Sales of aquariums, fish and fish-related accessories shot up during the pandemic, a set of circumstances consumer analysts attributed to people staying home more often and, as a direct result, angling for new and interesting ways to occupy their time.
Professional aquarist Rick Banack has been in the fishkeeping biz for more than four decades. The married father of three has a word of advice for anybody new to the hobby: don’t name your guppy or molly the way you would your cat or dog.
"I did just that at the age of seven or eight, after begging my parents to buy me a goldfish," says Banack, 61, who, as owner of Environmental Aquatic Services at 290 McDermot Ave., has stocked and maintained aquariums as large as the 150,000-litre, walk-through facility that used to welcome visitors to Club Regent Casino, and designed and built marine exhibits for tourist resorts in Florida, Belize and Antigua. (Those holding tanks you spot on your way inside Red Lobster restaurants across Western Canada? Those are his, too.)
"Then, of course, one day I came home from school and Goldie, or whatever the heck I called it, was floating upside down, which was obviously a bit upsetting to see. So yeah, if you simply think of your fish as specimens, you’re probably better off in the long run."
Banack’s life in a fishbowl began in earnest when he was 10 or so, when his grandfather built a sizable aquarium for him to replace what he had been using. Before long, he was visiting pet stores around the city that specialized in tropical fish; that was, when he wasn’t poring over book after book, absorbing everything he could on the subject matter.
Following a two-year stint at university, he caught on as a track maintainer for CP Rail. The work was largely seasonal, and he was laid off every few months, so in order to make ends meet, he began building aquariums on the side, first out of glass, later acrylic, and selling them out of his parents’ North End abode.
That pattern continued after he got a place of his own. At age 22 he quit the railway outright and opened a pet shop, Something Fishy, on Notre Dame Avenue near the Canadiana Motor Inn. He moved that operation to Pembina Highway a couple of years later, redubbing it Winnipeg Aquarium Company. He was still on Pembina in 1986 when he was approached by someone associated with the Assiniboine Park Zoo who wondered if he’d be able to assist them with a project that was in the works.
Sure thing, he said. When the zoo’s Down Under exhibit opened later that year, a monster-size tank he built from scratch was housing an assortment of metre-long sharks native to Australian waters. (All these years later, almost all the aquariums he constructed for the zoo’s Kinsmen Discovery Centre in the late 1980s are still in use, he says with a hint of pride.)
Banack had a business partner at the Pembina location. When that association ended in 1990, he took a job with Prairie Pond, an enterprise that had been building aquariums in the basement level of a seven-storey, century-old building in the Exchange District. Two years later, the owners decided not to renew their lease. He took over the premises, changed the name on a street-level door to Environmental Aquatic Services and hasn’t looked back since.
"Watch your head," Banack says, leading a visitor down two flights of stairs to his 3,000-square-foot, subterranean lair. Nodding "good morning" to a pair of workers who are putting the finishing touches on a four-metre long shellfish tank, he flips a light on in his cement-floor office quickly checks his desktop computer for messages.
On a typical day, he might be needed at a grocery store to service the filter of a lobster unit, or be asked to pay a visit to a doctor’s or dentist’s office to drop off supplies for an aquarium in the waiting room. Once when he was maintaining the Club Regent aquarium, he was summoned there in the middle of the night after a blacktip shark took a chunk out of another fish."Oh, never mind," a manager announced when he arrived 30 minutes later. The predator had, ahem, finished the job.
Satisfied his calendar is clear, he leans back in his chair and, speaking loudly enough to be heard over a soundtrack of clanging steam pipes and an AM radio, asks, "OK, what do you want to know?"
Were the present digs ever used to keep fish available for purchase a la his pet shop days? At one time, but no longer. Testament to that is an empty, 19,000-litre tank he employed to acclimatize different species. Although none of the fish that passed through were endangered in the least, there was so much "death and destruction" as a result of transporting them in the cargo hold of a plane, he closed the book on that end of things, he says, as it bothered him to no end.
Some of the private aquariums he maintains are a bit larger than the typical family-size fish tank. Without naming names, he cites a wealthy individual living in southeast Winnipeg who owns a circular-shaped tank so voluminous — 2 1/2 metres around and nearly three metres tall — that the only way to clean it is to don scuba gear and go swimmin’ with the fishies.
That isn’t a problem for his five-foot-eight frame, he notes, mentioning he has his diver certification. Anything a tad smaller can be troublesome, however, if he finds himself unable to extend his limbs once he’s fully immersed. ("Hey, that might not be a bad idea," he says, when it’s mentioned he should train his slighter-of-stature, 14-year-old twins to lend their dad a hand.)
Banack laughs when pressed for memorable fish stories through the years. His favourite occurred the afternoon he was on the receiving end of a call from a case manager at Manitoba’s Workers Compensation Board. The fellow was following up on a claim by one of Banack’s employee who had reported that he was off work because he was bitten by a moray eel he had been feeding by hand.
Why on earth was this person anywhere near an eel, the caller wanted to know. Secondly, was this a common occurrence?
"I told him, ‘Yeah, that was part of the job’ when we had the casino contract but honestly, I’m pretty sure he thought I was feeding him a line," he says, laughing.
Oh, if you think a person who’s been around fish his whole life wouldn’t have much of an appetite for the creatures come mealtime, think again. In one corner of his workspace is a vent that leads outside, and sitting directly underneath it is a charcoal grill he’ll fire up every now and again for a staff lunch of shrimp, salmon, crab… you name it.
When it comes to the sporting part of things, however, he’s never been much for baiting a hook. The only thing he enjoys about fishing is the "having-a-beer part," he says.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.