Martha’s Vineyard pet store gives fish-raising advice

A Betta splenden, commonly referred to as a Siamese Fighting Fish, at Little Leona's Pets and Supplies. — Photo by Danielle Zerbonne

That you can find a teeny fish from a Southeast Asian ditch in a brandy snifter on a kitchen counter in Omaha, Neb. is a true testament to global commerce.

Originally from Cambodian rice paddies, the Betta splendens – also called Siamese Fighting Fish – can now be purchased right here on the Vineyard for about $5.

They’re vibrantly colorful, have a cool name, and a bad attitude. They’re incredibly hardy, able to survive in environments where many other fish would perish. In many ways, they’re the perfect beginner’s fish. But pushed to the edge of survival is no way to live. Care for your Betta properly and he could live for years, a tiny fluttering gem that brings a brightly colored bit of life to an otherwise lifeless kitchen counter. With a basic understanding of its physical requirements and a bit of commitment, your little creature won’t simply survive, but thrive.

Keeping an aquarium is like having a science experiment going on constantly in your home. Some knowledge of basic chemistry, a pinch of marine biology, and most important, daily observation of your aquarium, and you’re on your way to a successful little ecosystem. Fishkeeping also cultivates a greater appreciation of the mysterious and complex web of life coursing through the waters of the world, which needs our awareness and protection.

Originally from slow moving, oxygen depleted waters in Cambodia and Thailand, Betta splendens have been selectively bred for the aquarium ;trade into the flowy finned, jewel-colored creatures we see today at the pet store. They’ve maintained their “labyrinth organ,” a unique adaptation that allows them to breathe oxygen from the surface of the water, allowing them to survive in water that would suffocate other fish.

Vivian Flanders of Little Leona’s Pets and Supplies, located at 126 State Road in West Tisbury, sells tropical fish (and various other diminutive creatures), and is happy to offer advice and support to new aquarists. Oft-repeated myths about these animals can bring about a sorry demise that can extinguish the enthusiasm of any new Betta owner. Vivian, with long time Little Leona’s employee Leah Pachico, outlined some rules to keep in mind before embarking on your piscine adventure.Bettas like it warm.

“People sometimes don’t realize they’re tropical fish…anyone can keep a Betta alive in the summer,” says Vivian. But, “You can’t put one in a container with no heater and leave it in an unheated room in the winter. You’re going to end up with either a miserable Betta or a dead one.” Cool water will make your Betta lethargic and mute his colors, so you should keep that water between 77 to 82 degrees F.

Water changes, water changes, water changes!

Many aquarists wouldn’t dream of keeping a fish without a filter to help remove waste, but these are the rare tropical fish indeed that can live without one.

Regular water changes are key. Vivian recommends changing at least half the water once a week, with some suction help from a dedicated turkey baster or siphon. Don’t forget to add water conditioner to your tap water. “Leaving them in a small bowl is like leaving them in a toilet,” advises Vivian. Leading us to…

Give your Betta some space.

Although you may often see these fish kept in tiny bowls at the pet store, that should be a short term situation only.

“Even though they can stand a small bowl, it’s just not fair,” said Vivian. A three-gallon tank is a good start; it will help keep temperature and water quality stable, as well as allowing room for your fish to move around. A plant (real or silk) will help him feel secure and give him a place to settle at naptime. Little Leona’s sells “Betta hammocks,” plastic leaves that suction cup to the side of the tank– they love them.Don’t over feed.

An over zealous feeding schedule is the number one reason aquarium fish perish. Fishes nearly always act hungry, Vivian explained, so it can be tempting to give them a sprinkle of food whenever you walk into the room. That can wreak serious damage in the closed system of a tank (if you’re serious about trying fishkeeping, Google “aquarium nitrogen cycle” and start reading). Feed your fish only what he will consume completely in about two minutes, once a day is fine.

By the way, the second reason aquarium fish die untimely deaths? “When your friends take care of your fish,” says Leah, which inevitably leads to a violation of the overfeeding rule.

A healthy Betta will flare its fins, explore its space, eat eagerly, and look utterly gorgeous. He’s a long way from his ancestral home, but he can truly thrive – not just survive – in your home aquarium.

For more information about Little Leona’s Pets and Supplies, call 508-696-8818.