Coleen Brown doesn't know every species of fish. But she has figured out the ones that the super-rich want in their home aquariums.
On a recent morning, Brown, an inspector with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, arrived at a warehouse near Los Angeles International Airport to inspect a shipment of sea sponges and fish from Australia. With a six-inch knife, she ripped open a Styrofoam container and pulled out a plastic bag filled with salt water and a large, orange-striped fish.
"I'm looking for coral and clams that aren't supposed to be in here," she said.
From the far reaches of the globe, rare, high-priced tropical fish and coral are catching the eye of a growing number of celebrities and mega-millionaires. Some have taken up the hobby, while others simply look at an aquarium as a showpiece.
The growth is fueling a significant business in Los Angeles that's comprised of fish importers, high-end retailers and installers of large aquariums for the home. Some of the fish retail for as much as $10,000 each.
"Every week, you would not believe how many shipments of tropical fish come into the U.S. at LAX it's astronomical," said Erin Dean, special agent with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Torrance. "It is a lot of the wealthy people who are buying these things and driving up the supply."
Nowhere is business bigger than for installers of high-end aquariums that typically sell the highest-priced fish in Los Angeles.
"People have always had aquariums in their houses," said Peter Messinger, owner of Aquarium Co. Inc., which installs 1,000-gallon aquariums, plus the fish. "But now, there's more money. When people remodel their million-dollar homes, it's a drop in the bucket to put $50,000 to $100,000 into a fish tank."
Messinger said one of the biggest collections of fish in Los Angeles belongs to Viacom Inc. Chairman and Chief Executive Sumner Redstone, whose den houses almost 300 species of fish and who, according to Messinger, can name every kind in his tanks.
Among the rarest Redstone owns is a pair of Conspicuous Angelfish that sell for about $6,000. "He has every angelfish known to man," Messinger said. "If there was one for sale legally, he would buy it in a second. And he wouldn't care how much it cost."
Other fish aficionados include Ford Motor Co. Chairman and Chief Executive Bill Ford and billionaire Bernie Marcus, founder of Home Depot Co., who recently plunked down $200 million to fund a new aquarium in Atlanta.
Art Demergian, store manager and operator of All the Fish You Can Wish in Sherman Oaks, said he sells fish for up to $3,500 a piece to celebrities around town (Redstone is one, according to Fortune magazine). "Some people collect fish, and they are looking for a particular fish," he said. "Some of them just order the fish and send their fish guys who know more about fish."
Robert Shapiro, former lawyer for O.J. Simpson and a partner at Christensen Miller Fink Jacobs Glaser Weil and Shapiro LLP, admits he knows almost nothing about the fish that fill his aquarium at home. He recently tried to take a Lion fish out of his tank after it attempted to eat his Blue Damsel fish (two fish that experts say should not be in the same tank).
"This beautiful mane on the Lion fish became pinpoint needles, and I got stung three times," he said. But, he said, the fish are "mesmerizing to watch" and "the colors and shapes are absolutely incredible. Just the way they move is hypnotic."
Egos in play
Just as paintings are an expression of personal taste and wealth, the choice of fish, whether rare or expensive, can display one's version of beauty. "Dare I use the word 'egos'?" said Jim Stime, owner of Aquarium Design, a Thousand Oaks-based aquarium installer who has sold sharks to the former members of Motley Crue. "A lot of ego is part of an aquarium. It's, 'Look what I have.' Those who can afford it, whether they're hooked or talked into it, they're the type who will buy these aquariums."
Some fish cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars because they are few in number or have reached potential endangerment. Sometimes, the countries governing the waters where the fish are located have restricted the number that can be exported. Those fish, which require special permits to be exported from their home countries, go for much higher prices.
Seahorses, for instance, were recently added to the list of fish that need special permits. As a result, the wholesale price of a seahorse has jumped from $10 a piece to as much as $90, said Scott Cohen, co-owner of Sea Dwelling Creatures, a wholesaler of aquarium fish. (Retailers often double or triple the wholesale price.)
Other fish are more expensive because they come from remote parts of the world. A genuine Black Tang, which may retail for almost $1,000, only comes from Christmas Island in Micronesia.
Freight costs play a role in prices. Most fish arrive in shipments of 50 to 100 boxes and require a $250 inspection fee. "Certain regions from Hawaii pay $1 per pound to get here," Cohen said. "Fish from the Red Sea and Africa and Japan cost $8 to $10 for freight."
One of the quickest ways to drive up the price of a fish is to make them illegal to sell. A few years ago, Mexico instituted laws prohibiting the taking of Clarion Angelfish from its waters.
Now, Clarion Angelfish sell for upwards of $2,000 a piece.
Those prices have created a growing underground market for high-priced and illegal fish. Earlier this month, a San Pedro man pleaded guilty to smuggling 160 Clarion Angelfish into LAX by failing to declare them to federal authorities. Because they were smuggled, Craig Lightner, a broker for a large wholesaler in Los Angeles, faces five years in prison. (He also faces 10 years in prison for pleading guilty to smuggling 70 illegal aliens from Mexico.)
Many importers obtain fish that arrive without necessary permits, a misdemeanor that could cost $200,000 per shipment and a year in jail, said Marie Palladini, resident agent-and-charge at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife in Torrance. Failure to declare fish to U.S. authorities, which happens monthly, is a $250 fine.
"There is a growing interest in aquarium trade," she said. In the past, reptiles and birds were previous favorites of smugglers. "People want rare things in aquariums, such as seahorses and corals."
And many of those end up in the boxes that travel in the belly of passenger planes bound for Los Angeles. Brown, who issues about one daily violation a day to local importers, said most of her job involves searching for undeclared rare fish that get slipped into boxes.
With only seven inspectors, she can hardly keep up with the demand for rare fish. On a given day, she only has time to inspect a few boxes, even though most shipments arrive in bundles of 50 to 100 boxes. Brown, who became an inspector three years ago, readily admits: "The sheer volume I wasn't prepared for."
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