Keep swimming at Gerber’s Tropical Fish

By Terri Gordon

If you are looking for Dory, John Gerber, owner of Gerber’s Tropical Fish in Moraine, will not only know where to find her, but he will know how to get her from there to here, and he’ll know what it takes to take care of her—the food to feed her, the types of fish she likes to hang with, and everything else she needs to live happily and healthily ever after. And, you can rest assured that she will have been brought to you in the most conscientious and ethical way possible. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

The story begins in Buffalo, New York, with a six-year-old boy and his dad. Young John Gerber’s father liked fish and had aquariums in the home. Gerber often tagged along when his dad went to visit a college buddy—George—to buy and swap fish. George raised fish and had many more fish tanks than Gerber’s dad. It made quite an impression on the young boy.

“My dad had, like, 20 aquariums in his basement,” Gerber recalls. “It was his hobby, and on the weekend, we’d go visit [George’s]. He had, like, 1,000 aquariums in his basement. He had about two inches of water on the floor, and fish had jumped out of the tanks. And so, fish would be swimming between your legs—little swordtails and such. I’d pick them up and put them back into their tanks.

“One day when I was doing this, I just stood up and told my dad, ‘This is what I’m going to do the rest of my life.’ I just was so in love with fish and fascinated by them.”

Gerber stayed true to his word. Eventually, the family moved to Dayton, where Gerber worked in pet stores throughout junior high, high school, and college. He set up “30 or 40” aquariums in the basement to breed fish to sell to hobbyists and pet stores. He sold enough fish to make the payments on his first car – and to help with college costs. Graduating from the University of Dayton with a degree in accounting, Gerber went to work as an accountant. He knew it was not his life’s work, but it was good experience for what he did want to do—own his own business. Dad’s old friend George, now a wholesale distributor, acted as a mentor, connecting Gerber with operations around the world that provide fish. In 1988, Gerber opened his own wholesale business. At first, he bred and sold freshwater fish. He sold these to local shops and chain pet stores. The business grew, and soon Gerber was supplying stores throughout Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and Michigan.

But most pet stores didn’t want to deal with saltwater fish. They were too finicky and too expensive. Hobbyists wanted saltwater fish. So, to supply that demand, Gerber added retail to the mix—this time, marine. He still had the wholesale freshwater store, but now he had two rooms going side-by-side. It was a good fit. As time went by, though, the chains began reducing the varieties of fish they carried. Instead of the 150 kinds they’d started with, they now offered 40. People looking for more exotic types of fish began begging them of Gerber. Again, he supplied—and opened his freshwater business to the public, becoming Ohio’s largest fish store, by volume, in the process.

There are trials and tribulations to any business—staying competitive, employee issues—but these diminish to minor annoyances when your business involves living entities, when delayed flights can mean death to coolers of fish. Those same flight delays can make a day end at midnight instead of 6 p.m., turning an eight-hour day into a 12-hour one. That is more the norm than the exception. After a string of such days—and nights—Gerber found himself fixing a snack, television blaring. He sat to eat and pivoted toward his own home tank. Mesmerized, he got caught up in the activity and realized what he’d been doing only after some time had passed.

“If you can do something 12 hours a day and come home and watch a fish tank for another hour, you must really love what you’re doing,” he remembers thinking, shaking his head and laughing. “I must have picked the right job.”

The business has surely changed in the 28 years since Gerber first opened his store, but more the hobby itself has changed. Tanks and filters and heaters and lights have all become more sophisticated. They have become more efficient and more user friendly. Knowledge has helped the industry become more eco-friendly too. Shipping has been fine-tuned to reduce stress and loss of life. More fish are being bred in captivity, preserving wild populations, and the ability to propagate corals and “live rocks” has reduced the amount harvested from ocean reefs.

This takes us back to Dory. With the success of Disney’s latest blockbuster film about a blue tang seeking her family, marine conservationists worry that demand for the fish will affect ocean populations, and that many of these fish will end up dead as the trend wanes and children lose interest. But the tropical fish industry has been through this before—and they learned from it. According to Gerber, the phenomenon has actually helped conservation. After Disney’s “Finding Nemo” spiked in popularity, demand for clownfish was so high, fish farms figured out how to breed them. This not only leaves the wild populations undisturbed, it is just generally more efficient and cost effective. Other innovations in coral propagation and the creation of “live rock” are also helping efforts to preserve ocean ecologies. Gerber says 98 percent of his freshwater fish are captive bred, along with 98 percent of his clown fish (think Nemo). These new methods not only help preserve the oceans, they make more accessible a hobby that is currently trending. Movies like “Finding Dory” and shows like Animal Planet’s reality TV series Tanked, which follows aquarium designers Brett Raymer and Wayde King, are helping promote the hobby, while industry changes are making it easier.

Another factor bringing the fish hobby out of basements and into the mainstream is information. The world wide web has allowed buyers and sellers alike to share and gain information. Aquariums have moved beyond the ubiquitous 10-gallon tank of tetras and guppies as knowledge about fish preferences and care techniques have grown. Diversity has increased. Tanks are easier to manage, and healthier—and healthier tanks mean longer lives for the creatures they contain. Less tank turnover lets people afford to be more adventurous. It’s a win-win.

Watching the industry change over the last 40 years or so is Paul Roberts, not quite 60, of Dayton. His first aquariums were freshwater—until he went scuba diving in the Florida Keys. Then, he went saltwater. He was about 19 and would bring live fish back with him to fill his aquarium. Back then, there weren’t so many serious “reefers” and everyone knew everyone in the hobby. Roberts heard of Gerber and often turned to him with questions—though Gerber’s store was wholesale freshwater at the time. Still, Gerber always seemed to know the answers, and over time, their interests merged. Gerber went saltwater, and Roberts sometimes sold him extra fish. Now a customer, Roberts hasn’t harvested anything for some time and has become concerned about the reefs that made him fall in love in the first place. He’s glad to see new methods replacing the old.

“Captive-bred fish and corals is definitely the way we need to go,” Roberts says. “Captive-bred fish and corals that are cut and regenerated [making many corals from one piece] are generally the better way because our reefs are dying. Even in the years I’ve been going, I’ve seen even the Florida Keys have gone down—and most of the Florida Keys are protected marine sanctuaries!”

Roberts has downsized from the 310-gallon built-in aquarium he once had. He now maintains a 75-gallon fish tank, and the 180-gallon tank that holds his reef. To understand a reef tank, it is best to see one, but one way to think of it is to take all the ceramic corals and rocks found in typical tanks and exchange it out for the real thing—a veritable slice of the ocean right there in your living room—corals, live rocks, clams, crabs, and an abundance of other things. Oh, yes, and fish.

“You know, your rocks are alive,” Roberts explains. “They have things growing on them and all the coral is alive. When you buy a piece of coral and put it in your aquarium, there are little crabs and crustaceans that will come out. You don’t see them, but shine a light in your aquarium at night, and you’ll see all sorts of little ‘hands’ and things coming alive on the coral. It’s pretty awesome.”

Fish enthusiasts are a devoted lot. Chris Holman of Newark, Ohio, drives 240-mile round-trip “about every two weeks” to, you guessed it: Gerber’s Tropical Fish. “I love the set up of the store,” he says. “It reminds me of how the show Tanked is set up when they go get their fish.”

Holman has early memories of the look in his mother’s eyes as she watched her freshwater aquariums. He started his own as a young man—a 29-gallon freshwater tank.

“I am 41 now, and I still have that fish tank today,” Holman says. “Now, as an adult, I sit and look at my tanks for hours, and my son loves having them, too. He wants to help take care of the tanks, so me and my older son, who is now four, started [a] 29-gallon bio cube for him. It just puts a warm spot in my heart to watch my one-year-old’s and my four-year-old’s eyes light up when they watch the tank—like when I looked at mom’s eyes light up when she would watch her tanks for hours.”

Holman, too, has saltwater reef tanks, a 135-gallon, a 90-gallon, and the 29-gallon bio cube he set up for his son.

And the gazing for hours at swimming fish? Seems there’s something to that. Several studies now have shown that it lowers blood pressure and relieves stress.

“It’s just the serenity of it,” Roberts says. “To sit in your living room and see a living reef and the fish swimming around—it’s like you’re put into a different world, and it’s gorgeous. There’s all sorts of studies on how much it lowers blood pressure and relaxes people. And it’s the truth. And today’s world is just one stress after another, every time you turn around.”

So, about Dory. Blue tangs are more sensitive than clownfish. While the breeders are working feverishly to farm raise enough to supply potential demand, they aren’t there just yet. So, go see the movie. Get your tank set up and ready—it takes about a month to get the environment stabilized—and be patient.  She’s right around the corner, and when they finally, consistently, are able to farm-raise the blue tang, there will be plenty for everyone. If the industry learns as much from “Finding Dory” as it did “Finding Nemo,” it will be worth the wait.

Gerber’s Tropical Fish is located at 2279 N. Moraine Dr. in Moraine. For more information, please call 937.297.0515 or visit

Freelance writer Terri Gordon writes across a range of topics, including nature, health, and homes and gardens. She has a masters in English and occasionally teaches college composition and literature. Her neglected blog, WordWorks ( offers a sampling of her work.
Reach her at Terri 


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Terri Gordon
Freelance writer Terri Gordon writes across a range of topics, including nature, health, and homes and gardens. She holds a masters in English and occasionally teaches college composition and literature. Her blog, WordWorks ( is a "bulletin board" of some of her favorite things.

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