Betta splendens, otherwise known as the Siamese fighting fish, is a brightly colored aquarium fish that is growing in popularity among Philippine aquarists. They originate from the warm tropical climate of Thailand, as the “Siamese” in its name implies, where it makes its home in the slow-moving waters of rice paddies, ponds, swamps, and streams, where wild type bettas can be found and caught. To help them survive, bettas possess a labyrinth organ, which allows them to breathe air from the atmosphere instead of from the water.
From this wild type has emerged many different show type classes of captive-bred bettas, such as Halfmoons, Doubletail Halfmoons, Crowntails, and Giants. Animal Scene’s Cliff Sawit interviews Mark Lester Hao, who has been raising and breeding bettas since childhood.
“From what I know,” says Mark, “bettas came into the Philippines way back in the 1980s, when fish fighting started in the country.” Bettas were used as entertainment and gambling similar to cockfighting, earning it the name ‘fighting fish’. “Mostly longfin bettas were used back then. Major cities engaged in this kind of game, including Manila and Davao. The first shops imported the fighters from Thailand and Indonesia.”
Bettas are territorial, which is what has earned them their fighting reputation, and this is also why Mark keeps his bettas separate from each other unless it is time to breed them. “I have racks set up at home, with bettas housed one per tank,” he explains. “We have what we call ‘separators’ or dividers in between each tank, to keep bettas from seeing one another.” This is because bettas flare when they see each other, and overflaring will result in the fish becoming stressed, weakening their immune systems.
With the upsurge of the Internet and social media in 2008, there was a corresponding upsurge in interest in betta keeping and showing, reaching tremendous heights. “Even way before this, in the late 90s to early 2000s, we already saw organizations and clubs being formed to cater to this hobby,” says Mark. “Some of the stalwarts that I know of include Animal Scene’s Angel Ampil and Doc Brian Santos, who were officers of BCP, or Betta Club Philippines.”
“As a kid,” recounts Mark, “I already took care of veiltail bettas bought from pet shops. I think that most kids from my generation started like this in one way or another. Then again, as kids, we tend to flip-flop from one interest to another.”
How Mark got back into the betta keeping hobby as an adult is another story. “My daughter wanted to have a pet dog at home, but I felt that at her young age she was not ready to own one yet. I didn’t want to break her heart, though, so I devised this scheme of rewarding her with a pet fish for every perfect grade she got from school. I don’t know if this was a good call or not, but soon our house started filling up with bettas.”
Because of this, Mark’s interest was rekindled, and he began researching about them on the internet, where he stumbled on forums and groups engaged in the same hobby, which further strengthened his passion for it.
“Bettas come in a variety of colors and forms, which make them stand out from other fish,” says Mark. “Every time you make them flare, you will be able to appreciate the beauty of their finnage, and their fierce deportment.” This makes them ideal show fish, and there have been many betta competitions locally and worldwide.
“We have betta competitions nationwide almost every month,” he says. “The betta hobby is in full throttle, ever since the inception of BEP (Betta Enthusiasts Philippines). We gained worldwide recognition within a year of its establishment. IBC (International Betta Congress) awarded BEP the 2016 Chapter of the Year award, making BEP the first and only Asian chapter to receive this award.”
Mark used to compete a lot, both locally and internationally, before becoming certified as an IBC judge himself. “I am extremely grateful for the support of our local breeders, who helped me in my aspiration of making a mark for the Philippines on the international stage.”
IBC standards are strictly followed, both by Mark as an IBC judge, and by BEP as an IBC chapter. Some general standards in judging include dimension, condition, deportment, and finnage. Equally vital are size, symmetry, proportion, and shape. “Just like dogs are judged according to their breed, we judge bettas according to their tail type and colors,” explains Mark.
KEEPING TO THEMSELVES
Because the Philippines is a tropical country, it has similar conditions to the betta’s native home of Thailand, and this makes it easy to keep bettas in this climate. “It is not at all expensive to keep bettas,” says Mark. “I don’t put any ornaments and air pumps (in the tank), because I want to maintain cleanliness of water, and I try to keep water movement to a minimum, or nil, if possible. Fortunately, unlike other fishes, bettas do not require air pumps.” However, if you are keeping bettas just as pets, then placing pebbles, ornaments, or air pumps can be considered.
Bettas are territorial, though, and prefer to be alone. “However, I have never experienced my pet betta attack other fish that are larger than him. Some fish that I keep together with my pet betta include tetras and plecos, but preferably non-tail-nipping fish are best. I can’t guarantee that all bettas would get along with these types of fish, though,” he cautions. Still, as long as the other fish stay clear of the abode of these territorial fish, then they should be free from harm.
“Bettas make bubble nests when they are happy and their conditions are very good,” adds Mark.
Mark cautions against some mistakes beginners often commit when keeping bettas. Often, they forget to acclimate the fish before releasing them into their new home. Bettas are tough, hardy fish, but they are still sensitive to sudden environmental changes. Use tap water and make sure that the temperature matches the water the betta is already in; otherwise, it may go into shock and die. Do not use distilled water, as this lacks the minerals that the betta needs. Slowly introduce the new water into the old water, to avoid stressing your fish, and then pour all of the water into the new container that will house the betta.
Another common mistake is forgetting to place covers or dividers between betta tanks. “Remember that bettas flare when they see each other,” reminds Mark. “Overflaring will weaken their immune systems because of stress.”
Finally, Mark strongly warns against overfeeding your betta, which leads to swim bladder disorder. Also known as swim bladder disease or flipover, swim bladder disorder interferes with a fish’s ability to stay afloat, or to stay at a certain water depth without the need to constantly swim and expend energy. A fish with swim bladder disorder may float with its nose down and its tail up, or might sink to the bottom of the aquarium or float to the top. This is sometimes caused by parasites, or more commonly by constipation induced by high nitrates, due to overfeeding.
A BREED APART
“There is a misconception that it is hard to breed bettas since they kill each other,” says Mark. “Breeding bettas is easy. The challenge lies after breeding, which is raising the frys.”
Mark outlines his own process for breeding bettas:
- Prepare a tub that is not too big, to make it easy for the male to find his mate, but not too small, to prevent the female from getting clobbered. Provide proper conditioning, and put ketapang or almond leaves extract, locally known as Talisay leaves.
- Make sure not to have too much current on the water or blowing air on the surface or around the tub, to avoid getting the bubble nest destroyed. Leave the male and female alone to have their own time, and do not monitor their activity 24/7. “I’m sure we wouldn’t want someone monitoring us as well,” jokes Mark.
- When it is time to breed, the females will profess vertical lines on the body, while male bettas will form bubble nests where the eggs will be placed. The male will wrap its body around the female to squeeze the eggs out and fertilize them. “You will then see the male pick the eggs up and place them on the bubble nest every time they fall,” says Mark. Because of this, he recommends avoiding high water levels to help the male. “4 inches of water is enough,” he says. “Once you see the presence of eggs in the bubble nest, take away the female carefully, to avoid causing too much water current. When the eggs become fry, take out the male as well.”
SICK AS A FISH
Bettas get sick, just like any other fish. Common betta illnesses include the aforementioned swim bladder disorder, fin rot, pop eye, velvet or gold dust disease, ich or white spot disease, fungus, and dropsy.
“If your betta fish is inactive and swims indifferently, then there must be something wrong,” Mark explains. “Always keep your tank water clean to avoid common diseases caused by bacteria or fungi. Food intake should be just right, and not too much, to avoid swim bladder disorder. It’s a good idea to sprinkle a pinch of rock salt every time you change the water. Remember that an ounce of prevention is always better than a pound of cure.”
This appeared in Animal Scene magazine’s May 2017 issue.