Under layers of thick blue plastic and netting, surrounded by rolling hills covered with grapevines and just down the road from the Biblical Tel Lachish, Izchak Staretz is building a better fish.

In large, bubbling blue PVC vats, Staretz’s charges go through their morning paces, tiny orange, white, black and spotted specks in a tub of warm water the key to his and Israel’s getting one fin up on the competition in the race to fill the world’s aquariums.

Across Israel, others like him are turning former agricultural land into fish farms, spurring Israel’s gradual swim to becoming a big fish in the small pond of the world’s providers of ornamental fish. Today, their products are increasingly finding their way into the dentists’ offices and outdoor ponds of the world, particularly in Europe.

“If someone buys a guppy today in Europe, there are very high chances that they will bump into our fish, says Ofer Carmeli of the Agrexco-Mag Noy marketing company, noting that Israel currently has almost 40 percent of the guppy market in Europe. And if 10 years ago, Israel was 10th in the world in revenue from ornamental fish, today it ranks fourth, according to Carmeli, who serves as Pets Products Exports and Marketing Manager for Agrexco.

So how did Israel latch on to turning little fish into big money? According to Carmeli, the branch took off in the late 1980s, beginning with hobbyists who decided to turn their love of the multi-colored creatures of an amazing variety of sizes and shapes into a business.

A little luck helped, too. Singapore, which until then had been the world leader in producing ornamental fish, suddenly had a problem with its fish which may have been caused by a virus. The vacuum left by the depleted Singapore stock was just the opening Israeli exporters were looking for.

“The Agriculture Ministry started to convince breeders and hobbyists that this could be a profitable business,” Carmeli recalls. “But there was very little know-how about it – how to raise them, what kind of facility to build, which techniques to use. The first years were years of learning, of making mistakes, investing money and sometimes going bankrupt. Nothing was properly arranged. Only around 1996-8 did the business really settle down to become a proper economic branch in Israel.”

Mag Noy pioneered the field in Israel, launching the first serious exports of ornamental fish in 1984, and partnered with Agrexco in 2001, according to Carmeli. While initial earnings about a decade ago were around seven million dollars a year, mostly from coldwater fish, today that figure’s doubled to 13-14 million, with two other major exporters – Hazorea Aquatics and Sundag, the latter based in the Arava just north of Eilat – besides Agrexco-Mag Noy.

Reliability and better methods of raising the fish are the key to Israel’s ascendance in the field, particularly in Europe. Whereas their competitors in the Far East still mainly raise their fish on traditional farms, using mud ponds dug in the ground which offer little chance for monitoring illnesses and quality, Israel’s fish farms use controlled, indoor systems.

“You can end up with the same product, but you can minimize the problems and be a regular supplier,” explains Carmeli. “The main parameter in this field is the health of the fish. Because if you are breeding a beautiful fish, but it arrives at the client dead or sick, it doesn’t do you any good.”

European wholesalers who sell mainly to chain store providers of the fish have come to appreciate the reliability of the Israeli suppliers, and the strength and quality of the fish themselves.

Now creativity is also forging Israel ahead of the pack. With men like Staretz working on designing a better guppy, the sky’s the limit for Israel’s ornamental fish enterprise. By altering the color, design – such as the direction of stripes on a fish, or the number of dots on its nose – the former cow maven has become an expert on turning out aquarium fish that have his European customers begging for more.

His son Yoav’s study of genetics helps the family effort, explains Staretz, who runs the Star Fish farm on Moshav Shekef. “I have 48 different colors of fish, some of which I breed separately, some of which I breed together in mixes,” he says proudly. “If I once had 12 colors of swordtails, today I have 12 variations on those colors. That’s a major advantage. People tell me: “You’re the only ones who have that fish.”

Walking past his vats and looking inside lovingly, he stops to examine the hatching station, where live births are taking place and where parents are quickly separated from offspring to prevent them from eating their young.

Staretz takes his time to examine each vat, as he once did in his cowshed during his years on Kibbutz Galon as a dairy farmer. Every vat has a bar code displaying the name of the fish, which include one with three dots on its nose, which look like the profile of a famous Disney character and yielded its name: the Mickey Mouse fish.

“Breeding tropical fish was very suited to the dairy farmer’s mentality,” he says, stopping to adjust the filter on a tank full of sword-tails. “A person in charge of a dairy farm has to oversee three milkings a day – you basically have to live like a cow. So now we’re living like fish.

“We have to feed them, look after any diseases, which must be caught even before the fish is allowed to get sick. We watch them to see if there is any change in their behavior, if they’re eating patterns are different. We’re here from very early in the morning to the night, when we ship them so they can still make the early morning flights to Europe.”

They don’t lick you and there’s no bond established between you and the fish, which you have with a cow that you milk three times a day, says a smiling Staretz, who first learned about fish farming from a neighbor at Moshav Shekef, where he lives, but then started his own enterprise. But you still get the joy of dealing with living beings, the responsibility that comes with taking care of their needs.”

On average, the fish remain with the farmers for about five months before being shipped with the help of Agrexco, which helps Staretz and other suppliers identify markets and provide just what the waiting stores – and the aquarium or fish pond owners – are seeking. Facilities at Ben-Gurion Airport make it easier to prepare the fish for shipment to markets. Today Israel, via the three main consortiums, supplies a variety of fish, including guppies,, platy, angel fish, and dwarf South American cichlids. Koi, the Japanese carp popular in outdoor ponds, are also being produced.

“To be more attractive to clients in Europe, we are trying to expand the range of fish that we have,” says Carmeli, citing molly, angel and discus fish as hot items. He takes pride in the Israeli effort, even though often it goes unnoticed by the fish’s ultimate owner. “You can’t put a label on the fish, like on an avocado,” notes Carmeli, “so most buyers don?t know the fish’s origin.”

Nonetheless, reliability and ingenuity is serving Israel well against strong competition still offered by countries like Malaysia, Singapore, Czechoslovakia and even Italy, the latter two benefiting from their greater proximity to European markets, the first two relying on low manpower costs.

With Staretz and others like him ready and willing to surface with their own designer fish to aid the blue and white effort, Israel’s ornamental fish effort is on the bubble of becoming a major success. As Carmeli says, “You can find more and more clients saying I must work with at least one exporter from Israel because that’s where the future is.”