Keeping Fish: How Did it Start and Why Do We Do It?

Fish; they have enthralled, exhilarated, and bemused people for centuries. What is it about the scaly bodies and cold, round eyes that captivate so many? We might never know for sure.

Join us as we take a look at the history of fishkeeping, and some of the attractions of keeping these iconic creatures.

The History of Fishkeeping

For hundreds of generations, societies worldwide have kept and revered fish. The Sumerians are known as the first civilization to have kept these creatures. However, we haven’t been able to establish how successful they were, or how long they kept them for. Experts believe that they simply held the carp in holding tanks as preparation for supper, Yum!

The Koi – A.K.A the Amur Carp

fish; koi

The first record that we have of fish being kept successfully for food dates back to Ancient China, where they kept the black carp as early as 1000 BCE.

It was only around 800 years later, in 200 B.C.E., that the Japanese received some of the same Black Carp. They were known as Magoi and became the ancestors of today’s highly prized and revered koi fish. This species, Cyprinus rubrofuscus, is one of the most expensive fish on the market today. The most ever paid for a single specimen was $1,800,000.

The Goldfish

fish; goldfish

Another old favorite in the hobby is the goldfish, Carassius auratus. Initially, the goldfish was a standard silver or black carp. Buddhist fishers would find rare specimens with some golden scales among the typical colors.

As an example of mercy, the fishermen would take the live goldfish to Buddhist temples where all living things received respect.

The oddly-colored goldfish lived in dedicated ponds where the monks tended to them and fed them. Since they had no predation or starvation to deal with, the goldfish bred among themselves.

With each generation, the golden color became more pronounced, eventually resulting in golden fish. Around the 16th century, the goldfish found its way to Japan, where it became an ornamental fish. From there, it traveled via Macau to Britain, and finally America.

At one stage, the American government gave away goldfish as rewards to citizens. Over a million goldfish were produced every year by a single farm at one point in time. There is a lot more to the Goldfish story, but you can read more about it in our Goldfish species profile.

However, you should know that there are over 200 different varieties of goldfish on the market today.

The Siamese Fighter


The fishkeeping hobby owes a considerable debt to the Asian nations. Yet again, this is another species that made its way from Asia. Originally from the waters of modern-day Cambodia and Thailand, the Siamese Fighter has a long history.

Initially, the Siamese Fighter was a small, round-tailed creature that looked much like the female betta fish that we know today. Betta fish is another name for this species. Scattered reports also indicate that the fish was a lot less colorful and impressive.

Over 150 years ago, children would catch the Bettas in rice paddies in the country of Siam and put them together to watch them fight. That, of course, is how they came about their name. Today, the sales in ornamental Bettas could feed a small, third-world country.

Thousands of Siamese Fighting Fish come to markets every year, with rarer varieties selling for hundreds of dollars. The most expensive specimen ever sold fetched a price of over 1,000 dollars.

Today, hundreds of different varieties of this species exist. Varieties include the crown-tailed, double-tail, dumbo, and fan-tail. You can read more about these, and other types in our Siamese Fighting Fish profile.

Other Fish

Over the last 100 years or so, the fishkeeping hobby has taken root. Species like the betta fish and goldfish remain firmly embedded in the hearts of many. However, there are now hundreds of other species available.

Options range from the Danios and White Cloud Mountain Minnows to the ever-popular Neon Tetras and Red-Tailed Black Sharks. Some specialist aquarists even keep big fish like red-tailed catfish, stingrays, and electric eels.

And, to be honest, that’s if you look at freshwater fish. If you add marine aquaria to the equation, your horizons become so much broader. There are anemones and corals, clownfish and sleeper gobies, even seahorses! But what is it that drives people to keep these magnificent creatures?

Why Keep Fish?

In this section, we’ll be taking a closer look at the thrill of keeping fish, and what motivates people to do so.

fish; koi

The Health Benefits

Have you ever wondered why so many doctors have aquaria in their waiting rooms? One thing that is very interesting, and alone worth keeping an aquarium for is that a tank full of fish has a healing effect on the body.

In 2015, a group of experts from Plymouth University, the National Marine Aquarium, and the University of Exeter led a study.

The study found that merely being around an aquarium significantly lowers both heart rate and blood pressure levels. That’s an excellent excuse for getting an aquarium if you ask us.

The Unknown Aspect

One thing that appeals to many fishkeepers is that oceans, rivers, and other water sources host a whole world that we know little about. Even after years of research, there are still many things still unknown to Ichthyologists (a fish scientist to us lot) and zoologists.

So, to many, an aquarium full of finned friends represents the unknown, the undiscovered. Many things on our planet await our discovery. What expresses that better than creatures who live in places that we see every day but barely know about?

The Religious Spectrum


Believe it or not, there are quite a few places where religion and fishkeeping intersect. Had it not been for the Buddhist concept of Feng Shui, we would not have the goldfish today. In many Asian countries, people still respect and adore fish.

It is a belief among many people groups who believe in reincarnation that the fish is an essential part of the reincarnation cycle.

Additionally, the fish has long been a symbol of peace in the Christian community, and many Christians keep fish for that reason.

Fish have also come to be associated with mysticism since the ancient Egyptians, who were known for mysticism, kept them. Tile mosaics from Asia and hieroglyphs from Egypt show that fish and humans have traveled a long way.

Fish as Pets

fish; hand

Last but not least, fish have come to be considered pets. Thousands of adults and children worldwide keep fish solely for the joy of owning them.

Having a freshwater aquarium or marine aquarium may not be the same as having a big, cuddly dog that you can pet, but it holds a different appeal.

Firstly, if you do it right, aquariums can be ridiculously easy to maintain. Assuming you buy proper equipment and create your aquarium well, a tank can last months without more than minimal input from yourself.

Even if you go away for a week, you can set up an automatic feeder to feed your fish. Can you say the same about Fido or Max?

Secondly, fish are quite easy to house. Unlike notable exceptions, like the Kuhlii Loach and African Reedfish, most fish won’t try to escape.

You simply need a sturdy canister that can hold water, with a fitting lid. Okay, that might be an oversimplification, but fish are straightforward to house.

Personally, we’ve kept fish in everything from glass tanks to Rubbermaid containers and pickling jars. It all depends on what you need and your budget.

Of course, one of the factors that attract many people to fishkeeping is the beauty of the fish. For example, the vibrant colors of the Neon Tetra and Siamese Fighting Fish or the elegant beauty of hatchetfish.

Many fish also have a fair bit of personality. The Oscar fish, for example, and Green Terrors. These freshwater fish may learn to recognize their owners, and will often follow you from one side of the tank to the other. They’ll also come to the surface and allow you to hand feed them (if you’re brave enough).

One of our favorites is the Green Severum, or Poor Man’s Discus as it’s often called. These fish will learn to watch you and know when food is coming.

Some fish may even allow you to pet them. Yes, you heard us (technically read, but who’s keeping score), pet them.

Many large cichlids like Flowerhorns and Oscars will develop a relationship with their owners.

If you delve into saltwater fish, a whole other world of color and beauty awaits you. From the Moorish Idol to the Tomato Clownfish, the Brain Coral to the Purple Anemone, the options are phenomenal.

Many people simply love the idea of having an ecosystem in their home or office. A well designed freshwater aquarium or marine aquarium can hold various parts of an aquatic ecosystem. From invertebrates like snails and shrimp to fish and plants, you can host an entire river in your bedroom.

You can choose between keeping a species-only aquarium, with a species that has always enthralled you, or creating a bioscape. A bioscape can house several species from one place that would naturally inhabit the same water source. It can also house fish with similar requirements from many parts of the world.

The Conclusion

Wherever your interest in fish originated, and whichever part appeals to you, there’s a reason you are here. Are you new to keeping fish and considering your first fish tank? Do you have a betta fish and want something more? Or, are you looking for new species for your aquarium? Well, you’re in the right place.

In the coming months and years, this site will continue to expand and provide new information. Why not join us for the ride? Is there something you’d like to know which we haven’t covered yet? Drop us a message, and we’ll see what we can do.

Johanan Viljoen

Johanan Viljoen


Johanan is a lover of animals, and fish-charmer of note. In other words, he finds fish charming. He also has over 10 years of experience in the hobby.