He’s a prawn star: Meet the ornamental shrimp hobbyist with a mission to educate and share
Benedict Tay was scammed of several thousand dollars when he first ventured into the ornamental shrimp keeping hobby due to the dearth of information and gatekeeping of practices in the community. He is now on a mission to break down the barriers and educate new hobbyists to save them from being taken advantage of.
A tiny critter with a glittery blue carapace flits about between the tangled foilage and nestles itself in the gaping maw of a Tyrannosaurus rex toy. Elsewhere in the tank, another blue crustacean is perched on top of gravel, its antennae actively surveying the water. Peering through the glass, Benedict Tay smiles as he surveys the shrimp scurrying around scavenging for food in 17 other adjacent tanks.
These freshwater creatures grow up to 2cm in length, have a lifespan of two years and can cost up to S$5,000 each. And no, they aren’t meant to be eaten – they are pets called ornamental shrimp.
Ornamental shrimp have been a thing in Singapore for a while now, but many in the aquarist hobby world remain hooked on the pastime over the more conventional option of fish, all thanks to some shrimp breeds that offer interesting colour variations that range from rarer metallic sheens to the more generic red, blue, white, green, and yellow.
One out of the three breeds found in Singapore is called Caridina, and according to Tay, it is an especially exciting one to rear because of the unpredictable colour mutations that selective breeding can create.
“The favourite part of keeping shrimp for most people is to see the ‘shrimplets’ – baby shrimps – from the pair (of shrimps) you bred. Because when you start to crossbreed them, you never know what the outcome will be – (it could be) a new colour or pattern of shrimp, so it’s like a suspense and people like that kind of suspense,” he said.
“Caridina shrimps have very interesting behaviours and (colour) mutations. For example, some Caridina shrimps like the Boa, in the morning they may seem a metallic blue, and then at night, they can change colours. It is amazing to see,” the 38-year-old mused.
But another major factor as to why some prefer shrimp over fish is that shrimp keeping is low maintenance.
Tay, who kept fish for some 15 years before, made the switch over to keeping shrimp when he had to begin traveling more for his job in the agriculture machinery industry. With the mounting demands of his job and family life, he was unable to keep up with caring for fish and found shrimp breeding to be “much easier” and a less demanding way to continue his passion for aquarium hobbies.
“Fish need a lot more time to take care of, like breeding the food for them to eat … and they cannot go without food for a long time. (Shrimp) don’t eat a lot because they are scavengers. So, if I were to travel now, all I have to do is feed them once before I travel, and when I get back, I just feed them again. It’s really easy because they are quite self-sufficient,” he said.
The only obstacle to rearing freshwater shrimp is that they are extremely sensitive to water conditions, Benedict acknowledged.
“There is challenge in that they require optimum water parameters – like the right temperature, water that is of a more acidic pH, zero levels of ammonia as well as certain levels of chemicals for them to breed. For example, if you just want them to survive, they don’t have to be in chilled water. But if you want them to breed, the temperature has to be below 24 degrees Celsius. So, if you are able to be very disciplined with the water parameters, then shrimps are far, far easier to keep.”
The hack behind keeping shrimp seems to be rooted in automation as well: Tay’s 17-tank setup that sits in a dedicated room off his kitchen was one that he carefully designed and built before he moved into his new home six months ago with his wife and two children.
It is a small space, but it is designed efficiently to house several tanks on shelves, accommodate automated lighting systems and automatic water changers that drain and replace water from the tanks with the help of gravity. The roughly 3m by 3m room also has air-conditioning for the Caridina shrimps that tend to thrive better in cooler water. It is what Benedict calls a “controlled environment”.
“The whole setup keeps one thing in mind: to make sure the end-to-end process for breeding the shrimps is shortened. When the process is set up right, I don’t (have to) spend time making adjustments and doing water changes … I can spend a lot more time enjoying the hobby rather than trying to do this and that,” said Benedict, who now only spends about 15 minutes a day checking the system.
The rest of the time, Benedict says he enjoys just standing in the mini oasis of trickling water and lush greenery watching his tiny shrimp scuttle about their tank.
‘I WAS SCAMMED BECAUSE OF MY LACK OF KNOWLEDGE’
Benedict has a wellspring of knowledge about shrimp keeping now, but he let on that his first foray into the world of ornamental shrimp six years ago didn’t go swimmingly – he was scammed of a few thousand dollars when he bought his first shrimps.
He had excitedly sought out and purchased some Black Fancy Tiger Caridina shrimps that are known to sport bold stripes, but when the shrimp bred and bore young a few months later, Tay realised that the shrimp he had been sold for a large amount of money was different and not of the pedigree he had been promised.
“Even though I kept fish for 15 to 16 years before I went into shrimp keeping, I was still scammed because of my lack of knowledge (about shrimp). The breeder didn’t have sufficient knowledge, and he sold me something that was not the correct species. He said (it was done) unknowingly, but it is the breeder’s prerogative to learn sufficiently before they sell,” Tay recounted wistfully.
"There are sellers (who) are probably opportunistic and unequipped with sufficient knowledge, but they want to come in and make some money anyway."
He was swindled out of about S$3,000 and while the whole encounter left him feeling angry and annoyed, it did not help that he was in completely uncharted waters and unable to find any information online about anything regarding rearing freshwater shrimps.
While Tay declined to go into detail, he mentioned that information and knowledge about shrimp keeping in Singapore is often restricted by gatekeepers such as other shrimp vendors who want to keep their tips a secret, due to how small the industry is.
“It is actually the breeders’ right to share the information with the person who is buying (the ornamental shrimp) from them. It’s very dark because they will say things like, “you paid for this information, so don’t share it with other people”,” he revealed, showing this reporter screenshots of such conversations between sellers and customers that he acquired.
In a last-ditch attempt, Tay turned to ornamental shrimp exporters and breeders in Taiwan for help, and after searching high and low, managed to find a breeder in Taichung who was willing to share everything they knew about the shrimps. From there, he learned the basics, gradually applying everything the Taiwanese breeder taught him and successfully managed to keep his shrimp alive and thriving.
But Tay wasn’t content with stopping there. The continued dearth of information about shrimp breeding for other enthusiasts as well as what happened to him inspired him to go beyond just being a hobbyist – he decided to start a website and dedicate a YouTube channel to impart everything he had learned on those keen on dipping their toes into the world of ornamental shrimp – at no cost.
His priority was sharing the wealth of information he had gleaned to “expose scammers”.
“I was scammed in the beginning when I was just starting out and I don’t want people to go through what I went through. That’s why I set up Shrimp Sanctuary as an educational platform, where I share all the information for free,” he said.
Now, Tay regularly writes articles that are chockful of tips, makes videos about the dos and don’ts about shrimp keeping and even puts together tutorials that help everyone from novices, all the way up to seasoned shrimp hobbyists.
Looking back, Tay doesn’t think much of the S$3,000 he lost because of other cases he has encountered: He revealed that tearful customers have approached him about losing much larger sums of money to dishonest sellers.
“When the initial craze of keeping shrimps began here, prices went up to S$10,000 for one shrimp. As these were usually for investments, people bought the shrimp with the plan to breed them and sell because if you create a new colour of shrimp, you will be able to command the price,” he said.
“…and some customers that came to me, they came crying and telling me that they lost S$30,000 to S$40,000 at one-shot to a similar scam that I experienced. Like me, they too realised it too late … and I really pity them. Usually after they get scammed, they quit (the hobby) immediately.”
“The market is very small, so (scammers) want to capture the current clients by doing a lot of scam jobs. So, I want to educate people to not fall prey to these kinds of scams to prevent them from losing five figures,” he said.
ONE STOP SHOP
While others are interested in buying expensive shrimp to enter competitions and win titles to achieve certification and sell their own shrimp, Benedict says he is just intent on “bringing the level of the shrimp keeping hobby higher”.
When COVID-19 hampered his usual travels to Taiwan to buy shrimps, Tay applied for the necessary licenses and permits to import shrimp for his own personal collection, as well as acquired a retail license to sell imported ornamental shrimp at his physical store in Bukit Timah.
Now a modest seller of ornamental shrimp, Benedict also takes it upon himself to personally educate his customers before he sells them the tiny critters. He goes as far as to invite potential customers to his house to learn from his setup first.
“People come over to see, to learn and I share everything with them. I make sure that their tank and their water parameters are tiptop – I do this for every single customer,” he said. “I just want to make sure that people enjoy the hobby to the max.”
“Sometimes, I reject people from buying the shrimps – especially when their tanks are not ready. When people buy a tank, they would be very eager to put shrimps inside immediately, but it takes a minimum of 40 days for the water to cycle and rid of the ammonia in the water. And if (as a hobbyist) they cannot wait those two to three months, it says a lot. So as a seller, I also do my own assessment because I don’t want the shrimps to die – they are lives after all.”
Tay also guides shrimp hobbyists all over the world in countries like Finland, The Netherlands, and Poland, and he reckons meeting and talking with people who have the same interests is one of the most interesting aspects of the hobby. In that vein, his goal for Shrimp Sanctuary is to educate hobbyists in every country with the content he puts out.
“I cannot teach everybody, so if I can teach at least one or two people in each country and really guide them, they will be able to in turn guide others in their country later on,” he said.
For those starting out in shrimp keeping, his top three tips include: Finding a reliable mentor who can guide you, being resilient during the learning process even if the shrimp die despite your efforts and having a “never give up attitude” that will see you through to eventually having happy and thriving shrimp.
A common misconception is that ornamental shrimp keeping is expensive, but Tay maintains that isn’t the case at all as not all ornamental shrimp go for five figures – there are affordable options that begin as low as S$5 per shrimp that beginners can start with.
“You can start off with S$80 to S$100 for a tank. If you want to go into the Caridina space, and you are able to invest in a chiller, then you can start off with any of the shrimps. That’s the expensive part, because a chiller can easily cost between S$100 to a few thousand dollars. If you don’t want to invest in a chiller, then you can go with Neo Caridina shrimps because they can survive without one,” he said.
“Even if you just buy 10 shrimps, once they breed, you will soon have a lot.”
SHRIMPLY THE BEST HOBBY
Ornamental shrimp keeping doesn’t appear to have any age limit either, since both of Tay's young children, Jake and Kate, join their father every day in the dedicated shrimp room when he is tending to the tiny critters. Both children enjoy feeding the shrimp a lot, he said with an approving grin, because they get a thrill out of watching all the shrimp in the tank cluster together to snag the food.
Naturally, it is no surprise that six-year-old Jake has his very own tank and shrimp. In fact, the tank with the Tyrannosaurus toys belongs to him.
“I asked them if they wanted their own tank and brought them to the aquarium shop to choose what shrimp they wanted. Then, they built their tank. I just let them be creative, whatever they wanted to put inside the tank – Jake wanted a dinosaur – so we put it inside!” chuckled Tay.
About his two-year-old daughter’s tank, he said: “Kate needs a bit more time because she is still too young, but her tank is already in the room ready for her. She did already pick out her tank herself though.”
Aside from being a family friendly hobby, Tay believes shrimp keeping is a destressing and relaxing one too.
“When you get back home from work and sit in front of a tank full of shrimps, seeing them feeding and scavenging helps you to destress. There’s always something interesting or new (to see) because shrimps are similar to dogs – like how dogs run around and play,” he said.
“Of course, these pets you cannot touch, but you do get to see them grow big. And when they start to thrive and breed, and there is a ‘shrimplet’, oh, that’s where the excitement is.”