Gone Fishing

Importing for major hotel and casino clients as well as the local pet shop, Sea Dwelling Creatures Inc. provides exotic fare from world's oceans.

By DEBORAH BELGUM

Staff Reporter

Inside a boxy warehouse near Los Angeles International Airport, row upon row of exotic fish and coral sit in plastic tanks, waiting to be shipped across the country.

There are blue-tinged maxima clams from the Marshall Islands, yellow and blue Humu-Humu triggerfish from the Fiji Islands, and black and yellow Asfur angel fish from the Red Sea. From Costa Rica, a black sappo puffer covered with tiny white dots presses its face against the tank wall.

The 24,000-square-foot warehouse and adjoining offices is the newest home for Sea Dwelling Creatures Inc., an eight-year-old business that specializes in importing and exporting marine fish and invertebrates to pet stores, hotels, casinos and aquariums. Customers include Sea World in Orlando, the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Scott Cohen launched the company out of his living room, starting with a fax machine, a typewriter and $1,200 borrowed from his mother (which he has never repaid). Since then, Sea Dwelling Creatures has mushroomed into a major importer and exporter of exotic fish and coral with 500 customers and $7 million in revenues. The company is one of the nation's largest importers of live rock an organism that looks like coral bringing in 11 & #733; tons a week of the stuff from the Fiji Islands.

Shortly after Cohen started his business, he enlisted the help of his childhood friend Brad Remmer. The two grew up on the same Woodland Hills street and had known each other since they were toddlers. Remmer, a political science graduate from the University of California, Santa Barbara, had just finished working on the campaign of former Rep. Anthony Beilenson and was looking for work. Although he didn't know much about fish, the idea of working with his life-long buddy intrigued him. Remmer is now the company's president. Cohen is the sales manager and his older brother Eric is the purchasing director.

Scott and Eric Cohen grew up in the aquarium business. Their father owned two fish stores in the San Fernando Valley: Aquatic Imports in Sherman Oaks and Tropical Waters in Northridge. "Growing up, we were either cleaning fish tanks or filling bags with carbon," recalled Scott Cohen, 34. "When my Dad sold the stores in the late 1980s, I remained a hobbyist." Later, Cohen spent several years photographing exotic fish.

Sea Dwelling Creatures' first formal office was in a modest 1,200-square-foot space in Hawthorne. As things grew, they moved two doors down to a 5,500-square-foot office on Crenshaw Boulevard, which later expanded into 7,800 square feet.

But that still wasn't big enough.

So they started scouting for new locations to accommodate the number of fish and coral they needed to house. With the help of a commercial broker, they discovered a 28,000-square-foot warehouse that Federal Express was getting ready to vacate. Securing a $410,000 bank loan, they signed a seven-year lease valued at $1.7 million early last year and moved into their new headquarters last June with plenty of space to expand.

One of the challenges for any live fish importer is keeping "livestock" alive while being transported. Usually Sea Dwelling Creatures packs its fish and coral in sealed plastic bags filled with enough water and oxygen to keep them going for at least two days. The bags are placed in Styrofoam containers encased in cardboard boxes and then filled with heat or cold packs.

That usually works as long as there isn't a major flight delay. But when air traffic ground to a halt right after Sept. 11, Sea Dwelling Creatures ran into a problem. Employees went to Los Angeles International Airport that day to pick up shipments from Fiji and the Philippines, only to find they couldn't get into the airport.

Eventually, they were able to retrieve their fish. But there also were several shipments stuck at other airports. "We were able to call some of our customers in Chicago and Atlanta who were able to retrieve our shipments and keep them alive," said Remmer. "The problem was we couldn't ship anything for the balance of the week." Remmer estimates that the shipping hiatus cost the company $25,000.

On average, Sea Dwelling Creatures ships 5,000 to 7,000 fish and coral a day to retailers in every state. "They are very reliable, very helpful and very pleasant to deal with," said Nichole Scott, a store manager for the Living Sea, a marine fish store in Park Ridge, Ill., which has ordered from Sea Dwellings for more than 10 years. "If they don't have a particular fish in stock, they will order it for you, such as a harlequin tusk, a fish from Australia that has blue teeth."

As the business continues to grow, Cohen and his colleagues want to be leaders in the industry in terms of developing better methods of collecting exotic fish in environmentally sensitive spots such as the Fiji Islands, the Philippines and Indonesia where contractors are hired to find livestock.

The business partners sit on the board of the Marine Aquarium Council and other organizations that help monitor how fish are gathered and its effect on sensitive ecologies.

"Our goal has been to create an environment in which the industry can sustain itself for the long term," Remmer said.

PROFILE: Sea Dwelling Creatures Inc.

Year Founded: 1994

Core Business: Wholesaler and importer of marine fish, corals and invertebrates.

Revenues in 2000: $6.5 million

Revenues in 2001: $7 million

Employees in 2000: 40

Employees in 2001: 45

Goal: To grow at least 15 percent a year and manage the growth.

Driving Force: A need for quality marine fish and corals from reliable suppliers.

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