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How I ship fish

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#1 Guest_Erica Lyons_*

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Posted 11 November 2013 - 03:06 PM

Hi everybody,

I shipped out a box of fish this morning and I thought to myself, "The method I used to ship this is very different from what I used to advise people. Maybe I should share what I'm doing now and how my methods have changed." So I'm posting this here, to give you all an updated account of my shipping methods. Previous comments available here: http://forum.nanfa.o...7900#entry97900

1. Obtain a sturdy box. I used to mess around with styrofoam lined boxes, but they're hard to get a hold of, not consistent in size when you do get them, and frankly annoying to store (large, unfoldable). Now my method is to get USPS priority mail shipping boxes. I go to the post office and ask politely and they give me a box for free. Here's a picture:
Posted Image

I use the square-ish shaped box, not the rectangle.

But Erica, you ask, what about the styrofoam serving as insulation? I don't use styrofoam, but I never said I didn't insulate the box. Storing styrofoam takes up way too much space because the boxes don't fold. Instead, I use cellulose (tree) based housing insulation. You can get a big square of it from Home Depot for $10 that'll last practically forever and is easy to store away in a closet or something. I have found that storing 20 boxes worth of cellulose insulation is less space than storing 20 styrofoam lined boxes, which used to make a teetering leaning tower all the way up to my ceiling.

2. Get some bags. I've stopped using breathable bags. They're fine, there's nothing wrong with them. It's just you can totally without meaning to overpack them with water. Not overpack, like, it's leaking. I mean overpack like, "It cost $15 to ship that package? Whaaa? Why? Oh, it's two pounds." It's just too easy to do. And also, those 2 mL thick shipping bags sold on aquabid.com in the shipping supplies section are like less than $4 for 50. You just can't beat that price, even using two bags like I do to eliminate the problem of edges (I always used to worry, with the breathable bags, that a fish would get stuck in a corner and get squished. If you double bag in the 2 mL bags there are no corners and that can't possibly happen). When the fish survive just as well, why pay more?

3. Obtain heat packs if it is winter. Yes, I use heat packs for native fish. No, you don't always have to. No, you shouldn't auto-use a heat pack; if they get too hot they will cook and die. But heat packs do mean that I can ship all year round. (Not the week before Christmas! 2-3 day suddenly becomes a week and a half!) Yes, I have killed shipments of Elassoma gilberti with an unnecessary heat pack. But if the temperature range is 20-50 F, sure, stick a heat pack in there, it'll help them out. A lot of our native fish (especially the ones I breed) are from places like Florida. They don't like 40 degrees F.
I buy the 72 hour heat packs off of aquabid.com or off of the company's website once you find a heat pack company you like. I like the 72 hour ones because USPS priority mail ships in 2-3 days. Pro tip: tape the heat pack to the top lid of the package so it can't wiggle down next to the bag. Put the fish bag near the bottom of the box so it can't wiggle up and sit next to the heat pack. If the fish bag touches the heat pack it's a sure way to cook the fish.

4. Do not feed the fish before you ship. One of the very first google results for 'how to ship fish' tells you to put food into the bag so that they'll have something to munch on while they're in transit. *headdesk* That is the very worst possible advice you could give someone. In your aquarium, the ammonia that your fish excretes is converted to nitrite and then nitrate by beneficial bacteria or eaten by plants as ammonium. There are neither beneficial bacteria nor growing plants in your shipping bag, so any ammonia produced will simply stay as ammonia. And with such a small water volume, the tiny amount of ammonia produced builds up in concentration very quickly. The fish will be fine if it doesn't eat for a week. There is no fish I can think of that wouldn't survive that. But if the ammonia hits 1, 2, 5 ppm in that bag, there aren't very many fish I can that of that would survive. So, don't feed your fish before you ship it. I usually separate the fish to be shipped and stop feeding them about a day or two before they go in the shipping bag. For example the guppies I shipped on Tuesday were separated from the rest of the fish and not fed on Monday.

Certain fish I don't starve. Small fish, like Elassoma and heterandria formosa (actually, the majority of fish I have at the moment), I don't bother to starve. They're day-time-eaters, so if you ship in the morning before work like I do and just don't feed them before you bag them that morning, they're fine.
But, yeah, don't add fish flakes to the bag. D'oh.

5. Tightly secure the top of the bag to be shipped. I used to say, "Tie it and put a rubber band on it" but now that I double bag using the 2 mL bags, I think the rubber band is overkill. *shrugs* Eh.

6. Clearly label the package. I do have something to say about this. Hand write your address, and don't write fragile on it. Clearly hand-writing your label is the best way to get it through shipping un-punted like a football. You know some people do that to packages marked fragile, you just know it. I read an article about people shipping force-meters through the mail to test whether the ones marked fragile were treated nicer. They were treated worse. Article: http://www.popularme...ckages?click=pp
"One disheartening result was that our package received more abuse when marked "Fragile" or "This Side Up." The carriers flipped the package more, and it registered above-average acceleration spikes during trips for which we requested careful treatment."

7. Use enough tape. I use that clear packing tape they sell at Walmart and places. It's my go-to tape for everything, actually. Scotch tape is too tiny.

8. Secure the fish inside the box so they can't roll around. Easy to do when you're packing it with cellulose fiber.

9. Buy a tracking number and insurance. That two dollars is totally worth it. One time this person I sent fish to claimed that they never got them. I was like, "What do you mean you never got them? I shipped them to you." I ended up giving the person a full refund because I couldn't prove I had shipped the fish to them. So buy a tracking number, because that way you can't possibly get scammed. Or, if the fish end up in Siberia instead of where you wanted them to go, you can call the Siberia post office and be like, "You have a box of live fish that was supposed to be shipped to X place. Can you please ship it there?"

I have used the insurance and had a very good experience. USPS took 8 days to deliver something I paid 2-3 day shipping on. Customer got it, took a picture of the corpse, I filed for insurance, I sent them another one. It went very smoothly. The insurance is totally, totally worth it. Also, you can write "The shipping is TRACKED and GUARANTEED" on your auction. People seem to like that more. Also it eliminates the whole Dead on Arrival hoopla that I used to have to do. Now they just take pictures, I file for reimbursement, and ship them more fish. Easy.

10. Obey the law. I was pretty annoying to my local wildlife people for a while there asking them lots of very, very specific questions about what it was legal to do. I also make sure when shipping plants that they're not a noxious species or banned in the state I'm shipping to. That was a problem when I had Myriophyllum aquaticum (some people would see it as being too closely related to its invasive cousin, M. spicatum), but is less of an issue now that I have Myriophyllum pinnatum (which is native to the US and therefore non-invasive). Also, you should register which plants you're shipping with USDA APHIS. I sent them my permit form a while back and contacted them and was generally annoying, like usual. If you can't do things legally, don't do them at all. But it turns out it's easy to sell fish and plants legally, at least for me here in North Carolina.

#2 Michael Wolfe

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Posted 11 November 2013 - 04:33 PM

Sound and solid advice. Except I still disagree with the heat pack thing. But I guess that might depend on the specific fish in question. I have been really successful with minnows no matter the cold. But have had some deaths from heat so I err on the low side of the temperature scale.
Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing. - Benjamin Franklin

#3 Guest_Erica Lyons_*

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Posted 11 November 2013 - 05:24 PM

I agree that heat packs are to be used with caution. I haven't had any deaths since I started taping them to the top of the box. And if it gets up to 65 or 70, I don't put a heat pack in the box. But there are days in the dead of winter (for example today, when I shipped to Utah) where I can expect the temp to range from 40 to 60.

#4 Guest_Skipjack_*

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Posted 11 November 2013 - 05:45 PM

I would never use them either. Speeding up the metabolism uses more O2 and produces more wastes.

#5 Guest_Dustin_*

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Posted 11 November 2013 - 09:59 PM

I also never use heat packs. I do use ice packs in summer though. Just because a fish comes from Florida doesn't mean it doesn't like the cold. A lot of the common aquarium fish stay in very shallow water that can get very near freezing, even in the deep south.

#6 Guest_Skipjack_*

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Posted 11 November 2013 - 11:27 PM

There you have it, Dustin has probably shipped more fish than the rest of us combined. Heat packs, and aquarium heaters are for tropicals, not natives. Sorry Erica The rest of your advice is very good, but the heat packs are bad.

I also do not see anything about O2. Did I miss it? I used breather bags for a bit, but was much happier with the results when I used straight bags, and welding oxygen. You can get welding O2 from a local welding supply house, or if you have one near you Tractor supply company sells it. You may get away with plain air, but if you are trying to maximize the number of fish in the bag, O2 is important. I also used fresh water, aerated overnight, salt, an ammonia lock product, and sometimes "bag Buddies". The Bag buddies were probably overkill, but they have a small amount of clove oil, which slightly anesthetizes the fish. Good for very active fish. I shipped a good bit of fish, for a year or more, we packed fish every Sunday from 4-?

#7 Guest_Erica Lyons_*

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Posted 11 November 2013 - 11:44 PM

I estimate I've shipped around 200 boxes. In my entire time shipping aquatic things, I can count shipments that resulted in death on less than two hands. Of the ones I can recall:
  • two were from Christmas (one to two week delays in shipping)
  • two I had no proof they didn't arrive like I know they did (that's why I use tracking numbers now, because some people lie)
  • one either the buyer was lying (his picture of 'dead fish' was a picture of a photo tank with no spinal columns in it, not a closed bag with dead, rotting corpses in it. There is always at least a spinal column left within a week of death with no predators picking on it.) or the heat pack 'melted' them (I don't believe it. There were no corpses. But just in case I tape it to the top)
  • one time the post office took more than a week to deliver a 2-3 day package, which they reimbursed.
There was probably another time or two that I can't remember over the years. But in general, no, lack of welding oxygen doesn't kill them. I don't use a heat pack when the high temperature is more than 70 and I tape it to the top of the box so it can never touch the bag, so, yeah, I use heat packs during the winter. Tomorrow I'm shipping out a box of heterandria formosa to Illinois, where it's snowing. The high is 39 and the low is 27 F. I'm going to use a heat pack in that box.

For the people who are new at this, shipping fish isn't difficult. If you've never shipped fish before, don't let your lack of experience stop you from trying it. I don't use 'bag buddies'. I don't use oxygen. No ammonia lock. No salt. No fresh water. Just tank water, 20% of the bag water, 80% air. I put like six one inch fish in my little what must be 4" x 16" 2 mm fish bag. Yup.

Of course by saying this the box I shipped today is now jinxed and all those fish will arrive dead. wah waaaah. But in general, yeah, that's my technique, and that's my success rate.

#8 Guest_AussiePeter_*

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Posted 12 November 2013 - 03:53 AM

I used breather bags for a bit, but was much happier with the results when I used straight bags, and welding oxygen. ...and sometimes "bag Buddies".

Curious as to why you didn't like breather bags? They are the greatest thing since sliced bread in my opinion, but obviously they don't suit all situations (like spikey fish or fish that haven't been cleaned out properly [I never feed for at least two days before shipping]). But I can get 90 odd smaller fish (3/4 inch) into two small poly boxes (16 breather bags) which fits into half a regular sized suitcase. I use them for packing fish into the back of my vehicle too that I bring back from the wild, takes much less space.

I don't like having anything floating around in the bag with the fish (i.e., bag buddies), as they can get tossed around quite a bit which can abrade the fish, but maybe that is just me being overly sensitive (not that I get accused of that too often).

Erica, if your box weighs too much then put less water in your bags! You only need a tiny amount of water, the less the better (due to greater surface area volume ratios). I used to send boxes express for ~$30, think they'd weigh about 2 lbs (off the top of my head).


#9 Guest_Skipjack_*

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Posted 12 November 2013 - 08:12 AM

I had more issues with breather bags. Often they would bulge and produce a pocket. Probably from being in an unpressurized airplane cargo bay. Often these pockets were large enough to trap a fish in. The corners are issues for fish as well. When you double bag with a 2 mil. you invert one bag, and it gets rid of corners completely. If the temps get high and fish activity increases, I just don't think they breath enough. After loosing a couple bags of darters, I went back to 2 mil bags, and almost never lost another fish. Also I was shipping a fair bit of 3-4 inch centrarchids, and I trusted the double bags more with spiney fish. Weight was a factor, but the biggest thing to me was the ability to use welding O2. You can't beat it.

Bag Buddies are a tablet meant for shipping fish. They dissolve in your fresh water, help with osmotic stress, ammonia, and have clove oil, which can calm down flighty recently collected fish.

#10 Guest_Erica Lyons_*

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Posted 12 November 2013 - 09:04 AM

Erica, if your box weighs too much then put less water in your bags! You only need a tiny amount of water, the less the better (due to greater surface area volume ratios). I used to send boxes express for ~$30, think they'd weigh about 2 lbs (off the top of my head).

Mine cost between $8 and $16 per box, including insurance, cost of bags, and insulation.

For example the bag of 12 heterandria formosa that I just shipped five minutes ago from NC to IL cost:
$6.85 USPS priority speed
$1.95 tracking number and $50 insurance
$0.25 for two bags (less than $4 to buy 50 2 mm thick bags)
$0.50 insulation per box ($10 for cellulose fiber, enough for 20 boxes (totally an estimate, I have no idea how many boxes, I've still not used it up)).
$2.50 ish for the 72 hour heat pack, I can't remember exactly how much I paid.
Total: $12.05

#11 littlen

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Posted 12 November 2013 - 09:29 AM

Making sure not to stock fish too heavily per bag is a very important factor to keep in mind also. Depending on whether or not you top them off with O2 will determine if you can pack them a little heavier. We're in the process of moving the last of some 2,300 fish out of the aquarium. To say the least, the arthritis in my hands is setting in nicely.

For example, 6-pygmy sunfish in a 4"x16" bag with no salt, no O2,...no problem. The metabolism and O2 consumption of that species is low and should be ok in there for a few days. 6 of your average shiners, no salt, no 02 in the same size bag....likely to have some mortalities. A much more active species will quickly use up the available O2 in the air they were packed in if not topped off with O2. This is not always the case, but since I have access to O2, I'll never ship a fish without it.

This is all very fundamental stuff here, but most people don't ship fish and may not even think about some of these things. For fish with spines, there is always the trick of adding a layer of newspaper or even cardboard between the first and second bag. +1 for the comment about inverting the first bag when double-bagging to eliminate any corners for fish to get stuck in.
Nick L.

#12 Guest_gerald_*

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Posted 12 November 2013 - 09:55 AM

I use packing tape to eliminate corners in breathing bags when bagging tiny fish that could get caught in corners. Just twist up the corner into a point and wrap tape around it (before adding water). Then the bag becomes nearly round when filled. Or, if you have a bag heat sealer, you can seal off the corners at a 45 deg angle. Heat packs consume oxygen, so dont use a heat pack with breathing bags unless your box has a LOT of airspace, or unless you isolate the fish's airspace from the heat pack's air space with larger non-breathing bags.

#13 Guest_Irate Mormon_*

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Posted 12 November 2013 - 10:37 AM

Just a couple of notes here:\

You can get free boxes, tape, &c from the USPS website. Check it out.

I have noticed that tropicals are now being shipped, not in the styrofoam boxes of old, but in cardboard boxes lined with that silvery bubble-wrap stuff. Sure, you can BUY the insulating material of your choice, but you can also show up at PetsMart on fish day and get all the silvery bubble wrap you want, for free!

I have also been known to hit up PetsMart for free bags :-) This works only if you are an occasional shipper. I quit mailing fish a long time ago - too time intensive when your basic work week is 60 hours or more...I'd rather be collecting :-)

#14 Guest_Erica Lyons_*

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Posted 12 November 2013 - 11:20 AM

You can get free boxes, tape, &c from the USPS website. Check it out.

The url I posted under the box image is a direct link to the website for getting them ;)

I quit mailing fish a long time ago - too time intensive when your basic work week is 60 hours or more...

I agree, I stopped breeding certain species of fish and plants because the reward wasn't high enough. Thankfully there's a post office at my place of employment, so I just stop by on my way to work and drop off a box. For the more profitable fish, it's still worth it for me. I just wake up a half hour earlier, box up the fish, and ship them on my way in.

The two shipments I made yesterday and today were fish from my bucket tank, where because I'm too nice to kill them, I put the color culls in a bucket and basically ignore them. They breed in there for some reason, so yesterday and today I scooped out some fish and sold 'em.


yay bucket tank. I drop food in as I do the other tanks on my daily rounds, and every now and then I top off the water and scoop out some plants and fish. It's really low maintenance and honestly my favorite aquarium. The 12 heterandria formosa I scooped out this morning were from a few females I added a few months ago. The 12 fish were born and grew up there, without me ever seeing them until I scooped them out today. I often video tape fish, list them on aquabid as 'what you see is what you get', put them in this holding tank, and then scoop out and ship the exact individuals who were video taped. It's a pretty good system :)

If you ship fish, it's very useful to have a holding tank like this.

#15 Guest_AussiePeter_*

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Posted 12 November 2013 - 03:33 PM

I had more issues with breather bags. Often they would bulge and produce a pocket. Probably from being in an unpressurized airplane cargo bay. Often these pockets were large enough to trap a fish in.

I've never heard of a bag bulging/pocketing. I always tie them off so the bag is pretty floppy, that way pressure changes don't matter. I've not had an issue with corners either, but I tended to be shipping rainbows. Thanks for the clarification on the bag buddies too, I remember something that people would put in bags that was like a small sponge, but obviously that is a bit different to what you were talking about.

BTW, I think that pretty much most planes that carry cargo are pressurized. I know the holds on passenger planes are.

Regarding heat packs, they do use O2, but I don't think anyone has demonstrated that they use enough to harm fish in breather bags. Needs someone to do some proper experiments. :-)

Erica, I loved that link you had to folks who tested boxes being shipped around. It was a fun read.


#16 Guest_Kanus_*

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Posted 12 November 2013 - 05:32 PM

This is a great discussion, I appreciate hearing all the tips, especially as someone who has occasionally (but not often) shipped fish over the last few years. Especially since the last two or three times I have shipped or recieved fish, there has been leak issues, or the box was destroyed, or otherwise. Very interesting about the "Fragile" markings, I almost have to wonder if someone that works at my local PO has it in for boxes marked "fragile" and is treating them poorly, especially since this is a new, consistent problem.

Does anyone know where to get Bag Buddies? I've looked for them before and the only place I found was one website that said they were out of stock every time I checked, and then suddenly their website was taken down. Are these still pruduced? I've been curious about them for their calming qualities.

#17 Guest_michifish_*

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Posted 12 November 2013 - 07:34 PM

As far as I can tell Bag-buddies are no longer available. You might check out Poly Filter as I know a lot of people who use that. It looks like a sheet of polyester filter material that has something in it that absorbs pollutants. It starts out white and turns brown as it absorbs pollutants.

#18 Guest_Skipjack_*

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Posted 12 November 2013 - 07:55 PM


They do work well.

#19 Guest_Erica Lyons_*

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Posted 23 November 2013 - 10:33 PM

I took some pictures.

This is what I mean by double bagging:
Posted Image
http://gallery.nanfa...- Copy.JPG.html

Here's a picture of the insulation cellulose fiber I use. (I cover the top of the bag with it, too.)
You can see the giant roll of tape in the bottom right.
Posted Image
http://gallery.nanfa...- Copy.JPG.html

Those are heterandria formosa. I waited until they got there to post this. They all survived shipping.

#20 Guest_Erica Lyons_*

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Posted 13 December 2013 - 02:30 PM

I found out today that I can add $50 more insurance for $4. I was shipping out the seven guppies someone paid me $85 for, so I didn't feel comfortable only insuring for $50. The extra insurance is well worth it for a few more bucks (especially this close to Christmas, the season of too many packages flooding the system and some of them getting lost). Overall it only cost $9.60 total to ship it from NC to GA with $100 of insurance, plus the cost of the heat pack.

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