FISHTALEBryan Altendorf’s fascination with fish led to a peculiar profession, complete with a memorable nickname

By Lena Hewitt

Do you ever find yourself sitting in the waiting room at the dentist’s office, staring at the ubiquitous aquarium, and wondering, “Gee, how do they clean that thing?” Chances are, they call Bryan Altendorf.

Altendorf, aka “Bry the Fish Guy,” got his start in the commercial fish-tank cleaning business more than three decades ago when he wandered into a little pet shop in St. Paul called Finny Critters.

“I’d always had aquariums in my room as a kid, and I loved going to the shop and learning about all the different kinds of fish,” he says. “When I turned 14, they gave me a job taking care of the fish room, and I’ve been hooked ever since.”


Indeed, Altendorf was able to parlay his experience at Finny Critters into another job a few years later at a newly opened fish and aquarium store across the river in Minneapolis.

“I was going to college and needed a full-time job, so the timing was perfect,” he says. “I worked nights and weekends and spent a lot of time around fish, which I loved.”

After college, pursued a position that more closely aligned with his major—and was absolutely miserable. “I only lasted a couple weeks in that career field,” he says. “I couldn’t stand it and went right back to working with fish.

A couple years later, Altendorf received an offer he couldn’t refuse when his friend started a wholesale operation and asked him to join the team.

“I thought it was cool to work in a pet store that had 30 to 40 aquariums in it, but now I was taking care of more than 300,” he says.

Soon, friends and family were enlisting Altendorf’s help with their own aquarium maintenance, and he was happy to oblige.

“I take care of aquariums and fish because I love to,” he says. “It is a lot of work, but I wouldn’t do anything else.”

Eventually, he had enough clients to open his own aquarium-cleaning business, servicing commercial locations in the Twin Cities, Rochester and western Wisconsin.


What does cleaning a huge aquarium entail? Turns out, it’s quite an involved process.

“My team cleans aquariums weekly or biweekly, depending on what the customer wants,” Altendorf says. “The process includes cleaning the glass, stands and covers. We also check the aquarium’s electronics to make sure everything is working properly, and change the filter pads if necessary. We will also change out the water and check the health and wellbeing of the fish to make sure they are looking good.” After all, that’s part of the appeal of having an aquarium—healthy, happy fish to watch. Altendorf’s team will also replace bulbs, plants and rocks to ensure a properly maintained, attractive environment.


Although the core process hasn’t changed a lot over Altendorf’s 30-year career, there have been advancements in tank technology.

“Aquariums have gone high-tech, and with that is a whole new approach to taking care of them,” he says. “Some of my customers’ tanks are monitored by computers that email me notifications if there are any problems with temperature, pH balance, etcetra.”

There are also a slew of filters on the market, including undergravel varieties, canister filters and sand filters. “All these available choices means that tanks can be full and the fish are healthy, which is what our clients want,” he says.


So what’s in his dream tank? “Jellyfish tanks are a new and interesting aquarium that I have been starting up for customers,” Altendorf says. “It’s very exciting.”

He likes the relaxing nature of the jellyfish, and notes that the aquariums are round and flat and don’t take up much room. Furthermore, they can be lit with different colored lights to facilitate mood therapy.

“Moon jellyfish are the most common variety we are using, but there are others that are just
as cool.”

Altendorf also has an affinity for African Cichlids. “They are really good at taking care of their own, meaning if you ensure a healthy environment, they will have babies and repopulate the tank,” he says. “Plus, they are so bright and colorful and have cool personalities.”

Spoken like a true a-fish-ianado.

Lena Hewitt is an editor and writer who, at age 9, had a pair of goldfish named Sid and Nancy.