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.

My Dad, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and Memorial Day

I don’t talk about my Dad much. Once I turned 13 something changed and we kind of became enemies at times. There were good times when he told me stories, but they were mostly war stories because that was so much of his life and if even half of what he said was true he was not a guy to piss off in a fight.

My Dad was 15 when my Grandfather divorced my Grandmother. His sister stayed with her Mom and my Dad got to go with my Grandfather. I never met anyone on that side of the family, but my Grandfather had the brilliant idea to move from Philadelphia back to his native city of Riga, Latvia. 1930 was not a very good time for this because shortly there after Latvia was at war with Russia in the takeover of the Baltic states.

My Dad always laughed at how he and his friends would blow up train tracks the Russians used and steal their barrels of vodka and bury them in their backyards so no one could find them. How many punk ass teens would go around blowing up trains for the vodka just to get a buzz on over the weekend. This went on for awhile until the Russians started wondering why the train tracks all around a certain area were getting blown up. One of his friends got shot because when you bury vodka in the ground you have to dig it up and you usually spilled some when you’re trying to get it out of the barrel. My Dad’s friend and family were shot on site by the Russians.

My Grandfather was so furious with what my Dad had been doing that he tossed him on a boat at 18 to send him back to the U.S. He didn’t get along to well with his mother and sister and he decided to join up with the Merchant Marines because it seemed like a safe bet for him at the time. Well, it wasn’t 1941 yet so he was pretty safe. Until Pearl Harbor  and then he was a Merchant Marine during wartime. That meant he wasn’t a civilian, but now a soldier.

He was sent off to supply the ground troops in Europe along with moving troops to Europe and shooting at anything hostile in between. His ship was stationed in Italy that was safe at the time. It was Northern Italy I believe and when Germany finished with Austria they came to start talking with the Italians and my Dad was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Seeing the Germans approaching while he was on shore out of uniform they were suspicious of him. Luckily he spoke German and convinced them he was one of them. Great. The Germans took him back with them and now he was fighting for Germany by being sent on Operation Barbarossa to help dig trenches for the attack on Stalin.

While on the front line Russian soldiers caught him and told them he was merely a Russian peasant farmer who was capture by the Nazi’s and put to work. He spoke Russian as well so he managed to keep a bullet out of his head and now was serving for the Russian military.

He somehow managed to escape one night and I’m sure there was lots of vodka involved. He worked his way back to Italy to a part of Italy that wasn’t so friendly to Americans. So now he’s wearing the uniform of Il Duce’s army. He was stationed on the coast in Southern Italy which oddly enough a passing Merchant Marine ship became the target of the coastal forces.

As my Dad always said the Italian Army was so corrupt that they weren’t worth shit in a fight. He managed to get out of the way and hide and when the Merchant Marines send scout teams ashore his perfect English came back and he convinced them that he was one of them. He got back on ship and they checked him out and found him to be who said he was. He was back to safety by then and the war was almost over.

He went through hell during WWII, but he was always a survivor. The war was not kind to him and they didn’t talk about PTSD back then. They just gave you more cigarettes and beer. Towards the end of his life before the hear disease set in he was smoking a pack of Pall Mall non-filtered and drinking a 12 pack of Budweiser a day. I can see now it was to help him forget the memories of WWII. It didn’t always work. I would always see him go off and cry around the holidays because they were never fun for him. We don’t have many pictures of my Dad for some reason. I guess he only liked to be photographed with me when I was a kid. I did manage to find one and that was the day I came home from the hospital. It’s probably one of the few pics of him where he has even close to a smile on his face.

Sea Lions Back at the S.F. Zoo

I have to give thanks to two of my friends Beth Wise and Lincoln Shaw who work at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito. I follow their posts to facebook about the work they do and when I heard about a sea lion they called Silent Knight I was happy. Not so much for the sea lion as it had been shot in the face with a shotgun and was now blind, but I was happy that they got to care for him and bring him back around.

Sea lions tend to not be bothered by people so they tend to act rather friendly towards us. Then some idiot has to pull out a shot gun and shoot at them to get them to move away from them. While that sounds like a good idea in some parts of San Francisco, it’s not a good idea when it comes to marine mammals.

I’ve had a love of seals, sea lions and all other marine mammals from a young age. I remember taking a class at the now defunct Junior Academy at the California Academy of Sciences and we had a field trip down to Año Nuevo Beach where the elephant seals come to breed. I remember jumping over a log with the rest of the people in the class only to turn around after and realize it wasn’t a log, but an elephant seal. These are pretty impressive and intelligent creatures and many of them moved from Seal Rock out near me to Pier 39 now where they put on a show for the onlookers and manage to stink up the place a bit due to their diet of oily fish which makes their poop smell a bit on the unbearable side.

Sea lions have always been the Marx Brothers of the pinniped world used in movies because of their humorous antics that mimicked human behavior if people had finds instead of hands and feet. They can adapt to living in these confined conditions, but they aren’t their happiest when they have to. This is part of the reason I’m glad that Silent Knight has been moved to the San Francisco Zoo. While he’s recovered from the shotgun blast, he’s still blind and can’t be released into the wild like the Marine Mammal Center normally does. The San Francisco Zoo stepped in and offered to care for him so he can live out his years with support and care from people who know how to take care of animals.

The Marine Mammal Center volunteers have a job that isn’t the best and they don’t get paid. Imagine going to work and having to blend up lots of oily smelly fish that you then have to more or less force feed to a sick not very willing animal. You probably don’t come home smelling very good and on top of it there’s no pay, no benefits other than knowing in your heart that you’ve helped an injured animal.

So cheers to Beth and Lincoln and all the other hard working people at the MMC. Maybe I need to get all the other members of my old band together and take up a collection to donation to one of their residents named Black Wolf [my band was named Black Wülf, note the umlat and U to make it look even more metal.]


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.