“As a kid growing up I’ve always been into fish,” recalled Tom Sharkis as he tended the 125-gallon aquarium in his Danbury home. “I always had a tank. It is pretty soothing and chill. I think everybody should have a fish tank.”
And while Sharkis would grow up to pursue a career as a corporate chef, his love for aquariums never abated. “I used to breed fish,” he added. “I had 10 tanks in my condo for that.”
Sharkis gave up fish breeding but five years ago he refocused to launch a business designed to help people who shared his love of aquatic creatures. “I’ve always been into it, so I thought why not start up a business and get compensated for it while helping people out,” he said.
Sharkis’ Shark Attack Aquarium Maintenance LLC serves a Fairfield County customer base of aquarium owners who need help maintaining their residential fish tanks. Sharkis views himself as more of a teacher than a piscine janitor.
“I like to help people out and show them the potential of what their aquarium could be,” he said.
Sharkis explained that saltwater tanks require more maintenance than freshwater tanks, and he remembered one client who would always unplug the filters from her saltwater tank because she felt they were making too much noise.
“She wasn’t really on top of her game with her maintenance,” he lamented. “I was like, ‘You can’t play games, you can’t just unplug wires.’ So, I changed her set-up. She had sand in her tank and it kept screwing up her filters. We had to pull that out and I redid her whole set-up. She’s now doing the freshwater and she’s totally digging it.”
He noted that both saltwater and freshwater tanks require time, patience and money to ensure everything goes (pardon the pun) swimmingly.
“It is an expensive hobby,” he said, noting the need to keep temperature levels and the water currents consistent. “You need to have things moving and grooving — there’s a whole mess of gizmos on there. It’s like building a Mustang. There are so many add-ons you can put on these tanks.”
There is also the problem of cleaning an aquarium too much. With freshwater tanks, Sharkis advised that “you want to siphon off the gravel, because all of the waste and what-not goes to the bottom. But you don’t want to do too much, because there is beneficial bacteria that grows and if you remove too much you’re going to have issues.”
The biggest problem Sharkis encounters in his work are aquarium owners who are too generous with their meals.
“The greatest mistake I see is overfeeding,” he said. “The fish can go for a couple of days without food. And with certain fish you have to be careful. If you increase the temperature, it speeds up the metabolism of the fish so they can grow faster. But it also breaks everything down faster — warmer water means less oxygen.”
Part of the services offered include consulting on which fish are best paired together for temperament and the aquarium owner’s budget. “Certain fish are a roll of the dice — they can be pricey,” Sharkis said, noting he lost $150 within three days on two fish whose life expectancy turned out to be more abbreviated than anticipated.
The company initially included pond maintenance as part of its service offering with most of those duties involving koi fish ponds. But Sharkis opted to drop that service due to the intensity of the labor.
“Ponds are no joke,” he warned. “I attempted to do one for a woman in Salem, New York. She was like, ‘I have a pond.’ She had a lake — it was about three car lengths wide and maybe about six long and about 12 feet deep. And she had a weed problem and wanted me to pull them out. I suggested that she call the Candlewood Lake diving group to pull out the weeds.”
Sharkis charges $85 an hour for his work with a one-hour minimum charge. He had a website but opted to jettison it in favor of a Facebook page that gave him more online traffic and a better opportunity to post videos and interact with potential clients. He also uses Thumbtack to promote his business and he attracted inquiries from as far away as Brooklyn and New Jersey but turned them down because he felt the commute from Danbury for a one-hour job was too far.
Sharkis handles his calls on weekends – he has no plans to hang up his corporate chef job – and he uses his home as his business base. “I have no overhead,” he observed.
Perhaps the best tribute to his enthusiasm for aquarium care involved a doctor whose tank Sharkis maintained for a year. The doctor went from being a passive observer of Sharkis’ work to a curious student and then a do-it-yourself enthusiast who took over maintenance duty. But Sharkis had no ill feelings for the client’s departure.
“He was definitely into it, like myself, and sometimes you want to get your hands into it,” he said.