Crystal Reef Aquatics: saltwater aquarium shop serves niche market

Aquariums and fish tanks are notoriously difficult to maintain. Julian Friedman, owner of Crystal Reef Aquatics, said technology is making it easier.

Inside the front door of the warehouse-like space he shares with Northern Lights Gardening at 4159 Hannegan Road, tanks blooming with colorful coral and other invertebrates fills a shelf.

The 8-gallon tanks rely on water movement to keep their marine ecosystems in balance.

“What we have here is a glass box with a pump in it and a sponge filter,” Friedman said. “I have these to show people you don’t necessarily need to have all the fanciest gear.”

The fanciest gear is just around the corner. An 8-foot-wide tank that serves as Friedman’s portfolio to potential customers houses multiple varieties of coral and bright fish and crustaceans including firefish goby, arrow crab, and astrea snail.

A computer system controls the tanks’ lights, feeders, pumps, and cameras, which all connect to the cloud through the shop’s Wi-Fi signal. When Friedman isn’t at the shop, he can monitor his aquarium tank online. It’s the latest in aquarium technology, and popular with serious hobbyists.

“It’s an additional fail safe. You can give it a succession of parameters and what you want the system to do to mediate problems,” Friedman said. “People are more likely to succeed in this day and age with technology.”

Friedman, a former fish tank hobbyist with a garage full of aquarium equipment, serves a market of high-end, saltwater aquarium enthusiasts. His specialization draws customers from as far as Bellevue and Seattle, he said.

“Bellingham itself isn’t a big enough market yet,” Friedman said. “But I’m such a niche thing that people travel. My biggest market outside of Bellingham is actually Oak Harbor, which is well over an hour away.”

Eight to 10 other aquarium shops in the state focus on saltwater, Friedman said. A saltwater-focused shop is rare compared to a coffee stand, he points out, but not so rare that he doesn’t have to strive to be better than his competitors.

One thing that makes Crystal Reef Aquatics stand out is Friedman’s ethics, he said. The marine life in Crystal Reef Aquatics comes from all over the planet. Mostly, Friedman buys from a distributor in Los Angeles that he said has a short supply chain. Most creatures in the shop are wild-caught, and Friedman tries to buy sustainably caught or aqua-cultured fish whenever he can.

Before opening the shop Friedman and a former business partner, whom he bought out in June (Friedman is currently the sole-employee at Crystal Reef Aquatics), went to Los Angeles to meet potential distributors and tour facilities.

He wanted to meet people face-to-face before starting long-term business relationships. Some of the distribution centers they toured were “big buildings with dead fish everywhere,” Friedman said. He wouldn’t have known that without visiting.

Friedman prides himself on his quarantine process. The back of his shop has about a dozen tanks with new fish. They stay in the quarantine tanks for three weeks to a month and a half, depending on what kind of treatment they need.

This process reduces the chance of spreading disease. An advanced hobbyist may have hundreds of dollars worth of fish in their tank at home.

“Let’s say a $60 fish comes into your aquarium with a parasite that infects the rest of your fish, and over the next couple months they all die,” Friedman said. “Well, then that $60 fish actually cost you $760.”

The quarantine process is expensive and requires Crystal Reef Aquatic’s prices to be higher than other stores.

Retail is the majority of Crystal Reef Aquatic’s business, but Friedman also designs, installs and services aquariums.

“I have to be a vet, plumber, electrician, systems designer–this is a really challenging job in all regards,” Friedman said. “I’m passion-driven at this point and this is something I love to do.”


Julian Friedman, owner of Crystal Reef Aquatics, cleans the outside of a display tank. The tanks pumps, feeders and lights are connected to the shop's Wi-Fi and can be controlled online.
Julian Friedman, owner of Crystal Reef Aquatics, cleans the outside of a display tank. The tanks pumps, feeders and lights are connected to the shop’s Wi-Fi and can be controlled online.



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