The Delta cargo terminal at Logan Airport receives all sorts of shipments, like caskets, pharmaceuticals, artwork, automobiles, and tropical fish. That last one is what interests ReBecca Savard. Her fish come from a California wholesaler who brings them in from such faraway places as the Philippines, Hawaii, the Red Sea, and other locales.
A recent delivery included nearly 400 live fish in 20 boxes. The fish are bagged with water and oxygen and put inside Styrofoam boxes, with a heat or cooling pack to keep temperature regulated throughout the flight. When the fish land at Logan, they’re sent to an Ashland warehouse, the home of Fish Works, an aquarium maintenance and installation company run by Savard. Her office is located in the freshwater fish room, where tetras, swordtails, mollies, and angelfish dart about in bubbling tanks.
“We don’t have a lot of heat in the shop, so the fish tanks help keep us warm in the winter,” says Savard. Dry-good supplies — filters, media, chemicals — are in the next room. Another storage space is filled with decorations, silk plants of various colors, ornaments, and fake corals. Nearby, there’s the saltwater fish area, with more tanks lining the wall, and down the hall, there’s a cleaning and bleaching center where a high-pressure water spray is used to clean plants and equipment.
All of this paraphernalia illustrates what aquarium owners know from experience — fish are sensitive creatures, and keeping them healthy isn’t easy. But Savard, 51, is always up to the challenge. She says the job requires her to be a chemist, biologist, electrician, plumber, weight lifter, and vet — “and not be afraid to touch something dirty.”
When Savard was working in a pet store more than two decades ago, one particular customer kept buying fish and asking for advice. Eventually he asked if she could come to his house for a fee and take a look at his aquarium set-up. That led to her to getting into the aquarium services business.
Fish Works cares for about 350 tanks in the Boston area every month, including aquariums in libraries, doctors’ offices, and restaurants. Her staff includes other fish geeks like herself who are both hobbyists and marine biologists. Running Fish Works, she says, is a labor of love, and it’s a high-overhead operation.
In person, it’s immediately obvious that Savard is a fish fanatic — she wears fish earrings and fish rings, and has fish paintings throughout her house. But not just any old fish. “I am very picky about depictions of fish — and the actual environment in which they live. It has to be realistic,” she says.
The Globe spoke with Savard about her fishy business.
“I got my first fish tank when I was 10 and have had one ever since. I got bigger and bigger tanks throughout college, and when I had my own apartment, I owned a 125-gallon and 75-gallon. I like a lot of ugly fish — there’s the loaches, spotted catfish, and others. I seem to pick the really rare, expensive ones. One of my favorites is the Achilles tang, which can cost $300 and are very hard to keep alive.
“I am fascinated with fish and can sit and watch them for hours — they are much more interesting than TV. Fish have personalities, maybe not as much as a dog or cat, but I had a catfish for 18 years, and it moved with me from place to place. I do get attached to them — it does seem like they recognize people, but it could be that they’re thinking, ‘Ooh, it’s a shadow, time for food.’
“I might not know what street my client lives or how long they’ve been a customer, but I know what fish they have in their tank. We take care of tanks as small as 30 gallons and as large as 500. With these larger tanks, I’m looking at the weight-bearing capacity of the floor; checking heating vents, windows, and looking at where outlets are located. The automated filtration system might be on a different level, so the piping needs to be set up. I like the tank to be as automated as possible, with automatic water refills, light timers, and auto feeders, to give owners freedom from caring for the tank and to allow us to concentrate on the fish and livestock.
“We are dealing with living creatures, and there are always different issues. The newest problem is finding nitrates in a town’s tap water. A few years ago, it was the phosphates.
“I get creative in what we use to clean the tanks. Toothbrushes work well and a cake tester [can be used] to clean out the protein skimmer intake. I’ve contacted many a company outside of the industry, to be met with ‘you want a what?’ Hospital grade tubing, check valves, pool supply filter cartridges, hundreds of feet of shelf contact paper.
“We have six vans on the road to meet all our clients’ needs. All of my license plates say Fish Works in different ways: Fshwrx, Fshwrk, Fshwkz, Fshwks, fishwk, fshwxs. The DMV only turned one down — I tried to do a plate that said fish4u, but it got nixed.”
Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.