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LIKE LITTLE LIVING JEWELS

From her desk in an office south of Tampa, Sandy Moore has been shopping: In Germany, Colombia, Brazil, Thailand and Singapore. She reduces her complex job to a simple sentence: "I buy fish."

Moore, 27, is purchasing director for Segrest Farms, which stocks what may be the largest selection of tropical fish in America.

"One day is never the same as the next," says Moore, who travels overseas daily via phone and fax in search of the best sources of fish in the world. "I've always got some kind of a new fish that nobody ever had before."

Global events _ earthquakes, monsoons, wars _ directly affect her work. An airline mix-up can be a catastrophe. Tropical fish are packed to survive only 48 hours.

"There is no job like this," she says. "I thrive on chaos."

But there is calm inside the commotion here. You can hear it in the voice of the owner when you dial Segrest and get this recorded message: "Howdy, this is Elwyn Segrest." His friendly drawl leads you through the phone mail maze and ends with a folksy, "Hold on, for a real live person."

Segrest, 54, is a native of Port Gibson, Miss.. From his "howdy," to the often shoeless and sometimes shirtless employees, there is a tone of comfort and practicality that might fool an outsider into thinking things are slow and easy here. Instead, it is one of his secrets of success in a demanding business.

"My grandmother gave me an aquarium when I was 5 years old," Segrest says. Eventually, "I turned a hobby into a business." After years of teaching school, he went full time into fish husbandry.

While raising fish is a major industry in the area, Segrest Farms does not raise fish. "We're a warehouse of fish," Segrest says.

The concrete-block buildings off Big Bend Road in south Hillsborough County hold more than 3,000 aquariums with as many as 6,000 varieties of fresh and saltwater fish. They also stock a large variety of reptiles and other terrarium critters.

Segrest sells strictly wholesale to dealers and pet stores throughout North America and Europe. He is proud of the quality and selection of his business' product. "We have more contacts. Our variety is more than anybody in the business, without a doubt."

His favorite answer to buyers looking for hard to find fish is, "Would you like that in small, medium or large?"

One popular item is the Painted Glass fish, a recent creation from Thailand. The Painted Glass fish can be made to order.

"They use clear types of fish," Segrest says. "They inject (the color) into their bodies. It holds for a year or more." For St. Patrick's Day, they stock green fish; for Halloween, orange and black.

For safe shipping, fish are carefully bagged, often with antibiotics and sedatives in the water. The medication used in the shipping water is a secret formula. Segrest says, "It's a chemical that lowers the metabolism of the fish. They urinate, mess in the water, bump into each other a lot less."

Freshwater and saltwater fish are housed in separate buildings. Care is very different for each. Merri Nehrboss, 37, the freshwater manager, has worked for Segrest for more than 15 years. "I have a great crew. It's like a family," she says. "We have a good time, when we have time."

She acknowledges the work is a challenge, and it has its drawbacks. "You have to get wet, dirty and stinky and touch dead fish."

Linda Walrath has worked with Elwyn Segrest the longest, 22 years. Walrath, 52, started as all sales people do, taking care of the fish. She says, "In order to sell a fish you have to know them."

Tim Hahn, 42, livestock manager, oversees the environment for all the creatures at Segrest. "Keeping the fish alive, that's my prime responsibility," he said. He claims less than a 1-percent loss rate.

Hahn, who has no conventional scientific training, learned his craft on the job. Local fish farms depend on his expertise to help troubleshoot problems endemic in the industry.

"We do lab work for other fish farms here," Segrest says, "We test their water, cut their fish open. If we can solve their problems, we won't have to deal with them here." The farm purchases from more than 150 local sources.

Hahn, who is also a poet, says, "I'm more concerned with the life aspect than the money aspect."

His approach to his job is as spiritual as it is scientific. Instinct is as important as measurements. It's the fish themselves, the life within each one, that makes Hahn's often difficult job so rewarding.

"When they (the fish) are well, they have a light," Hahn says. "Things do that when they are healthy. They're like little living jewels."

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