Thursday, January 14, 2016

Buying Bettas from Overseas: Not for Everyone

     By the time your internet surfing leads you to an article about importing your own bettas from overseas, I assume you have already "caught the bug".  A lot of people will buy a betta and care for it for a while, and when it passes away, they don't get another.  Then there are some of us who catch the bug, this compelling obsession with the genetic diversity and stunning beauty of the species Betta splendens.  
     This compulsion we share usually starts in a pet store.  If you're like me you didn't pick the first one you saw, you looked at every one they had, watched how they swam, peered into their big, round eyes to see if they looked back at you.  My first betta, Robert, was a pet store fish who had really undesirable confirmation, but the heart and personality of a puppy dog.

The Fish Who Started it All
      The next phase of the betta addiction is typically internet shopping.  I found a domestic breeder and purchased a few fish directly from him, then I found an importer who was buying large quantities from Thailand and reselling them in the US.  Both experiences can be rewarding.
     The next phase for some of us is importing from overseas, but where to start?  I do not recommend picking a breeder at random and asking him or her to explain the process for you.  I'm just not that trusting of a person.  Below I will explain the entire process for you as I have done it, including some of the precautions I've taken and some of the possible pitfalls along the way.  Most importantly I stress patience throughout the entire process.  Patiently research the breeders you are interested in and read any review you can find online.  Patiently select your fish.  You really won't be able to return them, so the more patience you exercise early on in the process, the less chance there is that you will have buyer's remorse later.  Most of all have fun.  You can literally buy any kind of fish in the world once you expand your horizons this far.  Get the fish you want.

     The scope of this article is importing betta fish from overseas to the USA.  I have learned a lot about betta fish in general over the last six years or so, but for the purposes of this article I will assume you already know how to care for bettas.  I really don't know all that much about other aquarium fish, or how they are imported.  And while I have imported fish to the US a couple times, and I've read a lot on the subject, too, I would have no idea how to import fish to another country, so this article may or may not apply to your situation.

"Sensei", one of my first imports.
photo by Difa Betta
     The US has a lot of betta breeders of varying quality.  I know of one who is quite proud to tell you that his breeding lines were founded mostly from pet store purchases, but to my eyes they lack confirmation and consistency, each spawn seeming like a genetic lottery.  Other US breeders are truly world-class.  You may not have a true need to import from overseas, but it can be a fun and rewarding project.  So many countries are open for importation, like Thailand and Indonesia, and fish from the Philippines just recently became available for US importation.  
     One major advantage a lot of the Pacific rim breeders have over US breeders is the ability to keep stock outdoors year round.  This simple difference allows them to breed on a much larger scale and to have many unrelated projects going on at once.  You could deal with a breeder who has all the lines you're looking for in the same place.  Just as an example, halfmoons are still at the top of the list of popular fin types, and it's always good to have some strong plakats around to breed some strong rays into their fins as you go.  
     While I am no breeder by any means, I'm sure it's simple enough to see the advantage of buying your brood stock from someone who has a lot of space to work with and who has well-developed lines of various fin types and colors.  Getting them all at the same place equals savings on shipping, and many breeders offer a bulk discount if you order a certain number of fish at one time, usually around ten.  If you want to buy a lot more than 10 fish, inquire about a wholesale discount.
Indoor and outdoor growouts.  Photo by Difa Betta.
     The other reason to import isn't a reason why, it's the question "why not?"  If you're not aware of the variety of colors, confirmations and fin types available all over the globe, I suggest you begin by crawling around the web a bit and doing research on just that.  The sheer diversity is as breathtaking as it is is broad.  Why not pick your favorite two origin countries and start your own line with that?  Another idea I have toyed with is to pick about 10 high-quality fish from one breeder with the intention of reselling 7 when I am able.  Many domestic buyers understand that imported fish can be expensive due to shipping costs, so they will pay a little more for them and they also appreciate the convenience, speed and relative security of being able to deal with a domestic seller.  You wouldn't have to gouge prices on anyone to sort of share the cost of international shipping and importation.

How? Start to Research
     What is this process of importing bettas?  Well, my intention is to be rather detailed, so please do skip down a couple paragraphs to "Nuts and Bolts" if you are beyond the research phase and just want to get to know how the process works once you are ready to purchase.  I will assume you already have a project in mind, like a breeding project you want to start or improve, or just a few tanks you want to populate with attractive pets.
     Once you have a fairly clear goal in mind, it's time to begin your research.  It's best if you don't plan to purchase fish or talk to your sellers for at least a couple months, assuming you are starting with no knowledge on what is available across the globe.  You don't want to get directed or swayed by a seller at this point, you want to just purely follow the fish you like.  As a side note, if you don't have your aquariums set up yet, you can use your research time to set up and cycle a habitat for your new pets before they arrive.
"Sensei" resting on a betta hammock.
     Go on social media, look at fish you like, save images to look at later, and try to get a feel for the fish in a particular country, as well as for the breeders there.  For example, generally speaking, what do the fish for purchase look like in Thailand?  Then, who do you think the top breeders are in that country, considering what you can find online of the fish they breed, and how those fish fit with your plan, like if you're looking for a really nice crown tail, what do Thai crown tails look like, and who in Thailand sells the ones that look the best to your eyes?  
     If you start feeling serious about a breeder, start researching their reputation anywhere you can find them.  Do they have pages or reviews on social media?  Do they have any reviews on Aquabid?  If you join groups of betta enthusiasts on social media, does your prospective breeder have a good reputation among the group members?  Any breeder who causes you to feel uneasy when you read some of their online reviews should probably be removed entirely from your selection process; you will not have much, if any, legal recourse should they ship you dead or incorrect fish.  You only want to deal with someone who takes their business seriously and treats their customers with respect.
     Once you go through this process of elimination, go back and look at the stock for sale by the best breeders you found in each locale.  Personally, I was pretty sure I wanted to purchase from Hendra at Difa Betta (click the link for more info) in Indonesia (who has not compensated me in any way for this endorsement, but you are welcome to tell him I sent you), but I still had to message him, discuss prices, select my fish, and work out a shipping schedule.   
     The point where you begin discussions with the breeder is the next place where you may have to give up and find another person with whom to do business.  Beware of scammers, and beware of anyone who tries to rush you through your purchase in any way.  If they are hard to deal with before you send them money, just think how bad communication could get after you send the money.  Hendra at Difa Betta is the consummate professional, and nothing about the sale with him was rushed or pressured in any way, he just answered all my questions and sent any photos I requested.  This went on for probably close to a week before I was absolutely sure which fish I wanted and was ready to send money.  When I did finally press the "Send Money Now" button on PayPal, I had no doubts or regrets.

Nuts and  Bolts:
3 little fishies ready to ship
photo by Difa Betta
     Seller -->
     The seller will charge a different price for each fish depending on whether it's a male or female, what the fin type is, and how old it is.  Price is negotiable, of course, but I try not to haggle with them too much; if I don't haggle in the checkout line at a grocery store, why would I try to squeeze these guys for every penny I can?  These are typically independently-run family businesses in developing countries, and I like to support that kind of development when possible.  One easy way to get a discount is to buy in bulk, so if you're buying around 10 or more fish at once, ask if you can get a price break.  The breeder will also charge a small, flat shipping fee per fish.  Last year, the shipping fee was $7 per fish from Indonesia to the trans-shipper (TS).  Fish are then air-mailed monthly to each of the US trans-shippers, and all those shipping fees go toward express shipping the entire crate of fish to your trans-shipper's airport.  I imagine that from month to month, depending on how many fish are in the air mail crates, they could make or lose a decent amount of money.
     The trans-shipper will be at the airport to meet your seller's airmail crate.  Pick the TS closest to you geographically.  Your seller will provide you a list of trans-shippers with whom they do business, but for the most part all the overseas breeders deal with the same set of state-side trans-shippers.  Your TS will inspect the fish individually and fill out and file the appropriate customs forms to legalize the importation process.  Your TS would also let you know if any of your fish have arrived DOA.  Since they often receive hundreds of fish at once, it may take them 24 hours or more to notify you in that event.  While the vast majority of bettas do arrive alive, and all reputable breeders to their best to ship only fish that are healthy enough to survive the trip, a small percentage die in transit.  If one of your fish is DOA at the trans-shipper, then ask them to send pictures so you can begin the communication process with the breeder.  They will work it out with you.
     I don't know everything about the trans-shipping process, like whether the fish get fresh water and air, or if they are just visually inspected and then repackaged.  I have always assumed that they get at least a little water and air before the second leg of the journey, but I just don't know that to be true.  Either way, the trans-shippers are very good at what they do and suffer a very small percentage of lost fish.  The TS charges a flat rate of $3 to $4 per fish for processing, repackaging and filing customs forms.  You will typically have the option of 2-day Priority or overnight USPS Express shipping, and the trans-shipper's "Arrive Alive" guarantee is only valid if you pay for express shipping.
     Now, at this point you probably have months in the research and decision-making process, and another month or more of waiting after you paid for your fish, and you will have paid a good bit of money to get exactly the bettas that you want, out of all the bettas in the world.  Pay for the express shipping and any needed hot or cold packs ($2 per pack, some trans-shippers include at no additional cost).  The TS should fit up to 5 bettas in an express box.  The last time I made this decision, Express was $26 and Priority was $14, but it will also depend on your ZIP code in relation to the ZIP code of the trans-shipper.  You do not want to spend all this time and money only to have something go awry at the last moment, so pay a little extra for Express and enjoy the peace of mind that comes with the Arrive Alive guarantee. 

     Trans-shipping tip:  Make sure your shipping address on PayPal is current before you pay your TS, and make sure to pay him or her a few days before your fish arrive at the airport so there are no shipping delays when they arrive.
     Make sure you can be home the day your fish arrive, you don't want to trust this to someone else.  I suggest you take your tracking number to the USPS website and subscribe to the notifications by text so you receive an immediate text message when the package arrives.  I live in an apartment, so I do not want my fish sitting in a big tin mailbox down by the leasing office.  Open the box carefully and verify the live arrival of each fish before you open its bag.  If you have a DOA fish, you must not open the bag.  Take photos and send them to the TS immediately or your arrive alive guarantee will be invalid.  Don't worry, I know this can be a sad experience, but as far as the money goes, your TS will take care of you.  I know worrying about these beautiful little creatures is in our nature, but try not to worry, the sellers and trans-shippers are really good at what they do and have incredibly high live-arrival rates.
"Delilah", one of my first imports. What a stunning female.
photo by Difa Betta

     Once you have your fish bags all open for fresh air, take extra time and care when acclimating them, remembering always that they just came from around the world in a few short days.  You will float them a lot longer than you would for a fish you just picked up at the local fish store (LFS).  Your pH, especially, could be wildly different than that of your new pet's origin tank back home.  If you ask nicely, a good breeder will tell you what the pH was in your new pet's last aquarium, which will give you some idea of how slowly you need to switch the fish over to your water.  
     I usually add about a teaspoon of my aquarium's water to the new fish's bag every 5 minutes or so for about an hour to an hour and a half.  Slow acclimation is a good precaution.  I usually let them settle in anywhere from several hours to overnight before offering food, this way you help avoid upset stomachs.  
     If your fish made it this far unharmed, the last thing he or she needs is pH shock, that can be fatal on a fish's best day.  After all this time and effort, I hope you and your fish are happy together for a very long time.

Conclusions and Parting Shots:
     The entire process of importing from an overseas breeder is not quick, but it can be relatively easy if you know what to expect, which is why I wrote this guide.  The process is also somewhat expensive when compared to buying a $6 betta from your LFS.  I have only ordered smaller quantities of 3 or 4 fish at a time, and my per-fish cost has been around $40.  Your per-fish cost could be potentially reduced if you buy in larger quantities.  An express shipping box holds 5 bettas and costs about $25 whether you fill it or not.  Many breeders will also give you a small bulk discount if you order 10 or more fish at the same time.  You may not need that many bettas at once, but I've considered placing an order for 10 and reselling 7 of them to recoup my costs.
Separated for taking photographs.
Photo by Difa Betta
     1)  Be mindful of outdoor temperatures; avoid summer and winter shipping as much as possible.
     2)  Some sellers will show you a pic and then sell you "a fish from the same spawn as that one in the picture, it looks just like him."  Where I'm from I call that a bait and switch.  Make sure your seller understands that you want "this exact fish in the photo", or you could suffer some disappointment.  Fortunately Difa Betta is one of the breeders who sells you "this exact fish in the photo" so you will not have any surprises there.
     3)  I encourage you to contact your breeder and/or TS with any questions or concerns that arise during the process.  Don't sit with anxiety and let the worry build up, if there's something you're worried about, sit right down and write somebody an email.  The sooner you address your concerns, the better you will feel overall, and the alternative is potentially letting things build until you have a freak out and send a bunch of strange messages to people.  By my experience, these are professionals who love what they do and love the fish they work with, so they answer your questions without hesitation, they totally get why you are worried about your little fishies in transit.

     If you have any questions about the subject of this article, please leave a comment below and I will answer as soon as I am able.  Alternatively, you may email your question to me at

     As always, thank you for reading.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Tank Sitters - A Beginning

Hi.  My name is Hal.
I live in Palm Harbor, Florida, north of Tampa.  I have a 9 to 5 work-from-home job, but what I really want to do career-wise is get dirty taking care of your fish.
And your reptiles and ampibians...and your arachnids, and your crustaceans!  
Basically...If it fits in a tank, it fascinates me and always has.  
I grew up on a farm, about a half-mile from the nearest neighbor, in Southern Illinois.  By the time I was 5 years old, my parents had bought me a book about North American snakes, because they were deathly afraid I would pick up a venomous one.  
I was the kid who always brought something home and tried to talk Mom into letting me keep it.  Over the years I kept anoles and geckos from the pet store, wolf spiders, garter snakes, rat snakes and milk snakes from the yard.  By about age 15 or 16 I was a card-carrying member of the St. Louis Herpetological Society and attended monthly meetings, completely absorbed in the great presentations they would have by various breeders herps and professors of biology.
Mom always had an aquarium and her favorites were angel fish, gouramis, plecos, and loaches.  I watched her monitor the water parameters, go through water changes, and feed them, but I can't say as I helped much as a child.  My real love affair with aquaria began about 6 years ago when I found myself trapped in a lifeless, grey-tone cubicle and thought it would be nice to get a betta fish to keep me company.  While I never managed to train him to do my job as I had hoped, 
Robert the Fish was the first of many betta fish, and I currently keep 4 bettas (2 males and 2 females), a couple cory cats, a few tetras, and a couple hillstream loaches.  The tank and stand designs are my own.  If you're not familiar with bettas, they have their own peculiar care guidelines, and most importantly they have to be segregated from each other.

My wife and I are avid snorkelers, and I've found myself in absolutely ridiculous places, all to satisfy my own curiosity.  Over the years I've run into various blennies, gobies, tangs, turtles, eels, jellyfish, etc.  To really understand how much I love aquatic life, I'd have you look at my jellyfish videos, which I shot at Riviera Beach in SE Florida last October.  Literally no one would go in the water because it was swarming with jellyfish.  You couldn't get past the wake without running into a dozen of them.  What was my first thought?  "When life gives you jellyfish...make jellyfish videos."

Friday, May 22, 2015

Are You Thinking About Getting a Betta? Think About Cycling

Are you thinking about getting a betta?

Are you debating over whether or not to cycle your tank?

Many people  will encourage you to start with a minimum of 2.5 Gallons per betta, in a cycled tank.

But why? Why, really, do you need to cycle them? In Thailand and Vietnam, bettas are raised in little liquor bottles with no ill effects, right?

Right. It's true. It's also true that the betta farms that raise them in these small bottles change their water (WC) once, sometimes more, per day.

So what does it take to change your betta's water? Well, I still have 1 fish in an individual tank, an uncycled, 1 gallon tank. I'm going to show you a video of the entire 100% WC. This does not include prep time, or clean up, just the WC after I have everything set up.

It is a pain in the petute. ASAP they will all be going into 2.5 Gallon minimum, cycled tanks. You can multiply the length of the video by however many uncycled tanks you have. I think I'm moving pretty fast here, since I've already warmed up.

Just food for thought. I'm not saying you're torturing your fish if you do not cycle. Just think about it.  The main reason for us hobbyists to only use cycled tanks is because sooner or later the maintenance will overwhelm you.  Bettas especially are addictive fish to keep, and probably every betta owner you know has MBS (Multible Betta Syndrome).  Uncycled tanks simply require a LOT more maintenance than cycled tanks, so if raising bettas is not your full time job, I recommend cycled tanks only.  

I would also like to note that decorations are nice, but experience has taught me that you're really better off NOT using any gravel in an uncycled tank.  If you decide to keep an uncycled tank, the only thing you should put in it is the fish, maybe a snail, and definitely some live plants, but no other decorations.  Why?  Because it's just one more thing that can go wrong.  Bacteria tends to grow in the stagnant places, especially in gravel and you run a lot higher risk of dropsy and other illnesses.  For the record, I no longer use the setup in the video below.

Here's the video of me cleaning an uncycled 1 gallon tank:

Monday, July 22, 2013

Make Your Own Betta Cave

Edit:  See final(ish) version of the betta cave toward the bottom.

I have this El Niño fern in my aquarium and it's not doing so well, so I'm hoping it will help if I can get its leaves to stick up out of the water a bit as it acclimates to being fully aquatic.  It's not looking horrible yet, just losing some of the green in its leaves.  I really should have learned more about caring for ferns before I got it, and I should know better, but it was an impulse buy on a trip to the Pestmart.  As it is, the rhizome is buried in the substrate, which is a no-no with ferns.

Here's a picture of the fern.  It's the dense green fern behind the cave on the right.

My original plan was as follows:

Thankfully a member on a request for help at Tropical Fishkeeping mentioned that placing a fern in a flower pot would probably not allow enough water flow around the rhizome, so the idea morphed into this:

This is what it looked like after I set the hole in.  I've seen a lot of people using a hammer and chisel on flower pots, even soaking them in water for days in an attempt to "soften" them.  I have not had any luck whatsoever with this method, so I pulled out my trusty Makita angle grinder and Bosch diamond blade and went to work.  I did have to file the edges smooth by hand.  Note, I also used a masonry drill bit to place a hole in the dish above the flower pot.  The hole mates with the hole already in the flower pot so later I will be able to tie a piece of driftwood above without having to soak it for days on end before it sinks naturally.  The two pieces are held together with aquarium sealant.

After the bond between the upper and lower pieces had cured, I put aquarium sealant all over the exterior of the pot, leaving the inside of the pot and the top of the dish clean.  I then covered the sealant with gravel of the same color and brand as my substrate.  You will want to press the gravel into the sealant a bit so it sticks better.  When it was done I could still see a lot of the green pot between the pieces of gravel, so I knocked off the loose pieces, coated everything in sealant again, and and applied another coat of gravel.  This is the final product, right now the project is in the final curing phase.  
I will be sure to post pics once I get the driftwood and fern tied on and the final product in place in the aquarium.

Here's a picture of what it looks like almost done.  It has gone through several revisions by now.  All I need to do is finally rinse some more gravel and place it in the top tray.  The el niño fern has been tied to the driftwood with fishing line.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Hi, I'm Crazy About Bettas

I've been keeping fish on my own now for about 6 months and I've gone completely head over heels for betta fish.  There's just so much to like about them, starting with their personalities.  My mom used to keep angelfish when I was a child and they never really interested me because they seemed interested in only 1 thing:  food.  I will not knock angelfish.  They are beautiful and I'm sure somebody can correct me and tell me all about their personalities and how cool they are.  I will say that growing up I could watch them for almost a full minute before I was completely bored and ready to move on to something else, and a lot of that had to do with the fact that the angelfish were always more focused on each other than they were on me, as if they could only see me if I had a food can in my hand.  Bettas are at the complete opposite end of the personality spectrum.  They are basically aquatic puppy dogs.  Yes, they are voracious eaters and they do beg for food, but even after their belly is full, I find they are very interested in the human world beyond their aquarium.  I can probably never prove it, but I suspect their interest in humans has a lot to do with the hundreds of years they have been raised in captivity, much like domestic dogs and cats, who are much more interested in human interaction than their wild counterparts.  

Bettas are often raised in small, solitary tanks, since they typically don't make great community fish due to their territorial nature.  There are exceptions, such as some of the wild species, which can be kept in community aquariums, and female Betta splendens can be kept together in groups, sometimes, under the perfect conditions (plenty of room, lots of hiding spots and plants, and the perfect balance of personalities).  Some bettas actually get bored all by themselves in their solitary confinement and we betta keepers have been known to resort to all types of simple entertainment.  I play videos of other fish on my iPod for my office fish, Brad.  
Here's a picture of Brad:  
He loves to see females bettas swimming around in hi-def, and he even flares out his fins and struts around to show off for them.  Then he blows a big bubble nest up at the top of his tank, just in case he gets a visit from one of the girls on TV.  He noticeably perks up anytime someone visits my desk and comes out of hiding to make sure they see him.  For my bettas at home I usually set DVDs by their tanks, preferably ones with faces and animals printed on them, and that seems to hold their interest for a while.  I even read one person on a fish forum who says she places a doll next to her aquarium and her male betta seems to stare lovingly for hours (if I run across that post again, or if you can point me to it, I'd be glad to give you the proper credit for that novel idea which gave me such a laugh).  Some people even teach their bettas to do tricks, such as swimming through hoops, which is not unique to betta fish, but still quite a feat.

I guess the last thing about bettas that makes me crazy for these little fish is the seemingly endless myriad colors and tail types they can have.  The traditional veil tail betta that most people think of with their graceful, drooping fins is actually disappearing from pet stores in many regions and being replaced by other tail types such as the crown tail, the half moon, and the delta.  The short-finned plakat can be found in a lot of places, too and I really like this more sleek look.  They are strong, fast swimmers and often times have a lot of attitude.  Generally, the plakat is bred in Southeast Asia to be a fighting fish.  I do not condone fighting animals for any reason, but I do appreciate the aggressive, macho attitude plakats can have, much like I admire a well-bred pit bull, which I similarly would never fight for any reason.  I'd much rather watch two consenting adult humans fight, if I must have blood sport.  Animals, like children, cannot consent.  There isn't enough time or space to cover all possible colors and fin types, but you can look it up yourself.  For betta information in general I would recommend 2 betta forums offhand and they are here:

Ultimate Bettas


These are both great sites for general information on betta fish, and great places to get an idea of what kind of fish you like before you actually buy one.  You will also find a lot of people here who really care about betta fish and are very knowledgeable about them.  They are an indispensable resource if your fish ever becomes sick, for example.  They will take the time to help diagnose the illness and recommend a course of treatment to save your fish.

Lastly, if, after researching proper care and housing of your fish, you decide to take the plunge and make a purchase, please don't feel like you have to be satisfied with the fish on the shelf at your local pet store (LPS) or your local fish store (LFS).  There are reputable online vendors who will ship you your fish via priority or express mail.  One such vendor which I can particularly recommend is VangsPlakat.  You can follow the link or find them here:

Bob Vang is a fellow bettabetta farms in Southeast Asia, so he constantly receives new and exciting stock.  Best of all, if he doesn't have the exact fish you want, he can usually get it in his next month's shipment.

Thanks for reading, and please don't miss the next installment:  "How I Came to Love Bettas" or "The Story of Robert the Fish"