By Neil Johnson - May 30, 2022



Inside Jerimiah Lambert’s downtown Janesville store, under blue LED lights, glowing neon specimens wobble, sway and appear to breathe in glass tanks filled with bubbling salt water.

Lambert is an aquarist and seller of dozens of varieties of live coral and tropical fish. He’s spent 10 years learning how to nurture and grow live reef coral for saltwater aquariums.

The former auto plant employee has grown a hobbyist’s collection of live corals. And he’s amassed knowledge of how to take care of at times fussy ocean coral—a type of invertebrate that splits the wickets between plant and animal.

Lambert has quietly operated Badgerland Saltwater, 11 N. Academy St., as a mineral and rock shop and niche business—fish and live coral, mainly the saltwater kind, for two years.

Badgerland Saltwater is the only pet shop in Janesville that offers an array of corals and tropical fish, and it’s one of just a few such brick-and-mortar shops in the region.

“There’s really nothing like this nearby unless you go to Milwaukee, Chicago or Madison. A lot of people drive hours to come downtown here for fish or coral,” Lambert said.

Early in 2020, Lambert said he took a buyout from the Chrysler auto plant in Belvidere, Illinois. He decided after joking with co-workers that he would open a fish-and-coral-based pet shop that it actually was an idea he wanted to bring to life.

In one of the tanks on a recent day, a wafer-thin fish with an arched back and beaky mouth grazed on algae growing on a pulsing xenia. That’s a type of soft, live coral that opens and closes its pale, fern-like fronds in the water with a nearly constant, mesmerizing, pulsating movement.

Lambert swirled the water around the fish with a plastic doctor’s pointer. The fish, a blue tang—also known as a surgeonfish—turned. Flapping its side fins, it began to backpedal toward Lambert’s pointer. On either side of its body, a glowing-white appendage, a protective barb, flared.

“Surgeonfish’s barbs can slice your finger open just like a scalpel. It’s how they protect themselves. But this one’s friendly. He sort of likes to be petted,” Lambert said as the fish flickered off to inspect the billowing, sausage-like fronds of an orange-colored bubble anemone.

Lambert explained that bubble anemones are a type of reef plant. Fans of the animated cartoon film “Finding Nemo” might recognize it as the wavy, gently moving coral that the cartoon’s lead fishes, clownfish Nemo and his family, use as their home.

In many of the store’s dozens of saltwater tanks, orange-and-white-striped clownfish that look just like Nemo swim around or hide in PVC pipe structures in their tanks. Lambert sells both fish and coral in tandem.

The coral itself, showcased in waist-high, open-topped tanks, is the visual focal point of the shop. Under blue lights that some aquarists believe help them to grow bigger and faster, the coral are visually captivating—some even shocking—in incandescent tones of day-glo purple, green, yellow, pink, red and blue.

Coral—that is, real, living coral—is more expensive than traditional, plastic decorative aquarium features sold to give aquariums a realistic-looking, underwater habitat.

Some coral pieces Lambert sells have a retail price of $125 to $250. It will continue to grow in size for years if tended properly. But much of the coral Lambert sells comes in small sizes for smaller, cube-style aquariums geared for people learning how to manage and feed real coral and real, tropical fish in saltwater environments.

Beginner saltwater aquarium setups cost around $500, not including the cost of the fish and the coral. Lambert said most aquarists collect and grow coral gradually.

Lambert has grown his business enough that now he has started to offer his local customers monthly services such as tank cleaning and saltwater treatments.

Maintaining a saltwater aquarium is labor-intensive, and it involves an understanding of water salt levels, pH balance, and water temperature and lighting levels, he said. Those variables must all be calculated to mimic the character of natural salt water. The lighting must be diffused and at times bluish, similar to the light a coral reef naturally gets as the sun filters down through ocean water.

Lambert has also grown his shop enough in the last two years that he is ready to expand. By August, Lambert said, he plans to move about a block to the east, to 405 W. Milwaukee St., on the downtown’s main drag.

Lambert said he will have more space at the new location, which he said will allow him to carry more equipment and stock more coral and fish—as well as add reptiles to the stock he sells.

The aquarist said he had never considered opening a shop anyplace but in downtown Janesville.

He believes the downtown’s future might be pinned to unique retail shops like his—niche sellers of items that can’t be found elsewhere.

“I could have gotten space in a strip mall. But I decided to leave that to the big-box pet shops. I think we’re different. I think we’re more at home and fit in better downtown,” Lambert said. “Plus, it’s pretty cool to see people from Chicago or the Quad Cities in Iowa come all the way here to downtown Janesville because we’ve got something here you don’t see everywhere.”

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