Painting Live Tropical Fish
Why Responsible Pet Stores Don't Have Painted Fish
(The First Tank Guide)
I neither encourage nor condone severe cruelty to animals, even to small helpless fish (or, maybe that should especially to small, helpless fish).
Several varieties of fish are being artificially colored to improve marketability. Amongst these fish are the Colored Skirts, Painted Glass Fish, Painted Tiger Barbs, Jellybean Parrots, and Colored Botias.
The practice of artificially coloring live fish, also called painting, juicing, or dying the fish, appears to have actually started in the late 1970s with the Glass Perch (Chanda ranga or Chanda wolfii), also known as the Indian Glassfish, the Indian Glass Tetra, the Glass Tetra, or simply as the Glassfish, being injected or "juiced" with stripes of bright colored pigments along their dorsal and ventral lines. Though this produces a very striking looking fish, the hobbyists of the day quickly realized that this coloration was artificial, and protest throughout most of the US and Western Europe appeared to have eliminated these fish from the hobby, to everyone's relief (except, possibly, the suppliers).
However, in the late 1980s, this fish worked its way back into the marketplace. This time either people are less concerned about the welfare of these animals, or there are enough shops that are more interested in the bottom line than the welfare of the animals they sell, that they do not appear to be disappearing from the market, but this affliction of juicing or dying has spread to many other species and varieties.
The "Painted" Glass Fish is not a natural color morph. Small pockets of dye are injected just below the skin using a large gauge needle. The puncture wounds inflicted on these fish must be traumatic. Unlike a tattoo, the wound does not heal with the new pigment dispersed into surrounding cells, but the dye appears to remain liquid in the pockets where it was injected, until such time as the dye has worked its way out of the body or the fish's immune system has eliminated it. Of the few of these fish that survive this process, most will die within the two months following the trauma, and most those that still survive will have lost their coloration within six to ten months. Only about 10% of the fish that survive for sale will keep their coloration for any length of time. The practice of painting these fish has nearly eliminated the availability of the unpainted variety in the pet industry.
Other fish that are colored by man to improve saleability:
- The lutino and albino morphs of the "Black Skirt Tetra" (Gymnocorymbus ternetzi) are injected with dyes and fed dye laced foods as fry to produce Blue Skirt Tetras, Red Skirt Tetras, Pink Skirt Tetras, Purple Skirt Tetras, Blueberry Tetras, Grape Tetras, Strawberry Tetras, Raspberry Tetras, Patriot Tetras, Halloween Tetras, and Mixed Fruit Tetras.
- Some "Skunk Botia" (Botia morleti) are injected with dyes and painted to produce purple, red, and blue loaches. Another botia, Botia lecontei, is also sold as a blue loach or blue botia, and is not dyed - though there is also a painted blue botia (B. lecontei) is now available. Apparently the natural blue wasn't blue enough.
- Painted Tinfoil Barbs (Barbus schwanefeldi) are available, though I could not tell the difference between the painted and non painted versions with three exceptions - the painted ones had a darker eye, the painted ones seemed to have difficulty seeing (they would bump into stationary objects in the water), and I could not get a painted one to live over three months...
- Red Painted Tiger Barbs and Green Painted Tiger Barbs are produced from gold, albino, and red color morphs of the Tiger Barb (Barbus tetrazona) that have been injected with red and green dyes (I do not know why there don't seem to be artificial blue, purple, or black versions of these fish, maybe that's just a matter of time). The particularly odd thing about these (and this is frustrating as well) is that there are perfectly good red, green, and black varieties of these fish available through selective breeding, and often it is not clear from a supplier's list whether the fish your pet shop is ordering is the dyed fish or the natural one...
- I have also learned that the Bala Shark (tricolor shark) is being dyed to produce a "Gold Bala Shark." I have not actually seen one of these fish.
- Blood Parrot Cichlids, which are either a Red Devil with a spinal deformity or a hybrid between the Red Devil and a Sevrum (though the former seems more likely, as this is similar to what creates balloon bellied guppies, mollies, and platies; and a deformity that is seen in several other cichlid species) are being injected to produce Red Parrots, Violet Parrots, Blue Parrots, Purple Parrots, Green Parrots, Gold Parrots, Yellow Parrots, Jellybean Parrots, and Valentine's Parrots, among others..
- Albino morphs of the Oscar are being painted to produce Blue Oscars, Red Oscars (though there is also a Red Oscar that is not painted), Yellow Oscars, Blueberry Oscars, Gold Oscars (though I understand that there is also a Gold Oscar that is not painted, but has a more yellowish tint to the normal salmon to orange coloration), and Purple Oscars.
- Albino Palaetus and Aeneus cory catfish (Corydoras paleatus and C. aeneus) are being injected with dyes to produce colored spots on the top of the caudal peduncle between the dorsal and caudal (tail) fins. These are available in blue, green, red, orange, and purple.
- Honey Gourami are being injected with blue dye between the caudal and dorsal fins on the top of the caudal peduncle to produce a Blue Sunset Gourami and a Green Sunset Gourami.
- Albino Plecostomus (Hypostomus spp.) are injected with dye to create the Blue Albino Plecostomus. This is the only color I have seen, however, I would be sure that there are green, pink, purple, yellow, and the other colors you see in other painted fish.
The carcinogenic pigments used on the colored tetra and colored botia are stored in vacuoles in cells creating a faint background color. The more intensely colored areas are created by injecting the fish with more of the dye in strategic locations. The fish's immune system then proceeds to fight this infection until the dye has been removed from the system. This added stress makes these fish highly susceptible to any other infection which they may be exposed to, since they are unable to defend themselves from it.
In almost all of these situations, the coloration of the animal eventually fades, but only those specimens hardy enough to survive significantly after the fact. If you are interested in glass fish, I recommend that you look into getting glass perch (not painted) they are very hardy, and interesting, and your purchase of them does not encourage the inhumane treatment of animals. Unfortunately, laws preventing cruel treatment of animals only apply directly to mammals, though some can be extrapolated as far as birds or occasionally reptiles (though reptile protection is as close as you can get to unheard-of), and never apply to amphibians or fish.
In addition to the cruel treatment these fish are subjected to, these processes are performed by untrained laborers paid below poverty level wages in third world countries. By purchasing painted fish, you are not only encouraging cruelty to animals, but encouraging these appalling work conditions. Remember, never purchase any animal at a pet store if you feel sorry for it - this just encourages a store to get another to replace it.
Responsible pet stores will not knowingly order these fish, even on special orders. There are many beautiful fish available which have not been colored by humans which will do much better in your home or office aquarium.
Aquarists should also be aware that there are many fish that are called "painted" that are not actually dyed, but are natural coloration. Among these is the Painted Platy and its cousin the Painted Swordtail. Many fish with impressive coloration come that way naturally, such as Neon, Black Neon, Cardinal, and Glolite Tetras, any of the Alunocara "Peacock" Cichlids, Guppies, Discus, many Rainbowfish, many Killis, and Goldfish and Koi. I strongly encourage consumers to purchase only naturally colored fish and to request that pet stores in your area not carry painted or dyed fish should you see any.
Here are some links to sites with further information on painted fish and the cruelty involved in this practice:
Painted Glass Fish from FINS: The Fish Information Service
Painted Glass Fish and Other Questionable Practices from Badman's Tropical Fish: Submitted Articles