As gar anglers, we know that gar are fascinating fish; armor-plated, snaggle-toothed spears.
Many of the traits that make them desirable as a sportfish are the same traits that make them desirable as an aquarium fish. They are beautiful, intriguing, unique creatures. Also, as aquarium residents, they are hardy, easy to feed, easy to care for. They tolerate a range of conditions with regard to oxygen levels, temperature, and clarity. A skilled amateur fish keeper can raise healthy gar. In Japan and other parts of Asia, gar, especially rare forms like the gold, black, or platinum gar are highly prized and command thousands of dollars.
As with much knowledge of gar, information is unclear about collecting them for the pet trade. One thing that is known is that since most of the world’s gar species are found in the U.S., this is a local issue. It seems that most gar in the aquarium trade are wild-caught. Only a few instances of captive-bred gar were found. In many states, including Florida where much of the collection is done, a commercial fishing license is needed to gather “non-game” freshwater species. Often, the young of the year are collected and cultured, that is, raised up on mosquito larvae until they reach a saleable size of 4”-6”. They are then sold through pet dealers or, lately, they show up for auction on eBay.
Could the collection, transport, and/or sale of gar harm the species? None of our sources, Bob Wattendorf of Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Commission, Jan Hoover of the North American Native Fish Association (NANFA), Dan Conklin of the Florida Aquarium, the Official Science Advisor of GASS, Jamie Ladonski, or skilled fish keeper Ray Wolff feel that natural gar populations are threatened by the aquarium trade. They indicate that this trade in gar is very limited. Except for huge alligator gar, gar populations are healthy. Those taken for the pet trade constitute only a tiny fraction of all gar. Ray Wolff points out that seeing gar in an aquarium helps educate the public and therefore they will be more likely to support measures that truly help gar such as reducing pollution or improving habitat.
Releasing gar that have grown too big for safe or easy keeping may be a problem, however. Officials in Sri Lanka have considered banning the importation of alligator gar for the pet trade after many have been released or have escaped and have threatened native species. Even within our own country, gar could be released into a habitat where they are not native.
If gar are kept, it is the keepers responsibility to see that they remain healthy. Only the smaller species, shortnose, spotted, or Florida gar, should be in amateur collections. Longnose and alligator gar grow far too large for anything but professional aquarium displays. A longnose will outgrow a 75-gallon tank in as little as 18 months. The old idea that a kept fish will grow just as large as its enclosure is not well-supported. These are simply fish that are stunted by poor nutrition or disease.
Keeping a gar in an aquarium is just another way of knowing this fascinating critter that we gar anglers encounter as a scrappy battler on the end of our line.
-----by W. P. Meyer
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