that the package had finally arrived at the post office in Utah. I half-heartedly e-mailed the recipient asking him to pick up the box on the off chance that a couple of the fish had survived. To my utter amazement, he responded that he had picked them up, and that they had all survived and were in great shape! Thank you, fish-shipping gods! So now, when someone asks, "Can you ship fish?", I can answer "Yes", with confidence.