Thursday, 2 August 2012

New tank? Tell us!

One of my maroon anemonefish
The title of this post is what I wish pet shops would have as a sign in an obvious place.

A colleague came to me yesterday to ask a non-work related question. On the weekend she had bought some fish, apparently on a bit of a whim, and they didn't seem to be doing too well. When she asked if I knew why it was a fairly easy guess - New tank syndrome had struck. Today she said one had died, and two others had been released into a pond in the garden where they should be fine, unless they are predated upon by the crab that apparently lives in there.

New tank syndrome is very well known within the hobby, but unfortunately quite a few people deciding to get into it don't find out about it until after it has struck. The short story is that fish excrete ammonia (both from their poo and their gills) which is highly toxic to them if it builds up in the tank. The role of a filter is break down this waste by hosting beneficial bacteria that convert the ammonia into nitrite (which can also kill fish - particularly freshwater ones), and then convert that nitrite to relatively harmless nitrate, which is removed through water changes. The beneficial bacteria take time to enter a new tank, and it can be a few weeks before a new tank is ready to host fish. The process can be sped up by buying bacterial cultures such as Nutrafin's Cycle, and these products are reportedly improving. I haven't tried them, but have read positive reviews.

My recommended solution would be to get some live filter media for your tank. When I start up a new tank, I open up one of the Fluval 305s I have on a few of my tanks and take a third of the media to start the new filter. No waiting required! Bacteria from the old media colonises the new media in the filter so quickly that fish can be hosted straight away.

So if you are buying a tank, try asking the shop if you can get some old filter media to start your tank going. Even a small amount will introduce the necessary bacteria to your tank and they will rapidly colonise your filter. If the shops can't give you some, ask an acquaintance who has an established tank.

On occasion I have daydreamed about opening an aquarium shop, and thought that if I did so I would set up a large water container with trays of media and an air pump to move water through it. I would pour some pure ammonia in every now and again to feed the bacteria, and just keep a nice clean colony that customers could raid. A good size colony would be cheap and easy to maintain, and the main filter for shop livestock would not need to be raided. I don't know if any of the local fish shops do this, but it would be nice if they did.

I've told my colleague that if she is going to try again she should let me know and I'll give her whatever media she needs. I'm sure most people would know someone that has a tank and would be similarly happy to help out.

So, my main messages are:
  1. Fish need filters! Some species, such as bettas (Siamese fighting fish) or goldfish, can survive without one (though gravel in their bowls can give some filtration), but they will be happier and healthier with one.
  2. Filters need to mature and have bacteria living in them before they can support fish. When buying a tank, plan to either wait a few weeks while the filter matures (you will need to dose it with ammonia) or get your hands on some mature media.

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