Inside the fishy world of NYC’s aquarium obsessives

Around midnight the auctioneer threw up his hands in dismay.

“Tough crowd!” he shouted. “Where are my saltwater people? Unbelievable!”

On the block, a stupefied yellow tang — one of the world’s most popular aquarium fish, who prefers a brackish environment — swam suspended in a clear plastic bag. On his head was a starting bid of $10. It was a fraction of the retail price of $50 and up for a two-inch specimen. But no bidders were biting — yet.

Brooklyn Aquarium Society president Steven Matassa shows off the saltwater tanks in his Marine Park home. From his dad down to his grandson, Matassa is part of four generations of fish fanatics.Annie Wermiel

It was business as usual at a lengthy Friday evening meeting of the Brooklyn Aquarium Society (BAS) where a crowd of about 100 hobbyists had convened for their monthly confab at the New York Aquarium in Coney Island.

It’s an ideal spot to plumb the depths of New Yorkers’ obsession with aquariums.

The pastime manifests itself across the city in forms high and low, eclectic and chic (think massive, awe-inspiring displays at area hotels). Aficionados include local collectors with dozens of tanks, as well as high-end interior designers and installers for posh pads.

But at the BAS meeting, members wanted to grow their collections — and discuss them ad nauseam, of course. The next parcel up for bids: a monster pearlscale goldfish (which can weigh up to two pounds!) sparked a fierce price war, finally going for $95 to a man in the back of the packed room.

The sophistication of the craze has ramped up in recent years.

“Back when I joined in ’74, this was known as a goldfish-and-guppy club,” says former club president Joe Graffagnino, a freshwater stalwart who has 37 tanks in his Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, home. They are mostly used for breeding exotic fish, including the rare wild betta, a colorful specimen with impressive fins.

Joe Graffagnino has 37 freshwater tanks in his Brooklyn…

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