UF Scientists Figure Out How To Breed Neon Tetras Profitably

January 12, 2001

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Aquarium hobbyists now can buy domestically grown neon tetra fish that are brighter and healthier than the imported variety, yet cost about the same, thanks to new techniques developed at the University of Florida.

For fish farmers, the good news is that the techniques finally make growing the small, colorfully striped fish a profitable venture. Farmers now can sell tetras for about 30 cents each instead of the 11 cents per fish they got when they had to compete with fish imported from Hong Kong, said Craig Watson, a tropical fish specialist with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

“Since they are coming out of good, clean, well-managed facilities, Florida-grown neon tetras are light years ahead of anything else in terms of quality,” said Watson, director of the Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory in Ruskin.

And so far, Florida-based fish farms are the only ones in the United States producing tetras in any quantity, meaning essentially all domestically grown tetras sold in the United States come from Florida, Watson said.

In a nutshell, UF researchers pinned down the precise combination of water conditions, temperature and feeding requirements that will allow the fish to spawn at sufficient levels to meet the farmers’ needs. Frank Chapman, an associate professor of fisheries and aquatic sciences, said it took good, old-fashioned basic research and observation to figure out the fish’s requirements.

“We tried to determine the type of environment they faced in the wild where they normally spawn,” Chapman said. “Now we have a pretty good idea of how these animals respond to changes in their environment.”

Chapman said neon tetras will reproduce only in slightly acidic, soft water at about 25 degrees Celsius (about 77 degrees Fahrenheit). These conditions approximate what the fish, whose scientific name is Paracheirodon innesi, encounter in their native rivers in southeastern Colombia, eastern Peru and western Brazil, he said.

One southwest Florida fish farmer said the increased quality isn’t costing consumers anything extra because pet-store owners don’t have to make up for fish that die before they can be sold.

“Even though they are paying more for each fish, retailers didn’t have to increase their prices,” said Marty Tanner, president of Plant City-based Aquatica Tropicals. “Retailers no longer have the losses typical with the imports, which can run as high as 50 percent.”

Watson said that even though producers regularly carry out research projects on their farms, it is important for the university to occasionally take the lead on these kinds of studies.

“Fish producers do a lot of research and development work,” Watson said. “But they have to carefully pick and choose what they do, because if too many projects don’t work, their businesses could go under.

“The university has a little bit more leeway than that,” he said. “We don’t like it when we do a research project that doesn’t work, but when we do one like this and it does work it’s a good feeling.”

Tanner said his farm had been having little success with the fish prior to UF becoming involved.

“We were experimenting with neon tetras but it wasn’t going that well, that’s why we asked the university to work on this project,” Tanner said. “We had been selling tetras at a loss just to sell the rest of our product line.

“Now we are actually in a profit mode with these fish and are making money on them,” he said.

Tanner said he sells 50,000 to 100,000 neon tetras each month.

Chapman said the neon tetra research was funded by UF and several Hillsborough County area fish farms.