Where Have All The Fish Geeks Gone?

Home AquariumI was looking back in time yesterday when I turned on the lights of my old sturdy 55 gallon fish tank. The fish had finally all died off after close to 15 years and there were just plants in the tank that didn’t need too much light so I had left the light off to save a bit of money [note, even if I left the lights on it would only cost 11¢/day] and I started to wonder where all the aquarium people had gone to?

Granted, I’ll have to take a step back in time to the 80’s and 90’s when I was involved with the San Francisco Aquarium Society. I wasn’t just involved, but I was the President for four years and on the Board of Directors for eight. The original story is linked above. Back then when I got involved with the SFAS, it when from a casual 50 members which we might get 20 to show up to over 500 members and we would be able to pack the old auditorium at the Academy of Sciences. I became known for being a fish geek. I would get calls from newspapers and local stations would have me be on a show to talk about the popularity of aquariums. I was on a trip in the 90’s to London and while walking around the London Aquarium I asked one of the workers about one of the tank set ups and after a couple of minutes was recognized and got the full behind the scenes tour of the aquarium [it’s good to be the fish geek].

Back then there were loads of aquarium stores around the city some small some huge [R.I.P. Nippon Aquarium] and you could find fish from all over the world available to you. The aquarium clubs had all the interesting fish that you’d never see anywhere else. In addition to the SFAS, there was also the Pacific Coast Cichlid Association, the Bay Area Killifish Association and the just started Bay Area Aquatic Plant Association. They’re all still around, but they aren’t as big a pull as they used to be.

Needs a little work don't it?Back then we had the true fish geeks who would have home setups that would rival some public aquariums. They would breed fish, sometimes producing strains that you hadn’t seen in the hobby. Many of these people were breeding fish that had come from collections years ago of fish that were endangered [I’ve seen more Devil’s Hole Pupfish bred in home tanks than there are in the Death Valley]. Those of us who bred fish back then could bring some into the meetings and easily leave with $100 in our pocket to spend over the weekend. My goal back then was when I retired I would breed fish and sell them at the club meetings to supplement my income. I had a friend who was importing plants and selling them to the stores around the Bay Area while he was living out of his car for awhile. He built a nice nest egg for himself and I thought I would too.

Now, that’s not so much the case. Fish I could have gotten $20-$30 for a pair are now selling for $5 for three pairs at some club meetings. The public shows such as the SFAS show at Tanforan every year is gone. It seems that people don’t think about home aquariums as much anymore. They’re easier to take care of than cats and dogs. True, they won’t curl up on your lap [unless you keep eels in a tank next to your bed. True story], but they do have personalities and a nice lush tank has been shown to lower blood pressure and give people well, warm fuzzy feelings. You can get into it as much as you want. You can start with a small 10 gallon tank and then move up to home installation if you get really into it.  The SFAS Home Shows were where people got to show off what they did with their tanks and gave the rest of us ideas to build on. There were a few people who always tried to out do everyone else. One friend who passed on had a 250 gallon coffee table with small sharks swimming around [no lasers on the sharks though].

I strongly recommend people try out aquariums at least once to see if they like them. The aquarium fish trade could use a boost and it would be great to bring it back in San Francisco.

Goodbye to the California Academy of Sciences

As most of you know I have had a love/hate relationship with the California Academy of Sciences. I love the fact that they have a super eco-friendly building with LEED Platinum certification, but what I have found with the new change is that they don’t have the science so much anymore. I grew up at the Academy and whenever I had a science project at school I would always do my research at the Academy because it was a treasure trove of information and because I was also a member of the Junior Academy I had access to even more.

I received my renewal notice from the Academy a few days ago and noticed that last year we paid $159 for a family membership. This year they have risen the price to $199. While that’s less than a dollar a day that kind of thinking only applies to food, not an Academy of Sciences membership which has now entered into the luxury realm. They’ve raised their prices to $29.95 to gain entrance to its hallowed halls, but once you get inside it feels empty. See the fish! See the rainforest! See the planetarium! (sorry all our shows are filled for the day) See our living roof! Oh, here’s some crap we’re using to fill in the space while you walk to our cafe to plunk down another $50 on top of the $100 you just put down to get your family of four in the door on top of the parking fee.

I’m not taking it anymore. While I grew up there and learned a lot through my activities there the Academy has been rebuilt to serve science to the rich, not the masses. This prompted me to send them the following letter:

Dear California Academy of Sciences,

It is with great regret that I will not be renewing my family membership this year. You price for membership has risen too much over the years to make it feasible for my middle class family to afford anymore.

I grew up as a part of the Academy of Sciences, attending classes at the former Junior Academy while volunteering at Steinhart Aquarium and eventually moving on to work in the Junior Academy and Planetarium. The Academy gave me great benefits at the time that gave me much more than I was learning in school and had me understanding organic chemistry at the age of 12 to the point that I was regularly pointing out errors to my teachers.

That was many years ago. Back when a $25 membership would allow your entire family and two guests walk freely about the Academy that wasn’t so incredibly packed as it is today. We also used to have free monthly meetings and a magazine delivered to us each month and I always looked forward to the free members night that gave us all behind the scenes tours of the aquarium and all the other departments at the Academy.

While the prices obviously have to rise over time, your costs less than 10 years ago prior to the rebuilding of the Academy were $65 for a family membership and came with eight guest passes and you still had the members night. Today that would cost me $1000 and on my budget that makes it unavailable. I have had the standard family membership which when I paid it last year was $159. If I were to renew it today it would cost me $199 which I still cannot afford.

There was a time when the California Academy of Sciences served the people of San Francisco. Now it would cost a family of four $100 to spend a day at the Academy and to me that is unacceptable. I regret that what the Academy once offered me it no longer offers the people of San Francisco and that my daughter will grow up without having access to what I had. I regret that there are so many people flocking to the Academy and giving up their hard earned money to view the aquarium, rainforest and planetarium with a few bits and pieces strewn about. There is no more Wattis Hall of Man, no more Hall of Birds, no more Hall of Minerals, no more North American Hall, no more Life through Science, no more Swamp and no more Entomology room. You have retained African Hall, but the only thing people seem to pay attention to is the penguin exhibit with the rest of the hall being the only quiet, open space in the Academy.

I used to be able to spend an entire day at the Academy of Sciences, but now I can take it in in under two hours. While the Academy has grown in square footage it has shrunk in what it is offering its patrons. I have friends and family who come to visit here and they would love to see the Academy of Sciences, but as soon as I tell them the price they choose to go somewhere else. I used to be able to give them my cards to use, but now you insist on members to show their ID to get in. True, you do offer the one free day a month which is by far the worse day to visit the Academy as it is so crowded it is probably coming close to passing fire code violations on occupancy.

I am not sure if I will ever return to the California Academy of Sciences again unless there is a change back to serving the people of San Francisco by not selling the sizzle instead of the steak at a high price, but by serving up science to the masses that teaches them and gives them a better understanding of the world we live in and how fragile it can be.

Sincerely with deep regret,

Eric Kauschen

The times, they are a changing. Please share this with your friends. I think it will be a long time before you hear me mention the California Academy of Sciences again.

UPDATE: After doing a little fact finding I’ve just discovered that the family membership was $60/year until 2008, A mere 3 years ago and offered the benefits of 4 free academy passes that they valued at $7 each not the $29.95 they ask today, three years later.

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Hi, I’m Eric and I’m a Fish Geek

Welcome to the first meeting of fish geeks anonymous. I’ve been keeping fish for over 30 years as pets and as decorative accessories to add a little umph to my dwellings. At the worst I had over 11 fish tanks in my home. Then I kicked the habit for the most part, but held onto my 55 gallon fish tank. I’ve had freshwater, saltwater, brackish water fish tanks. It became a bit of an addiction for awhile.

It got so bad that I became the President of the San Francisco Aquarium Society where I was on the Board of Directors for 10 years and served as President for 4 years. Not something many other fish geeks can claim. I thought I had gotten over the whole fish thing and then I was looking around through my book collection and found a book long forgotten, “Breeding Killifish”. You notice it wasn’t titled “Raising Killifish”. What’s a killifish you might ask? Well the picture along with this post is of a killifish. This is a killifish that when I first saw it I wanted it big time, but no one had it. It doesn’t have a common name like many killifish, but it has a scientific name of Aphysemion elberti “Bafoussum”. The Bafoussum part means it’s from a part of Africa called Bafoussum. Killifish are interesting fish. They’re the most colorful fish in freshwater and give many of the saltwater fish a run for their money. They’re easy to care for, don’t need a heater unless you might live in Alaska and they breed like teenagers in heat [i.e. daily]. They have somewhat hard eggs that if you build a little mop out of knitting yarn they’ll lay eggs daily that you can pick off with your finger and drop in something as simple as a baby food jar with some water and they’ll hatch in 2-3 weeks. These are the top spawners I like. There are bottom spawners that  lay their eggs in peat moss [in an aquarium] or mud [in the wild]. I don’t like the bottom spawners as much because I’m an impatient type of guy and don’t like to wait 6 months for the babies to hatch out.

I have searched for over 20 years for this species of fish and today I finally met up with my new bestest buddy in the killifish world Ryan Grisso who gave me a pair and insisted that he wouldn’t take a cent for them. Ryan is a member of the Bay Area Killifish Association and these guys are serious about killies. These guys breed killies from all over the world and trade and sell them at their meetings. One of the few things I’ve never seen someone with killifish do is set up a nice planted tank filled with these fish. I had a friend once who was big into them and brought me over 100 of them for my 55 gallon tank and told me to feed them every time I passed the tank. The fish tank was the focus of the Christmas party I had that year. People didn’t know how colorful these fish were, how easy they were to take care of and how you can keep making more of them.

Most killifish come from water that isn’t that great in dissolved oxygen so they’re used to doing odd things like jumping out of the water and living the wet grass next to the water. The bottom spawners tend to be like a phoenix in that they breed in puddles that dry up and then when the rains come later on in the year they’re reborn again.  I’ve never heard of a fish that lives in conditions like that.

Now before you get all excited and are going to run out and get some of these fish you have to remember one thing. Normal pet stores won’t carry them. Probably because the wholesalers don’t carry them and also because they’re so colorful people think they’re tropical fish and keep them in warm water and they die. There are a few stores in San Francisco that will occasionally have some, but that’s nothing compared to the mollies, swordtails, guppies and neons that are standard fair in most fish stores. Killies are a rare treat as they’re easier to keep than goldfish [they’re smaller so they don’t poop as much]. You can actually send them across the country via priority mail and they’ll get their alive. They don’t need a lot of maintenance and for the most part they will live fine on flake and freeze dried food. So tell your fish store that you want killifish so that they start carrying them or if they don’t contact me. If you need more info on them drop killifish into google and see what pops up. It will boggle your mind.

California Academy of Sciences: Praise and Rants

I’ve been going to the California Academy of Sciences since I was a little kid. I’m talking before I could walk and I loved the old place. There was tons of things to do and see and oh how I remember the awful cheeseburgers and fries served in the downstairs cafeteria by a company called Duchess.

For a kid like me who was into science this was an awesome space because there was everything you could learn about, the Hall of Birds, the Hall of Minerals, Wild California, The Hall of Man, The fish roundabout, Life through Time, The Farside Gallery, the Elkus Gallery and of course the Planetarium and Aquarium. They also had a little know “Junior Academy” downstairs that offered Saturday courses to kids in the sciences from 5-18. The little kid classes didn’t work out so well, but that lead to the adding of the Discovery Center upstairs.

They also had regularly rotating exhibits that were usually pretty big. They had one on Shakespeare, Earthquakes, geez I a can’t remember them all. Then because of the 1989 earthquake there were a few problems and they just decided to rebuild the whole thing again and make it all snazzy and eco-friendly. Don’t get me wrong, I love the fact that they decided to twist a few heads with the bio roof and solar panels, but it’s not the same anymore. It’s all about the Aquarium.

When you walk in you get to see the Piazza which one of the places to purchase an overpriced, but healthy organic snack. You head through there and can see the tops of a Philipine coral reef on one side and the Northern California coast on the other. The old grungy hall of reptiles has gone, but they saved the swamp area at least with a couple of gators and snapping turtles. Walk down a few stairs and you get the sparse swamp area. You can look into gator tank from below and there’s a few snakes and a lizard or two there. Of course they have to have a swamp/aquarium shop there as well. Then travel down a few more stairs and the Aquarium hits you. Big huge tanks with lots of fish. Not the 10’x10′ tanks you used to see in the old aquarium. Of course to balance this they have many more 10 gallon tanks in the walls, but over all you’re going to see a lot of stuff you’ve never seen before. My daughter loves the aquarium and even though she’s only three she has her favorite tanks she likes to hang out at and stare down the fish, That’s a whole ‘nother story I’ll get into later. So pretty much, the aquarium is very, very cool. So what else is there?

Well they’ve added something new and that’s the rainforest exhibit. To balance out the global shape of the planetarium the rainforest is a globe of glass that you have to enter through special doors so none of the stuff that’s inside gets out. Inside they have birds flying around, yet while I hear them I have yet to see them other than a macaw that tethered at the bottom of ramp just before you start traveling through the jungles. Each level has a different theme to it and  in the small flattened areas to stop at they have…more fish tanks! plus some reptiles as well and it fits in nicely, but still, it’s all about the fish. When you get to the top which is the warmest place you’ll find lots of butterflies swarming around. They’re all pretty small so nothing freaky there. Now you can go back down and out so you go down an elevator after you’ve gone through a check to make sure there are no butterflies on you and that takes you all the way down to the aquarium. If you decide to go I suggest you start with the rainforest and head down to the aquarium because there are some things you’ll miss in the aquarium that aren’t too obvious when you first enter into it.

OK, what’s left? Well there’s the planetarium which I’d love to tell you about because I worked at the old one for four years, but I haven’t had the time to see it yet as I’m always there with my daughter and I’m not sure she’s ready to sit still for 45 minutes to an hour in the dark. I’ve seen videos of it and it’s real state of the art, so I’m looking forward to going once my daughter starts pre-school. They did manage to keep South African Hall, but made a few changes. Nothing too major, except for the addition of a tank of cichlids from lake Malawi and Tanganika in Eastern Africa that was originally the Charles Bange Memorial tank that was put in place by donations by the San Francisco Aquarium Society [note I was the president of the SFAS for 4 years and on the board of directors for 10 years]. Now it has someone else’s name on it so apparently the Academy has forgotten that many years ago the aquarium was kept afloat by donations from the SFAS and now the SFAS isn’t allowed to meet at the Academy anymore. The Herbst auditorium has been replaced with the Herbst Forum on the second floor and there’s also the Naturalist Center which is sort of a small library with displays of dead things or parts of dead things from the mammalogy and ornithology departments, but that’s it for the 2nd floor.

Other than that there’s a few small exhibits that don’t make up for what they didn’t keep in there. I noticed something when I was there today though. While they made it a little bit wider which is really mostly with outdoor garden areas, it’s much thinner. The swamp is at the back of the academy and that’s it. The aquarium used to run around it with other exhibits behind that. They gave up a lot that people can learn from. I’m not sure where the scientists do there work as in the old place there used to be two levels up with offices and labs and all the ichthyology and aquarium labs were down in the basement where the aquarium is now.

Now here is where the rants will begin. The real rants. When my wife and I got married in 1996 we got a family membership to the academy. It cost us…$25. With it we each got a card that would allow us to bring in a guest as well as 10 guest passes we could give out to our friends. It cost $7 to get in back then. We also got invited to a members only night where we could walk around the academy and get behind the scenes tours and feed for free.

Now, that same membership will cost you…$500! You can get the Family Plus membership, but you’ll have to pay $75 each for the behind the scenes tour. Ticket prices to get in are now $24.99 for adults, $19.99 for 12-17 and $14.99 for 4-11.

If you have kids, get a family membership. It’s $159 and you’ll get that back 10 fold in a short period of time. There is one thing to remember though, if you’re going to go you should take advantage of the members only hours of 8:30-9:30 on Tuesdays or 10-11 on Sundays. Especially if you have small kids. We went there about 12:30pm today and the place was packed. We couldn’t even let our daughter out of the stroller because we’d have lost her in seconds.

If you want to go on the cheap the last Thursday of the month is Nightlife where it will only cost you $12 to get in, but you have to be 21+ because they have bars set up all over the place. I haven’t been to one of these, but being a member I would still have to pay $10 in addition to the drinks.

I have to admit that I like the cafe that they have as they serve a wide variety of all organic meats and veggies with enough variety to suit everyone, but that all comes at a price. We tried it once and we got a breakfast quiche, muffin, coffee and an izzy’s soda for just under $15. The quiche was small, the muffin wasn’t very large, but the coffee and soda were good. Today, I noticed as we walked through the piazza that while there were people in line to buy food, most of the people there [some of which had to sit on the floor as there were no more tables] had brought their own food. The line to purchase tickets was at least 4 deep and 100 ft long. So I imagine that the wait would be close to an hour.

If you’re a member you get to put on your best smug face and walk through the members entrance where they not only ask for your card, but you ID as well to verify you aren’t loaning your card to friends. You also get a lot of other little discounts and benefits that you can find here. The funniest thing is that maybe we should have gotten an individual membership for $99 because it says you can bring a guest in with your card. It doesn’t say that with a family membership. So if you’re a couple and don’t expect to take any out of town relatives there that’s the best way to go about it. Overall, I’d have to say that the California Academy of Sciences has changed from a museum of science to a political show off piece. Gavin Newsom is even quoted as saying it’s his favorite place in San Francisco. You don’t get to talk to the scientists who are doing the work behind the scenes, but you can watch them through glass sometimes in the lab that’s open to the public for viewing, but no entrance.

Need a Guest Lecturer? Ask Me

I never brought this up before, but I’ve done my time giving lectures. I guess it started when I was asked to give an oral report in school. I liked doing that very much and as a kid I was a sponge soaking up information left and right. I’m glad I’ve kept that up because I find myself learning more now than I did in school which in and of itself could be a lecture. I have a very good knowledge of San Francisco History as well as aquarium keeping and audio recording. If you have a group that would be interested in having me as a guest lecturer email me and we can make arrangements. I’m pretty inexpensive as well. I might even do it for a free dinner.

Here are a few of the lectures I’ve given in the past.

San Francisco’s Sunset District: The Outside Lands.

Why Americans never call themselves Americans.

Why Caucasian is a meaningless term.

Getting your blog noticed.

How to turn your computer into a professional recording studio.

Setting up a planted aquarium.

San Francisco Aquarium Society

B08As a little kid I loved pets. We had a dog when I was a baby, but while he was very protective of me he also saw me as competition so we could be left in the same room together. Once our dog was gone my parents decided to get me more kid friendly pets. A hamster wasn’t good enough for me so my parents got me a golden-mantled ground squirrel. Not the most kid friendly pet, but it was fun to have and show off to my friends. They’re classified as wild animals now so they aren’t legal anymore, but “sniffles” was as cute as a button.

One birthday I got an aquarium and discovered I was hooked. Back in the late 60’s there wasn’t that much in the way of aquariums and the fish you had to choose from were always few and far between. Back then we didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to put goldfish in with angelfish [goldfish like colder water and angelfish were tropical water dwellers]. My first aquarium was one of those awful 10 gallons with the metal frame and we always ran into problems with it like when my mother put a decorative sea shell in a freshwater tank [bad because the mostly South American fish like soft water and the calcium in the shell leaches out and makes it hard]. So eventually we gave up and the aquarium was stored away.

A few years go by and I decide I wanted to try an aquarium again and I got a brand new set up with an outside hang on the back filter instead of the garbage undergravel filter I had before. Then something magical happened. I decided to buy fancy guppies. These were really colorful fish that one day did something I had never scene before—I saw baby guppies! and then the dollar signs started to go off in my head. I got a smaller 5 gallon tank and would scoop the babies out to grown them up safely away from their parents who would make a meal out of them. Pretty soon I was turning them in at the local fish store for credit and my hobby was paying for itself. This lasted for several years and I wanted more, so I moved up to a 20 gallon tank. I think by now I had about 5 tanks running and I had a hatcher for brine shrimp eggs to feed and bulk up the babies with live food. For those of you who don’t know what brine shrimp are think of the Sea Monkeys you might of had as a kid. So here I am in my late teens with 5 fish tanks, I should have just stamped geek on my forehead, but I was still able to attract pretty girls who liked to look at the fish in my darkened bedroom [“Eric! why are the lights off in the your bedroom!” “We’re just watching the fish mom!”] That line worked everytime.

Then one day I was in the now closed Nippon fish store and I saw a little flyer talking about the San Francisco Aquarium Society. Cool! There are other fish geeks like me who like to get together once a month and well, be bigger geeks. So I went to my first meeting at the California Academy of Sciences. There were maybe 25 people there and I have no idea what the talk was about, but it was about some fish I had never heard of. At the end after lecture they served refreshments and had a raffle. These guys actually got manufacturers and local stores to donate goods for promotion. I spent $5 on the 25¢ tickets and came home with a bundle.

Then came the big part—The raffle. OMG, I was seeing fish I had never even heard of before and it was the people in the club who were breeding them. Gee, you can breed more than guppies? I was hooked and joined that night. I received their first newsletter, Panorama and it was well, not that great. Good information, but it could have looked a lot better. So me needing an excuse to better learn page layout and graphic design redid that newsletter and brought a copy to the next meeting. I showed it to one of the members of the Board of Directors who’s jaw dropped. He asked if he could have this and I said sure thing and I offered to do the layout for the newsletter. At my third meeting I was asked to be the publisher of Panorama. I asked who the next guest was going to be and after I found out I went home and laid out some quarter sheet flyers and called my new friend on the board and told him, “Hey Jeff, I have something to show you.” Again, his jaw dropped. He took the copy and within a few days I started to notice them showing up in stores around the Bay Area.

I was suddenly becoming the buzz of the SFAS. I gave them a vision and a professional look. After being a member for one year a spot opened up on the BoD and I was asked if I would be interested. Hell yeah I was interested. I now had a chance to bring about change and learn more about the hobby. After being on the BoD for a year I was then asked to become the Program Chairman. I think this was mostly because I immersed myself in the hobby and was on the forefront of this new thing social network called Compuserve and it’s forum FishNET that I had the resources. Now I was bringing in guest speakers from all over the country even some from Germany where they were on the forefront. The SFAS started to grow with my new found marketing skills and had outgrown the little conference room and had to move into the auditorium. By year 3 or 4 on the BoD, I was nominated for President. I got elected and things really took off. We grew from just under 50 members when I joined to over 500 members and now I was even giving talks about my experience with new Dutch Plant Tanks. The limit for President was two years and I had to step down after that. After the new President served for a year some of the board members were asking me to come back again. So I did and served as President for another two years. During this time something strange started to happen. I was asked to be on a few PBS shows and I was interviewed by newspapers because keeping fish tanks had taken off like wildfire through the work of promoting the club that the BoD and the members had done. People would stop me on the streets and say, “hey you’re that fish guy”. At the time I had hair almost down to my waist, I was hanging out in the new Metal scene and I was totally dressed as a rocker at the meetings. I was trying to get a new band started, but was having trouble. I wanted to be a rockstar and in a sense I was, amongst the fish geeks. That may not seem like much, but at the time I had managed to turn the words “fish geek” into something that was cool, not dorky. Literally where ever I would go people were recognizing me. I was down at the  Monterey Bay Aquarium and people were walking up to me. I was visiting the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and in talking to one of the people who was a biologist there I ended up getting a behind the scenes tour. My name had made it as far as the London Aquarium where I was also given a behind the scenes tour and taken to lunch.

Then as my two years were coming to a close and I had to step down a horrible thought entered my head. I made this club so noticeable because of my rockstar image would it hold up when I stepped down? I decided the find the best person for the job and get behind them and help them along. It seemed to work with me advising the new President for the two years he ran the club and we were invited to a few galas at the Steinhardht Aquarium by the Director of the Aquarium. When it was time for then President John to step down I thought about it. The SFAS has been in existence since 1932 and I only helped it out for 8 years of that time. They’ll be fine if I walk away. My life had changed a lot and I didn’t really have time for the club so I left. Not much of a problem since I was given a life membership and made an ex officio member of the BoD. I lost touch for awhile and then found out the truth—I was right. The club had shrunk down to the point that they don’t even have the required 13 board members. They no longer meet at the California Academy of Sciences and I’m starting to get calls from some of the old board members who also left and now are thinking of getting the old gang back together.

This was a great club and it still has the potential to be a great club. There are still members who have made contributions to the hobby by breeding new strains of fish, such as Dick Au and his German Blue Rams and Blue Angelfish. If you want to learn more about keeping fish properly and also be able to find some fish that you’ll never see in stores, then I suggest you check them out at www.sfaquarium.org, and maybe, just maybe we can get some of the old gang together to bring it back to what it used to be.