Whether moving home, selling to a friend, or rehousing fry, at some stage we all need to catch and transport fish. Here’s how to do it.
WORDS: NATHAN HILL
Transporting fish is a necessary evil of the hobby. It almost certainly stresses the fish. It stresses us as aquarists. On an industrial level, bad transportation can break a business. On a hobby level, it could result in losing your dream fish before you even get home.
With everything we’ll look at here, you’ll see a recurring theme — being prepared. Nine tenths of successful fish transport will come down to how prepared you and your equipment is. Plan in advance, and you’ll be able to factor in all sort of variables. Don’t leave everything until the last minute, for the sake of your fish.
Stop feeding your fish the day before transport! Empty bellies mean less waste, which will cause you fewer problems!
Nets — and how to use them!
Netting fish is an art unto itself. Retailers make it look easy (sometimes) because they do it day in and day out. They know the escape and evade techniques that individual species have and exploit them.
You won’t have this advantage, so you’ll need the most important catching tool there is — patience. Crashing around the tank will stress all the occupants. It’ll also risk breaking equipment like heaters. Worse still, if you’re armed with the wrong size net — or no net at all — it could all be stress for zero outcome.
Choose your nets to suit the job, and ideally invest in several sizes. Large nets of 25–30cm wide, for example, are good for scooping out large numbers of shoaling fish in a barren tank. Tiny nets of 5–7.5cm are only good for slow moving fry or shrimps. Using a big net in a small, decorated tank is as absurd as trying to catch Neons in a 1000 l tank with a tiny net.
For most ‘typical’ aquarium fish in the 2–10cm bracket, a net of around 15cm wide is optimal. It doesn’t drag like a big net but is still quite precise.
Get in the habit of using two nets at once. One net should be your sheep pen, while the other is the sheep dog. Keep the sheep pen net as still as possible, using the sheep dog net to coax the fish over to it, then when the fish is stuck between the two, close the gap and scoop it gently into one of the nets. Never use fast, striking motions — the risk of damage to the fish is high, and I promise you that the fish is more agile under water than you are.
Not all fish can be netted. Some, like Pictus catfish, will snag their barbed fins in the fabric. For fish like these, try using a couple of square, meshed planting pots — round pots are easier for them to dodge.
Lastly, use the fishes’ own retreats against them. Got a loach or catfish that likes to hide in a small cave? Let it hide when the net goes in, and then scoop out the whole cave, catfish and all.
When moving catfish or any fish with sharp spines, use sticky tape to give curved edges to the pointed corners of your bags. This will stop fish getting trapped in there and puncturing the bags.
Bags or tubs?
Just like catching fish, retailers make bag tying look effortless. It really isn’t. It’s an acquired skill and you likely won’t have it.
Bags are cheap and easy to store, which is why shops favour them, but using them isn’t a prerequisite to fish transport. Many fish fare badly in bags. Corydoras and other dumpy fish can get trapped in tapered corners, while fish with sharp spines may puncture them for sport.
There’s no shame in using a small bucket. Plastic ice cream tubs, thoroughly cleaned and rinsed, are ideal for moving many species, and only deep bodied fish like angelfish may struggle. Margarine tubs work well for tiny fish and fry, while a domestic bucket will be fine for large fish.
If using a bucket, make sure that it hasn’t been used to hold noxious materials — soaps, detergents or bleach. Ideally, use the same bucket you have dedicated for water changes.
If you are using a bag, the air to water ratio is critical. Water in a sealed bags runs out of oxygen quite quickly when fish are in it, and unless there’s a large amount of air nearby, it cannot replenish it.
NEVER fill a bag to the top with water and no air — your fish will suffocate en route. Try to fill the bag with no more than a third water, and fill the rest with normal, atmospheric air.
Sealing the bag can be tricky. Some aquarists favour tying a knot, while others use elastic bands to bind the top.
A wiley fishkeeper will look to use zip lock or self-binding freezer bags or sandwich bags but do note that these have a tendency to lay flat when set down, presenting the shallowest water to the fish inside. By all means use them (I do) but do have an extra person available to help keep them upright.
Getting the fish in the bag is the tricky bit. Where you can, roll the bag down (like rolling a sleeve) leaving just the bottom third unfurled. Dunk this part and fill it, and this air-filled ‘ring’ should now keep it afloat, while also keeping the bag aperture open.
It may seem obvious, but avoid novelty bags. ‘Poop’ bags for dogs are often scented (ergo toxic) and many bags burst as soon as even partly filled. Seeing as you’re planning moving fish in advance (right?), ask your retailer to sell you some of their bags. They’ll only ask a token fee, if at all, and you’ll have peace of mind that they are safe.
Cautionary note: Fish bags are a suffocation hazard to young children. Always store them well out of reach of little hands!
Did you know?
Corydoras catfish can exude a toxic mucous when distressed. In the confines of a bag, this mucous has been known to cause 100% fatalities, including the catfish that excreted it! Whenever bagging fish, separate them by species to minimise this risk.
On the move
When you’re ready to move your fish, wrap their bags, tubs or buckets in towels or tea towels to help retain heat. For a short journey, this is usually enough protection for an hour or so. For longer journeys, speak to your retailer about hiring or purchasing a polystyrene box with a lid.
On a car journey, think about where the fish will go first. Avoid the boot of the car where you can. On a summer’s day, it is likely to overheat, while in winter it will be chilly. If using a footwell, you’ll need to keep the bags upright. Use a box or bucket to keep things organised, and fill any empty space with more towels or inflated bags. The goal is to stop the bags from rolling around in the absence of someone to keep the bags stable and upright during the drive.
For just one or two bags, consider popping them on the passenger seat and securing them with the seatbelt.
Plan your route well in advance, and avoid any usual short cuts that involve sharp turns, winding roads, and speedbumps.
Ask your retailer in advance if they can demonstrate how to tie fish bags.
Only a third of the bag should be water — the rest needs to be air.
Use a battery powered airpump and some airline to inflate the bag, leaving several centimetres uninflated at the top.
Twist it several times, to make a ‘neck’ and either use elastic bands, or tie a knot to secure the air and water inside.
Double-bag for additional security and then wrap your bags in newspaper for extra insulation. Place them in a polystyrene box, with a towel or newspaper over them. Secure the lid, using tape to plug any draughts.
Big fish or heavily stocked tanks
For a large amount of fish, or a very large fish, over a short to medium journey, consider a watertight container (a polybox with a waterproof liner, or a large storage tub). Fill it to a third or halfway (for a large fish, ensure the water is deep enough to cover the fish entirely) and securely cover, but with spaces to allow air flow.
For the move, purchase a battery powered airpump, a length of airline, and an airstone (and batteries, of course). The extra aeration will help to gas out the build-up of carbon dioxide while the fish are in transit.
To avoid damage to a big, heavy Mbu puffer, a large net is covered with a sheet.
The fish is then gently coaxed into the net...
..and transferred into a prepared polybox half filled with tank water.
A battery airpump can be used to provide aeration during the move.
What if there are major delays?
If your fish are stuck in transit for unusually long spells — 12 hours or more, then you will face a water chemistry and water quality problem.
In the confines of the bag, and without filtration, the fish will excrete large amounts of ammonia that will accumulate. Normally, this would be highly toxic, but the other thing the fish are doing in that bag is respiring — releasing carbon dioxide.
The carbon dioxide has the effect of elevating carbonic acid in the water, lowering the pH. Because of the interaction between pH and ammonia, this means that the ammonia in the bag is in a less harmful ionic form known as ammonium.
That’s all well and good, right up until you open that bag up and flush the carbon dioxide out, turning the ammonium back into highly toxic ammonia in the process! After a long journey, fish can be wiped out in seconds by this one factor alone.
If you find yourself in this situation, you’ll need:
- A tub or small tank
- An acclimation kit (or at least 2m of airline, some suckers and an inline valve)
- A jug
- A test kit
- A thermometer
- Clean nets
- Zeolite or Seachem Prime
To acclimate your fish, you’ll need to know what you’re up against. Carefully open the bag, causing as little disturbance as possible and take a sample of water out to test. Test for ammonia and pH — when testing pH, be as gentle as possible mixing the solution with the water, as any vigorous shaking will drive out the CO2, pushing the pH back up and making the reading appear less acidic than the actual pH in the bag. Take the temperature of the bag water at this stage.
If you have the means then make up clean water of the exact pH and temperature of the water in the bag. Not everyone will have the facilities to do this, but if you do, then you can simply net the fish out of the bag and transfer them to this new water, before proceeding to the dripping stage.
For the rest of us, gently (really gently, like you’re defusing a bomb) transfer the fish in the bag water into the tub or small tank and put it on the floor in front of the destination tank.
If you have zeolite or Seachem Prime, add some to the container before adding the fish and water, as this will help to extract some of the ammonia.
Set up a length of airline with a flow valve in-line. Using a sucker, place one end of the airline into the tank, and start a syphon action so that it is sucking water from the tank.
Using the valve, reduce the flow to one drop per second and place the flowing end into the container with the fish. It is vital that the airline goes UNDER the water, and doesn’t cause splashing.
After around ten minutes of filling, gently jug out some water and increase the flow to two drops per second.
Ten minutes later, repeat and increase the flow to three drops per second.
Perform another water test and check the temperature. Gradually increase the flow rate, repeatedly removing the accumulated water.
Over time (it varies from setting to setting) the water will eventually come up to temperature and the ammonia will decrease while the pH will match that of the tank more closely.
When the temperature and pH are the same in both tank and container, you can net the fish and move them into the tank.
Take special care when catching some types of fish:
Fish with spines can become entangled in nets.
Always wear strong gauntlets if catching venomous fish to avoid being stung!
Fish with sharp teeth can chew through nets and bags in no time.
When you get to the other end
After a short to medium journey, fish in bags will need floating on the surface of their destination tanks, to allow temperatures to equalise out. You may need to remove some water from the tank first to avoid an overspill!
Turn the lights off in the aquarium. Next, float the bags on top of the tank, sealed, for around 20 minutes.
Open up the fish bags and roll them down, so that the top of the bag forms a floating ring.
Now add a small cup of water from the tank to the bag and leave it for five minutes. Repeat this two or three times at five minute intervals.
Transfer the fish to the tank by netting them out of the bag... this avoids adding the waste products in the bag water to the aquarium. Once the fish are in the tank, you can dispose of the bags and the transport water.
The type of substrate you decide on will have big effect on how much time you’ll need to spend on its maintenance. Our guide will ensure you stay on top of what’s on the bottom.
WORDS: NATHAN HILL
A couple of weeks into owning your set-up, you’re probably looking at the bottom of your layout and thinking ‘that doesn’t look right…’
Different types of substrate need different approaches when it comes to cleaning. If you’ve gone for bleached white sand under a barrage of intense lighting, you’ll probably need to be in there, sifting away daily. If you’ve gone in for a planting substrate, you might never clean it, once.
Here’s how to deal with some of the more readily available substrates out there.
Controversial, but if you have a tank decked out with high-end, high cost planting substrates like ADA Powersand, you either know what you’re doing or you’ve made a big mistake.
Planting substrates are mainly designed to trap and slowly release nutrients to plant roots, and often come pre-loaded with food — that means ammonia. The moment you start trying to rake through them, you release those nutrients into the water column, and that in turn will lead to an outbreak of algae.
How to clean them
- Before going in the tank: Usually you don’t!
- Once in the tank: Some aquascapers suggest removing a section of the substrate every few weeks or months, and cleaning before replacing. Others don’t. My own advice is to run a gravel cleaner about an inch above the surface of any exposed parts, so that you lift any waste without disturbing the substrate itself.
- Heaving with nutrients and perfect for almost all kinds of plant growth.
- Useless for burrowing catfish or excessively dirty tanks.
- Limited choice of colours and grain size.
- Often tends to have a slightly acidic (and rarely alkaline) influence on water chemistry.
Fine natural gravel
Some modern aquarists might be a bit sniffy about this ‘outdated’ substrate, but it still has its place — by which I mean it is a total breeze to clean.
Gravels, and most famously the classic ‘Dorset pea gravel’ became a hobby staple during a time when tanks relied on undergravel filtration. Subsequently they have found themselves on the fringe of fashion, but many tank owners still persevere!
How to clean it
- Before going in the tank: Rinse thoroughly to remove any fine dust. A sieve is fastest, if you blast around 1 or 2kg at a time under a coldwater tap, shaking and swilling like chips in a fryer. Alternatively, place into a bucket and stir continuously while applying running cold water and letting the bucket overflow. Ensure the water is running off clean before draining and adding to the tank.
- Once in the tank: Use a gravel cleaner with syphon to draw water out of the tank and plunge the gravel cleaner deep into the gravel at the same time. The water will lift the gravel, swill and rinse it, then when the gravel cleaner is lifted it will drop back out. A battery or air powered vaccum will do a similar job, but less effectively. You’ll need to do this at least every two weeks, though weekly is considerably better. Monitor how dirty the gravel is each time and adjust as needed.
- The easiest gravel to clean by a mile.
- Inert in freshwater, rarely causes a slight alkaline elevation.
- Looks good in many settings.
- Hides obvious small particles of waste from view.
- Awful rooting medium for most plants.
- Can harm catfish bristles and burrowing species.
- Improper cleaning will lead to nitrate spikes and disease hotbeds.
Silver sand is the choice for numerous biotopes, as it’s similar to substrates found in lakes and rivers the world over. It can be bought in almost any aquatic store, and similar looking substitutes like playpit sand are available where it isn’t.
Despite some detractors claiming potential gut or gill problems associated with using it, it remains one of the most popular modern substrates going.
How to clean it
- Before going in the tank: Slowly, slowly is the key here. Place around 5–8cm depth in a bucket at a time, and stir continuously and vigorously while flushing with cold water. Note, this stage may take a long time, but you need to be thorough as it is hard to remove sand dust once it is in the tank. Don’t try putting it in a sieve as you’ll lose the lot!
- Once in the tank: A gravel cleaner and syphon will just lift the sand out of the tank, though you can use that to your advantage. When particularly dirty, it may pay to remove some sand with a hose this way and rinse it as though going in the tank for the first time — just be careful to limit this to 25% of the total sand, in order not to disrupt filtration. Personally, I like to gently rake my fingers through silver sand on a weekly basis, allowing any muck to lift and drop back down to the surface. Then using a syphon hose, I skim just above the surface of the sand, removing the deposits. This method will result in a fractional loss of sand, which is cheap enough to replace as needed.
- Natural looking.
- Great for catfish whiskers and fish that burrow.
- Almost always inert, doesn’t affect chemistry.
- Many plant roots love it.
- Cannot be used for deep substrates as it can turn anaerobic.
- Can look dirty very quickly.
- Can find its way into filters easily.
- Excitable fish may stir up a tank into a sandstorm.
- Strong filter flows may move it, leaving craters and sand drifts.
Love them, hate them, ignore them, but coloured gravels are often part of the appeal for a new fishkeeper. Not all coloured substrates are the same, either in size, quality or durability, so even cleaning for the first use can be a disappointment.
Before anything, get some of your proposed gravel, put it in a jug with some water, give it a couple of days and test for ammonia. Some coloured gravels are reported to leach ammonia compounds, and if they do, I’d personally bin them — or you can soak them until it goes away.
How to clean them
- Before going in the tank: Rinse gently in a colander or sieve under gently running tapwater. In many cases, some of the colour will run off, leading the aquarist to panic and stop rinsing. You need to keep going until the water runs clear, but do be gentle! The same problem will arise if placing the gravel in a bucket and stirring while gently flushing. Note that some gravels come coated in a resin that will hold in the colour, and for these you can be vigorous, though paradoxically they’ll be amongst the cleanest out of the bag.
- Once in the tank: Gravel cleaners and syphons will need to be used at least weekly to keep coloured gravel clean. The lighter the colour, the quicker algae will start to smother it, and you may find that white gravel only lasts one or two days before needing syphoning again. Be particularly careful with black gravel as it can harbour a lot of solid waste without you noticing, and may turn your tank into a ticking time-bomb of sewage.
- Pretty, if you like that sort of thing.
- Easy enough to clean once in place.
- Some fish will freak out over bright substrates.
- Some types may contain ammonia sources.
- Colours may bleach over time.
- Coarse grains will affect catfish and burrowing fish.
- Can get dirty very fast.
Coral sand has a limited use these days, being restricted to marine set-ups, and hardwater tanks (usually African). It’s actually the product of fish that eat corals, and pass the tiny coral ‘sand’ fragments out in their faeces.
Because it is riddled with calcium carbonate, it will make soft water hard, and subsequently alkaline. Never be inclined to use it in acidic tanks!
How to clean it
- Before going in the tank: Place around 5–7cm of sand in a bucket and flush with cold water while stirring vigorously. Ensure all the sand is turned over as you do this. When the water eventually runs clear, the sand is ready for use.
- Once in the tank: Use a gravel cleaner and syphon weekly or fortnightly and clean as though you would fine gravel (see previous page). In between syphoning sessions, waste from the surface can be removed with a battery powered gravel vacuum, or by wafting a fine net above it and lifting out any waste.
- Acts as a buffer in hardwater tanks.
- Fine enough for some burrowing species such as eels.
- Very attractive in the right setting.
- Intense light will cause algae growth.
- Useless in acidic and softwater tanks.
- Some grades can be very dusty initially, requiring prolonged cleaning.
- Fine particles are sometimes implicated in gill problems in some fish.
Top tips for healthier substrates
Never leave the roots of plants behind when extracting them, as they’ll decompose and churn out nitrates. Rather than pulling plants out, try digging them out.
When cleaning substrates before adding them to your tank, use cold water instead of hot. Some substrates can give the illusion of cloudy run-off water when hot water is used, when in reality they are clean. Microbubbles may be a culprit here
Use nets to remove uneaten food and debris rather than letting it settle on the base.
For marine tanks, lay your sand out thinly on a tray and run over it with a powerful magnet before use. It’s rare, but occasional metal fragments in substrates are not unknown.
The joy of snails! While poorly managed snail populations can become epidemics, having a few Malaysian trumpet snails among the substrate can help turn it over and prevent stagnant patches.
Older aquariums can have issues of their own, leading to dead fish and terrible water. The tragedy is that it’s so simple to avoid this kind of problem, says Nathan Hill.
If you’ve kept fish for anything more than a couple of days, then you’ll be either directly or indirectly intimate with the problem of new tank syndrome, often abbreviated to NTS.
I won’t dwell. We should all know the basics of new tank syndrome, though discussion about the exact mechanisms is heated. Fish make waste, the filter struggles to cope with that waste, and contingency plans need to be in place. You might prefer ex-situ tank maturation or in-situ. These are arguments for another time.
Unfortunately for many fish, too many aquarists assume that new tank syndrome is the only water worry they’ll ever face. They imagine that this initial establishment period is the only time they’ll struggle with instability.
Because of this, they may be caught out by an equally dangerous, yet easily avoidable problem later down the line: old tank syndrome, or OTS.
In old tank syndrome, the definition of 'old' is open to some discussion. Tanks that have been running successfully for months or years may slowly turn bad, or they might suddenly crash altogether, with multiple casualties and a befuddled owner.
The problem all too frequently lingers unseen, and then manifests itself in a way that leads to conflict between fishkeeper and retailer.
Imagine the scene, if you will. A fishkeeper has a tank that they’ve kept successfully for two years. In that time, some fish have grown, while others — conceivably through old age — have died. The plants are large, maybe a little leggy, but still alive, and overall there is no reason to suspect any underlying malaise.
This fishkeeper opts to buy some more fish from a local store, deciding to pick up some delicate tetra types, given how 'mature' their tank is. A day or two after adding the fish, problems are noted. They look bedraggled, and show the first signs of whitespot. Not long after, the tank is knee deep in a full scale Ichthyopthirius pandemic, with old and new fish dying everywhere.
The immediate impression of the fishkeeper is that they have been sold diseased fish, and so they return to the store to confront the retailer and demand replacements — only to discover that every one of the original tetras still in store is the absolute picture of health.
As is their right, the retailer requests a sample of the fishkeeper’s aquarium water before a resolution can be made, and that sample, when it arrives, turns out to be diabolical beyond compare. So bad, in fact, that even without the new fish, the tank would have been weeks away from a wipeout anyway.
And that is how most people meet old tank syndrome.
More to water than filters
If I was going for an easy sale in a store, and I had to describe a filter’s function as simply as possible, then I might be inclined to say that 'it takes all the toxic waste and makes it safe for the fish to live with'. I suspect that for a lot of casual fishkeepers, that’s the impression they have in mind. Fish make waste, filter resolves waste, problem solved.
If only it was that that simple.
Filters only convert waste, and certainly not into something safe. Ammonia from fish is converted through nitrite and into nitrate. That much we all know, right? Water chemistry 101 right here.
Nitrate isn’t exactly a 'nice' chemical to have around. In humans, it’s implicated as a carcinogenic, while the lethal levels for different fish are slowly being understood.
As long as the filter is working, and as long as the fish are producing waste, then there will be nitrate produced.
It would be wrong to say that some fish develop a tolerance for nitrate, because that implies that they can be unharmed by it. Rather, I consider long-term nitrate exposure in fish as analogous to alcoholism in humans. It slowly affects organs, reduces lifespans, and plays havoc with immune systems. To be in optimal health, they need to live lives devoid of it. Like drink in humans, a little bit of it might not be a major problem. A lot of it is.
The problem is that aside some slight loss of condition, maybe dull colours or lethargic behaviour, there’s little to see that suggests a fish is suffering in high nitrate levels.
Even worse, if a fish is then taken from water where there is very little nitrate (such as in the case of my hypothetical retailer earlier) and suddenly exposed to high nitrate, then it is likely to shock it. To stay with the drinking analogy, someone unhealthy but used to drinking heavily would cope better with a ten pint boozing session than a person in perfect health who has been a lifelong teetotaller. Think Rab C. Nesbitt versus a nun. It’s a crude way to explain it, but that’s pretty much what happens.
There’s also phosphate to consider. Phosphate is introduced courtesy of the foods we offer our fish. It is not metabolised to any degree, and ends up excreted as waste.
Phosphate has questionable health impacts on fish, and is much better understood to inhibit invertebrates. Marine keepers in particular struggle to control it. As phosphate builds, the most obvious symptom is increased algae growth. In waterways, excess phosphate leads to eutrophication (it is the prime cause of eutrophication), which turns rivers and lakes bright green with algae, stripping the water of oxygen and killing the inhabitants. Such pandemics are not well known in aquaria, though that’s not to say they never happen.
Again, all of this is very easy to avoid.
The acid effect
The worst culprits for OTS are tanks that become victims of their own success.
An underlying problem involves the hardness — the mineral content — of the water. Carbonates play a vital role in buffering aquarium pH, as well as providing a source of carbon for some plants and bacteria: specifically those bacteria helping to convert fish waste.
When carbonates become depleted, two problems follow. Firstly, the osmoregulation of many fish (the way in which they regulate their minerals in the body) is compromised, sometimes to lethal extents. Secondly, without the buffering effect of minerals to keep it in place, pH in the tank can drop or swing wildly, leading to acute acidosis. Either of these can kill a fish outright, and both will cause acute and chronic stress.
Bacterial action inside the filter further alters pH. Biological bacteria, as they work, produce quantities of hydrogen ions. In water, these take the form of hydronium, and the amount of hydronium relative to the amount of hydroxide dictates how acidic the tank is. The more hydronium, the lower the pH, and with a busy filter churning the stuff out, pH levels can soon plummet. Combine that with the simultaneous removal of buffering carbonates as already mentioned, and you have a pH disaster in the waiting.
To make things even worse, if the pH does drop too far then it will stop the filter from working properly. In acidic conditions, the bacteria that convert ammonia struggle to function, and below 6.0pH they might stop working altogether.
Prevention trumps cure
Every parameter mentioned here can be tested, inexpensively and easily. Liquid kits, dip strips, monitoring devices — there is no excuse. Folks who say they can visually assess their tanks are deluding themselves, at the peril of their fish. You cannot ‘see’ the nitrate content of a tank any more than I can 'see' the alcohol content of a glass of gin.
Over the years, there has been something of a misunderstanding. Many aquarists are only keen to test — or in some cases have their retailer test for them — while they are cycling the filter at the start of the tank’s life, and wrongly assume that once that’s out of the way it’s plain sailing.
Testing for the chemicals associated with old tanks needs to be performed weekly, or fortnightly at least. Nitrate, GH, KH, phosphate and pH are all reliable indicators for the health of your tank. At an absolute minimum, nitrate and pH need to be closely watched.
Start by testing your water supply, whether you use tapwater or RO mixes purchased from a store. Unless you are deliberately altering the water in the tank with acidic products like Catappa leaves, then a difference of 0.5pH between the aquarium and the water source is a huge cause for concern. Nitrate levels always need to be low, but if the tank water tests at 40ppm greater than the water source, alarm bells should be ringing.
If you test for phosphate, then levels in the tank should be no higher than 0.5ppm greater than those in the water source. At 5ppm or more, action is essential.
GH and KH levels in the tank should be no more than a couple of degrees lower than source, though it’s likely that KH will deplete faster out of the two. Unless you’re keeping incredibly softwater fish, a tank reading below 5°KH is a warning that cannot be ignored.
Testing is one thing, but the actual process of prevention counts for even more.
The way these issues are avoided is simple: water changes, gravel cleaning and maintenance. There’s no short cut here, and no way to avoid the inevitable. Old tank syndrome is caused by a lack of tank care, plain and simple.
Water changes will fix most things. Taking old water out and replacing it with fresh will dilute down the levels of nitrates and phosphates. Because the newer water will be richer in minerals, it will also help to boost hardness, increasing the GH and KH, and stabilising pH.
If the tank is in a bad way, then opt for a course of small changes — one won’t be enough. Changing 25% daily or every other day will slowly bring things back to where they need to be.
If things really are extreme, to the point of a tank crash, you may want to perform a larger change of 50–75%, though this is a drastic measure. Adding a mineral product such Tropic Marin Remineral Tropic will help instantly boost the GH and KH. An excess of ammonia in the water may be treated with the likes of API Ammo Lock. Nitrates and phosphates can be reduced by using dedicated resin media placed into the filter.
Essentially, all of these points need to be tackled at once. Addressing nitrate levels while the pH plummets is like washing a car while the engine is on fire.
Cleaning gravel is paramount to avoiding OTS. All of the 'hidden' waste down amongst the substrate will gobble up carbonates, and churn out more nitrates than a rotting tree. Left too long, aquarists can even face the rare but lethal hazard of hydrogen sulphide production, where oxygen levels in the gravel drop so low that the 'wrong' kinds of bacteria can proliferate.
A simple gravel syphon will keep on top of this collected slurry. Using a cleaner like the Fluval AquaVac+ will pull up much of it, though it’s just as easy to combine gravel cleaning with a water change and kill two birds with the same stone.
Maintenance is essential, especially for the filter and any plants. Filters accumulate waste much like the gravel does, while some media which removes the likes of nitrates can become exhausted and release much of what it has trapped back into the tank. Frequent changing of resin media, and regular cleaning of sponges is vital.
Plants can also contribute to OTS if kept poorly. Old leaves may drop or degrade, and then they’ll start to rot — meaning more carbonate depletion and more nitrates!
By combining regular water testing with regular water changes and maintenance, there’s no reason for anyone to suffer from old tank syndrome.
You never know, those basic chores might even save you from having an embarrassing fracas with your retailer one day over dead fish..
Potential causes of OTS
- Inadequate water changes.
- Overstocked fish levels.
- Dirty gravel.
- Uneaten food.
- Unwashed filters.
- Dead fish/shrimps/snails.
- Decaying plant matter.
- Low GH or KH water supply.
- High nitrate water supply.
Tristan Lougher explains why it pays to be prepared before stocking the tricky Powder blue surgeonfish.
Common name: Powder blue tang (surgeonfish).
Scientific name: Acanthurus leucosternon (Ack-ann-thur-uss loo-co-stern-on).
Size: To 23cm/9in.
Origin/natural habitat: Reef flats of the Indian Ocean from the east coast of Africa to Indonesia. Reported also from Bali in the Western Pacific.
Tank size: 400 l/88 gal plus.
Water chemistry: Ammonia and nitrite should be zero. Stable pH 8.1-8.4 is advised. Nitrate should be below 25ppm, ideally lower.
Approximate lifespan: Five years plus. Specimens kept well should live into double figures.
Sexing: External sexual differences have been reported such as nuances in body shape and pattern, but these are not discernible in any but the largest most mature fish where females are substantially larger than males.
Spontaneous purchases of marine fish can work but often don’t. There are so many species to choose from already, and there are several new-to-the-hobby species being imported every year. So, it’s perhaps unsurprising that aquarists can encounter fish they have never seen before in their dealer’s aquaria.
However, there are many fish that are instantly recognisable and about which there is an abundance of information.
Popular because of their ravishing good looks, affordability and widespread availability, one might be forgiven for thinking that they are easy to keep too. While by no means impossible, they can present unprepared aquarists with serious problems. However, a little background research and planning means that an aquarium can be established that provides for the specific needs of these fish in the long-term.
The Powder blue surgeonfish is many things: iconic, beautiful and yet potentially frustrating when it proves difficult to keep. Establishing an aquarium that addresses its particular needs and potential problems from the moment of its conception through to design, construction, then finally stocking is a way of avoiding many of the potential problems with this beautiful surgeonfish. Of course, most Powder blues do not have their entire system designed around them and they can still thrive in mixed systems. However, many aquarists have learned the hard way not to impulse buy one. Most of the key points that help aquarists to achieve success with this species are applicable to any aquarium, but for those wanting to recreate a little slice of nature, the reef flat aquarium is a great place to start.
In common with many surgeonfish, the Powder blue surgeonfish will fiercely defend areas of macroalgae from competitors or indeed any fish it perceives as a threat. In its natural environment, it may have to see off marauding shoals of the rival surgeonfish such as the Convict surgeon, Acanthurus triostegus, with aggressive attacking use of the scalpel-like scales located on its caudal peduncle. Although large shoals numbering hundreds of Powder blue individuals are also seen with regularity, it is generally intolerant of members of its own species and, at the margins of their territories, pairs will display and skirmish with rivals.
Its laterally compressed body shape and low-slung mouth are ideal for getting into nooks and crannies to remove algae, and it will busily swim throughout its territory searching for food. Here it might form loose associations with other species of surgeonfish including members of the genus Ctenochaetus, the bristletooth tangs. It has been suggested that this form of tolerance of similar species is convenient to each, as it increases the chances of new browsing sites being found and also offers some safety in numbers from predators.
Stop problems before they start
Researching potential issues with fish before establishing an aquarium for them allows the aquarist to manage problems before they occur. Aquarists that aspire to maintain the powder blue in the short, medium and long-term must address and solve each of these problems through system design and careful selection.
1. Their tendency to invite disease when stocked into their new home. They invariably contract Cryptocaryon (marine white spot) between two and ten days after being introduced.
2. Specimen selection: Is it feeding? Is it healthy? Of course, these types of questions can and should be asked of any fish before purchase, but for some marine species, identifying those individuals that are bold and greedy in their feeding behaviour can make their transition to the home aquarium an even smoother one.
3. Their territorial nature: many marine fish are territorially aggressive and the Powder blue isn’t the worst of them. It isn’t even the worst surgeonfish, but the same instincts that drive it to defend it’s patch of alga from raiders can kick in in the home aquarium, and in a closed system this can lead to serious injuries being sustained by its tank mates.
Buy better fish
Although research and planning are essential when selecting fish species for inclusion in a saltwater aquarium, it is vitally important that decisions concerning the actual specimen to be stocked into your aquarium are based on the individual rather than the species. Hopefully, you will already have determined whether the species itself is suitable for your particular aquarium, and that includes both hardware and species stocked/to be stocked.
Try to see a number of Powder blue specimens before you buy one. How do they compare with specimens you saw during your research? How do they compare with wild photographed fish? This should help give you a feel for the species, how it looks in a dealer’s aquarium and some understanding of what to look out for in the individual you end up buying. It is also useful to decide whether a smaller or larger individual is better stocked in your particular circumstance, and that might be influenced by the size and disposition of the other fish to be stocked.
When it comes to the time to buy, ensure that you see it feeding before you commit to the purchase. Ideally, it should browse on algae (dried and/or natural forms) in addition to meaty offerings such as Brine shrimp or Mysis.
Avoid individuals where the spine is visible; it’s possible to reverse the weight loss incurred when fish are collected and shipped and this is likely to occur when fish are fed sufficiently well on quality foodstuffs. However, this is a variable that the new Powder blue owner doesn’t need, and having high standards during the selection process should increase the chances of success.
Occasionally, specimens that are feeding well on flake and pellet diets can be found, and those are likely to be the best settled. Ask how long an individual has been in residence at the dealer’s; the better individuals are likely to have been in stock for a number of days or weeks.
How do we define 'better'? It’s not all about colour although that too can be an indication of health and vitality. Sometimes fish held in intensive marine fish-only systems can lose a little colour over time. The good news is that if the aquarist prioritises the fact that they are feeding well and have recovered from shipping over vibrancy of colour then the intensity and beauty of their colours should be regained within a matter of days in most instances.
Add tank mates first
The benefit of the creation of an aquarium that provides for the needs of fish that can be classed as 'tricky', is that more straightforward species will usually benefit from the extra planning and enhancements to the system. For example, surgeonfish are not the only species to suffer from white spot infections and therefore inclusion of a UV benefits all newly introduced fish. Establishing the aquarium to be sympathetic to the fish’s natural environment could even inspire the aquarist to pursue the biotope aquarium where the sunlit reef flat fauna is recreated to an extent.
The good news is that the Powder blue will live with almost any tank mates given sufficient time to settle in a new home, but its territoriality can be an issue. The willingness to form schools with other, similar algae-grazing species in the wild is not something to be attempted lightly in the aquarium. Indeed, it can be best avoided altogether. Their intolerance of competitors for algae might be understandable, but less easily explained is their apparent hatred of butterflyfish. None of these blends of fish groups are impossible to recreate in the home aquarium but perhaps best avoided in a system where the well-being of the Powder blue is a priority.
Bear in mind that the territorial nature of this surgeonfish is likely to be enhanced by the aquarist offering meagre rations; an approach often adopted by aquarists who understandably want to prioritise their water quality. One of the best ways to avoid conflict is to make this the final large-fish addition to the aquarium, i.e. after all of the other species have been given a chance to settle over a number of weeks. This might not eliminate territoriality entirely, but it should reduce it. That, together with some suitable choices for tank mates can make all the difference.
Another possible solution to the stocking of territorial species is to stock all potentially aggressive species simultaneously and as small juveniles. In the case of most surgeonfish and tangs, which may compete for natural algae resources in the aquarium, there may be limits regarding just how small the specimens available to be stocked are. At least adding them at the same time means that they are all in the position of having been stressed while being moved to their new aquarium and will settle in at similar rates.
This is particularly useful when stocking surgeonfish that are even more territorially aggressive than the Powder blue: surgeonfish such as the Red Sea’s Sohal, Acanthurus sohal, and the Indo-Pacific’s Clown, A. lineatus.
Smaller, busy fish such as anthias (Pseudanthias spp.), damselfish (Pomacentridae), dottybacks (Pseudochromis spp.), fairy wrasse (Cirrhilabrus spp.), peacock wrasse (Macropharyngodon spp.) and flasher wrasse (Paracheilinus spp.) are all suitable groups with which Powder blues will mix with the minimum of conflict. Stock larger fish such as dwarf angelfish, larger wrasse and angelfish before the Powder blue. Of course, any species choices will also be influenced by the variety of sessile invertebrates, if any, that are also stocked.
For the majority of specimens, once the first month in their new home has been successfully negotiated, they will go from strength to strength. However, water quality must be maintained to high standards and care must be given to the diet of the surgeonfish. Given that the Powder blue is one of the last fish stocked into the system, at least the last fish of any size that should be stocked, attention will have to be given to feeding all of the other fish in the aquarium too and to ensure that they are not competing too strongly with
the Powder blue.
One of the best ways to offer food to this fish is using nori or other forms of dried alga (dried sushi nori is the form I find most Powder blues accept most readily) on a seaweed clip daily. This should ideally be placed into the aquarium in the morning (or when the daylight period of the aquarium begins), so the fish can browse throughout the day. Meatier offerings can be made; pellets and flake are often accepted by this species, as are familiar frozen diets such as
Mysis and Brine shrimp. There are many other formulations of frozen food containing algal enrichments or high percentages of vegetable material that are also suitable. Keep the diet varied and of high quality, but always offer the dried alga.
How to set up a Powder blue surgeonfish tank
Tank size: 400 l/88 gal is an absolute minimum for this species long-term. It will afford swimming space for this active fish and a water volume that is sufficiently large to afford some stability to the system.
Filtration: For me, the best way to create an aquarium sympathetic to the needs of a Powder blue is to make it a living rock based system. This means the bacteria within the rock itself will provide the biological filtration: the removal of ammonia and nitrite.
Nitrate can be controlled to an extent by other varieties of live rock based bacteria and enhanced through the use of carbon dosing, whether with liquid alcohol based products or through the use of bio-pellet reactors. A good-sized, efficient protein skimmer is essential whether carbon dosing is employed or not.
Water currents and their intensity will be determined by the species of coral where stocked, but Powder blues do seem to enjoy areas of vigorous water movement provided by stream-type pumps, as long as they have areas where they can find quieter water.
Equipment: You are going to need an ultraviolet (UV) steriliser. You might be one of the lucky people who stock a Powder blue that never develops a protozoan parasite such as white spot (Cryptocaryon) or marine velvet (Amyloodinium), but that would place you in the minority of aquarists with experience of this species.
Thinking you might get lucky is a big mistake, and why endanger the life of not only your Powder blue, but also the rest of your stock, as the aforementioned parasites are highly contagious and potentially lethal. This, coupled with the fact that treatment options in a reef aquarium containing live rock and corals are extremely limited and it becomes clear that the UV cannot be seen as an option; it’s compulsory. Prevention is always better than cure in these situations, and running the UV when the fish is introduced to the system and for a period of three to four weeks subsequently will increase your chances of success with this fish.
If you plan on keeping corals in the Powder blue aquarium, and there is no reason why you shouldn’t, then the lighting will need to be adequate for the species/varieties chosen. LED illumination gives that authentic rippling light effect that is such a prominent part of the shallow reef experience. Although the current trend for high percentages of blue light in stony coral aquariums enhances the fluorescent proteins in their tissues, lower Kelvin ratings will afford a whiter light that will showcase the fabulous colouration of the Powder blue as well as faithfully recreate the shallow water in which this fish is commonly encountered.
Aquascaping: Powder blue surgeonfish adore swimming space. In this system, building a shallow incline of reef at about 30 degrees to the horizontal affords plenty of open water and yet still lots of rocky substrate over which the fish can browse for algae. Alternatively, you could opt for a horizontal arrangement of rock with one or two sand or rubble patches that would recreate the reef
flat zone nicely. Corals can be widely spaced giving focal points of interest with plenty of exposed rock over which the fish can browse.
Quarantining is a hard process to argue against for any fish, saltwater or freshwater, but reality dictates that few marine aquarists have the budget and space to establish a system into which fish can be placed, observed and treated and therefore don’t own one. Lack of quarantining is another one of the reasons why a UV steriliser is an essential piece of kit for the Powder blue.
When Jeremy Gay persuaded a PFK photographer to finally upgrade his reef tank, it was with the proviso that he helped out with the new one.
If there was one bit of advice I could offer to any reef tank owner, I would say be patient. PFK’s resident photographer Neil Hepworth first got into marines nearly ten years ago, and in that time he has continually run just the one tank.
I helped Neil out with his first tank too, because when he took up reefkeeping he had not kept fish before. It was a 1.2m/4' tank with a wooden cabinet and hood, and I specced it out with a combination of spare electrical goods and purchased products. The tank wasn’t drilled to connect up to a sump, and back then it was an issue just finding a protein skimmer that would fit on such a tank with both a box hood and glass bracing bars.
The initial set-up ran as a basic Berlin system with lots of good quality live rock, powerheads, fluorescent lighting and a protein skimmer. My initial advice was to have just soft corals but within a few years that same tank was home to both LPS and SPS corals. This was achieved without a calcium reactor or supplements, but thanks to Neil’s diligence to water changes and maintenance.
Make no mistake though, that set-up was not without its problems. There were several large wipe outs of corals and fish, many still unexplained to this day, and years of salt spray from the skimmer meant that much of the back of the wooden hood eventually disintegrated.
So, nearly ten years and two house moves later, we were out on a Shoptour, steered cleverly by me to include a tank manufacturer, and Neil eventually agreed to buy a new tank.
Time for a change
Tank fashions have changed quite a bit in ten years, and this time Neil wanted to change the smooth woodgrain of his polished aquarium for the clean lines of a modern-looking gloss white cabinet. I tried to get him to buy a rimless, open-topped aquarium like the one I was planning for myself, but Neil opted for an open-topped pelmet instead. I quizzed the tank builders as to options for the pelmet, because if you make it too high the tank can look top heavy, clumsy and even dated.
We got the pelmet height down to 100mm instead of the usual 150mm or more, and for the cabinet design itself we opted for minimalist design with push open doors, no handles and a very clean, Japanese style.
Marine equipment can look very daunting and nothing is more scary to the inexperienced fishkeeper than a sump tank. It took me years to convince Neil that sumps were better for reef tanks and that, if you do it right, they don’t flood. He wasn’t so sure, but I gave him my guarantee that I would design and build his new tank as if it were my own and that I would run him through what happens in a powercut when we set the tank up. He eventually agreed.
The cabinet was 120 x 75 x 60cm/47.2 x 29.5 x 23.6” so had lots of room for a sump, and I made sure that three large holes were drilled in the back for ventilation. The sump, I told the builder, I wanted to be 91.4 x 45.7 x 45.7cm/3’ x 18” x 18” with three chambers: one 30.4cm/12” chamber to house a nice big protein skimmer, one 45.7cm/18” chamber after that to act as an algae refugium and deep sand bed, and a 15.2cm/6” chamber after that for return pump.
The cabinet and sump were also large enough to include a calcium reactor, phosphate reactor or pellet reactor and an automatic top-up, but Neil felt that the sump and refugium were about as far an evolutionary step as he wanted to take — for now anyway!
I’d played about with quite a few sumps and weirs by the time I helped Neil out with his, so I was pretty clear on what I wanted: a corner weir, ideally square or rectangular, in black, with both top and bottom scavenging weirs to drag water from the surface and from the substrate at the same time.
I also wanted three holes drilled in the base of the corner weir — one for an outlet pipe, one for an inlet pipe and a spare outlet pipe to prevent accidental flooding. I also specified that I wanted room to make one into a 'durso' using 90 degree elbows, and if you ever want to, you could even ask for a fourth hole and pipework to run the pump’s power cables down into the cabinet from the main display tank. The tank builder said they did triangular not rectangular weirs, but they could do everything else I requested.
We could have ordered the bulkheads and pipework from elsewhere, but with there being both metric and imperial pipe fittings and hole cutters out there, one way of ensuring that the manufacturer would drill the right size holes was to get him to supply the fittings too.
One of the most frequently asked questions of the PFK team is how to move tanks. This was Neil’s predicament too, only there was lots of space around it. The tanks were positioned next to each other for the changeover. I supplied lots of empty RO drums, we siphoned as much tankwater as we could in a short time, briefly exposing both rock and corals, and then pushed the old tank out of the way.
Thanks to Neil’s oak floor we just about managed to get some carpet under the cabinet to make sliding it easier, and within five minutes we had turned off, siphoned, slid, filled up and turned back on again, and both fish and corals were none the worse for the experience. That bought us infinite amounts of time to put the new tank in its place and plumb-in and glue the pipe fittings.
My plan was to do the whole changeover within the space of a day. The original tank had a gross volume of about 200 l/43.9 gal, yet the new tank and sump held over 500 l/ 109.9 gal. Neil had an RO unit so I advised him to collect at least 12 drums worth of pure RO before putting it into the pond tub that I lent him, with heaters, circulation pump and airstone to mix up 300 l/ 65.9 gal of salt.
Once mixed he could then pump the saltwater into the 12 drums (hired from an aquatic shop), store them inside the house in the warm and then he would be ready to go on the day of the changeover.
We also made sure we had plenty of buckets, towels, siphon tubes, a new larger heater, a plastic tub to put all the rock and corals into and that no one else would be in the house, or in the way, on that day. I advised Neil to cut feeding down in the days up to the move and for a few days afterwards to cut down waste produced.
With the sump plumbed in and the pipe cement cured in the new tank, it was time to move everything over. My plan was to make the move as seamless as possible by moving all the rock, all the substrate and as much of the water from the old tank as we could.
We placed a black plastic Laguna pond tub on the living room floor and proceeded to move what live rock pieces we could into it. As the water got deeper in the tub, the corals could go in and then the rest of the rock, leaving the old tank clear of décor so we could catch the fish. The fish went into the tub too, along with the old powerheads and heater. Although not lit, this tub would now be perfectly biologically stable for as long as we needed it to be.
The old tank substrate I opted to put into the new tank sump was part sand bed and part biological starter colony. This would move many critters over as well as beneficial bacteria.
The old tank had the now dated rock-wall look, with all the rock being stacked up against the back. From what he had seen in some of the tanks he had photographed, Neil wanted some central rock bommies, which I was more than happy to help with.
I would use acrylic rods to thread the rock onto. Self-supporting narrow bommies mean better water circulation than rock walls and with less detritus build-up or dead spots. We bought some acrylic rods from a reef store, a masonry drill bit with a slightly larger diameter than the rods and in no time had created a bommie stretching the full height of the 60.9cm/24” tall tank.
We then poured all of the new saltwater into the new tank, topped up with enough old saltwater to fill the sump and get the system going, plugged in the new heater and return pump, checked the water and when it was it was up to temperature, moved over the fish and corals.
Yes the water was cloudy, as you might expect, but corals can deal with this and fish and corals were all fine when the water cleared the next day. The old tank was emptied, taken outside and the job done before Neil’s partner got home from work. I got Neil to buy some Spaghetti algae, Chaetomorpha spp, to place into the new sump chamber on the day of changeover. This I advised should be lit 24/7.
Again we built up the new equipment over time, buying from wherever we could. Neil’s always felt a bit guilty about keeping marines so wanted some eco-credentials. I told him LED lighting would be a no brainer and fitted the tank with two TMC Aquaray LED tiles to light each of the bommies and four TMC Aquaray LED strips to provide additional light if needed. The effect is dramatic and striking, and the lack of light spill from the LEDs and the central bommies mean that you get a nice blue infinity effect from behind, aiding the feel of depth in the tank.
The lighting rig also means that Neil isn’t getting heat issues like he did with the old tank; they’re silent because they don’t use fans, they use less energy than his previous lights on a smaller tank, and their slim profiles mean that they don’t protrude past the outer line of the slim, open topped pelmet so the whole build looks really modern and clean.
Neil moved the circulation pumps across from the old tank, but within a few weeks it was obvious that they weren’t moving the water enough. On my advice, and after a talk-through the features, Neil replaced the pumps with two VorTech MP40esW from EcoTech Marine.
Despite forking out a few thousand pounds on the new set-up in all, Neil loves his new tank. With its design and build, the simple methodology it’s running, plus the new lights and pumps, we managed to come up with a reef tank that will last another ten years and has bags of potential.
Being a keen gardener, Neil likes to buy small coral frags and nurture them over time, and the more spacious aquarium and its open aquascape will allow the corals to grow pretty big, without coming up against the confines of the tank walls. As the corals grow and increase in number the aquascape will look a lot better.
Would I have done anything differently in hindsight? Well, Neil doesn’t mind but that triangular corner weir is quite large, a little too large for my tastes. I’ve since bought and long-term tested the discrete Xinout pipe fittings from Italian company X-Aqua on my own tank; they do away with the need for a weir. For the price though, and considering the Xinout’s limited scavenging capabilities, I would still consider a nice black, rectangular corner weir for future projects, and I do still like my rimless tanks with nice chunky Optiwhite glass throughout.
I did set-up such a modern reef tank for myself not long after Neil’s, using the Zeovit method and I really liked it. So, if I had Neil’s tank now I’d run the full Zeovit, Zeolite and bacteria method with an automatic top-up, which is something I wouldn’t be without on any marine tank.
And finally, because the tank is in a lovely large dining room, there’s plenty of space to have opted for a 244 x 60.9 x 60.9cm/8 x 2 x 2’ tank, instead of the 121.9 x 60.9 x 60.9cm/4 x 2 x 2’!
Tank size: 121.9 x 60.9 x 60.9cm/4 x 2 x 2' custom-built tank, sump and cabinet from Aquariums Ltd, which is no longer trading.
Sump: 91.4 x 45.7 x 45.7cm/3' x 18" x 18" with room for protein skimmer and algae refugium.
Lighting: 2 x AquaBeam 1000 Ultra Reef White and 4 x AquaBeam 500 LED strips on MMS mounting system.
Protein skimmer: Hydor Performer skimmer.
Return pump: Tunze Silence 1073.020.
Circulation pumps: 2 x VorTech MP40esW.
Filtration method: Berlin hybrid — live rock, protein skimmer and algae refugium.
Live rock: 30 kilos.
Chemical filtration: API Bio Chem Zorb (carbon) and Rowaphos phosphate remover.
How we created our reef tank step-by-step
1. Polystyrene goes down under the tank and the bulkhead fittings are connected and sealed with silicone.
2. Standpipes are in place, complete with Durso overflow method to reduce noise.
3. The sump is placed inside the cabinet, again on a layer of polystyrene to cushion it.
4. Ball valve and pipework are fitted under the tank. The ball valve reduces noise.
5. Existing live rock, fish and corals are placed in a black tub so that the old tank can be emptied and removed.
6. New bommie formation is created by threading rock onto an acrylic rod.
7. The bommie is lifted onto the rod and placed into the new tank, which is being filled at the same time.
8. Chaetomorpha algae is placed into the algae refugium, along with some small live rock pieces and the old sand substrate.
9. A TMC GroBeam tile is fitted over the algae refugium in the sump, again using a rail system for support.
10. The tank is filled and fish and corals are moved over. The water is cloudy but parameters are stable and match the old tank.
11. The next day the tank is clear and the fish and corals start to make an appearance.
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Gobies can be found in almost all bodies of water, including the coldest oceans to freshwater mountain streams. And there are plenty of marine gobies that are perfect for the reef aquarium, as Dave Wolfenden explains.
Some gobies are so incredibly adaptable that they have even evolved to exploit a partly terrestrial lifestyle in the shape of the endearing mudskippers.
They are all part of the Gobiidae, one of the largest of all fish families, and there’s even a considerable choice for marine aquaria. Despite their small size, these fish can have bags of personality, usually making them excellent reef choices.
Because of their size, gobies should not be kept in the aggressive fish-only system as they will be harassed by many larger species and many predators will snack on them. However, most will be superb for the reef aquarium, providing any chosen tank mates are peaceful.
Certain gobies, though, can be intolerant of conspecifics or even heterospecifics that look similar, especially in limited space.
This is the result of often strong territorial behaviours tying individuals to small patches of home reef. Limit stocking to one goby of each genus unless there’s plenty of room.
Most will adapt well to captive diets and a variety of small fresh, frozen and artificial feeds is important. Many will fend for themselves in a mature reef system with natural plankton populations. Sleeper gobies, for instance, will process the aquarium’s substrate to extract the invertebrate life.
While gobies can find a reasonable amount of food in a typical aquarium, some supplementary feeding will prevent individuals becoming emaciated. Gobies in general fare best in well-established systems and a refugium can help to provide supplementary live food.
Gobies are generally sensitive to medications, because of their scale-less skin.
They’re not the most parasite-prone fish, thanks to their thick mucous coat which helps trap pathogens, but they can nevertheless still suffer from parasitic and other diseases.
Be cautious when treating for ailments. Prophylactic care for newly-acquired specimens is ill advised. Instead, try plenty of TLC and optimal water quality, plus plenty of food. If medication is necessary, don’t overdose.
When selecting specimens, avoid any looking emaciated. These may have been starved for some time and are too thin to recover.
Which species of goby is right for you?
Some of the most commonly encountered gobies in the marine hobby include Sleeper gobies (Valenciennea) which are prodigious sifters of sandy substrate, hence the alternative name of sifter gobies.
These spend much of their time ingesting sand and extracting tiny invertebrates. For this reason, they can be used as efficient cleaner crew as their constant turning of the substrate helps to maintain the sand bed.
Ensure rockwork is securely placed, as meandering gobies can easily topple piles of live rock.
Bear in mind too that they may frequently spit mouthfuls of sand over corals and other invertebrates, so strategic coral placement must be a consideration.
Blue-cheeked sifters (V. strigata) — pictured above — are often imported from the Indo-Pacific. Specimens grow to around 15cm/6” in the aquarium and earn their common name from electric blue markings on a yellow face.
Also noteworthy is the Chalk goby (V. sexguttata), again from the Indo-Pacific and reaching a similar length.
The Jam sandwich goby (V. helsdingenii) from the Indo-West Pacific, with its alternate black and white bands, looks particularly striking and again is a very attractive reef addition.
This species will reach 15cm/6” and it’s worth trying to establish pairs, as males are identifiable courtesy of their elongated dorsal fin filament.
Neon gobies are the alternative cleaners (picture above by Nick Hobgood, Creative Commons)
Several species are known collectively as 'neon gobies' and belong to the Elacatinus genus – formerly Gobiosoma. Most hail from the Caribbean and other regions of the western Atlantic.
Most commonly offered are the ‘true’ Neon goby (E. oceanops) or the Sharknose goby (E. evelynae) and both grow up 5cm/2”.
Other species may be encountered, although identification can be difficult.
These fish make a viable alternative to cleaner wrasses of the Labroides genus. They adapt well to captive diets, although will supplement diet by performing useful cleaning of 'clients'.
They will set up cleaning stations, but can defend these against other cleaner gobies — so ensure ample room if attempting to keep more than one.
Several genera of gobies form a mutualistic partnership with shrimps — notably Pistol shrimps of the Alpheus genus.
Several genera form such symbioses with shrimps, including Stonogobiops, Ctenogobiops, Cryptocentrus and Amblyeleotris. The basis of this relationship is that the shrimp are good at building burrows but have poor eyesight. The gobies have good vision and are given lodgings in the shrimp’s burrows in return for acting as reliable lookouts.
A shrimp will keep in constant contact with the goby via its antennae and both shrimp and goby retreat to the burrow at the first sign of danger.
If attempting to recreate this relationship, provide a deep substrate of varied material, from fine sand through coarse coral chips to live rock rubble. The best shrimp with which to attempt such a pairing is Randall’s shrimp (Alpheus randalli) — identifiable courtesy of its red-banded legs.
More gobies worth seeking out include the Yasha (Stonogobiops yasha) from the Western Pacific, which grows to 5cm/2”. This is very attractive but pricey.
Also check out the Dracula goby (S. dracula) from the Indo-Pacific, which grows to 7cm/2.8” and sports red and orange bands.
From the Amblyeleotris genus there’s A. aurora (above). The Aurora goby, from the Indian Ocean, grows to 10cm/4” and is stunning with orange bands. A. randalli, up to 12cm/4.7” and from the Western Pacific, has a gorgeous sail-like dorsal fin.
The cool customer
The Catalina goby (Lythrypnus dalli) is sometimes offered — and it sure has that grab factor!
Note that striking range body punctuated with bright blue vertical markings, as pictured here.
However, this species, which grows to 6cm/2.4”, is really sub-tropical from the Gulf of California and surrounding regions. As such it fares best in temperatures slightly below those in a typical reef aquarium, requiring around 18-21°C/64-70°F.
It is possible to maintain, although it requires a dedicated aquarium decorated with coarse sand and rubble, and capable of providing the cooler conditions this fish needs.
As such, this fish should not be purchased as an addition to an existing tropical reef aquarium.
Amblygobius: lovers of midwater
This genus contains a few occasionally imported species and they tend to spend much of their time in mid-water — in contrast to others of the family.
One of the most challenging of the genus is the Court jester (A. rainfordi) — pictured above — from the Indo-Pacific. Growing to around 5cm/2”. This diminutive fish requires copious amounts of filamentous algae, which is lacking in many reef aquarium systems.
Hector’s goby (A. hectori), which is also sometimes referred to as the Gold court jester and from the Indo-West Pacific, assumes strikingly similar markings, albeit with different coloration, and its husbandry needs are comparable to the Court jester
The Banded goby (A. phalaena) is less challenging to look after. From the Pacific, this species reaches 12cm/4.7” and looks stout and chunky, and occurs in various colour morphs.
Banded gobies, as a group, will spend a considerable amount of their time sifting through the substrate for food and will be therefore less reliant on filamentous algae than certain other members of the genus.
Gobiodon gobies get a grip
Members of this genus can usually be found perched on branches of stony corals such as Acropora. Being highly benthic, their ventral fins are often modified into suckers, allowing them to adhere to their host coral, even in some pretty strong surges of water.
These timid fish need to be provided with very small foods, but they can be among the most endearing and best value fish you’ll keep. They’re ideal for smaller SPS-dominated systems.
Particularly engaging is the Okinawa or Yellow goby (G. okinawae) — pictured above — from the Western Pacific. It grows to 3cm/1.2” and sports a white patch on its cheek — the only marking on an otherwise entirely yellow body.
This species appears to be an obligate dweller of Acropora in the wild and the best captive system would also incorporate such corals.
Once an individual is established in the aquarium it will perch on its coral, seemingly demanding all your attention and becoming a true and affectionate pet.
Also noteworthy are the Citron goby (G. citrinus) from the Indo-West Pacific. It grows to 6cm/2.4” and has a distinctive yellow coloration.
There’s also the stunning Green clown goby (G. histrio). This is a striking fish, with red markings on a vivid green body, but reaches only 3.5cm/1.4”. It also originates from the Indo-West Pacific.
Can I breed gobies?
Plenty of marine goby species will spawn in the aquarium if pairs can be established, but many of them are aggressive towards conspecifics.
Many can change sex too, making the establishment of pairs no problem for individuals living in the wild – as every member of the species is a potential partner!
The coral gobies (Gobiodon spp.), for example, appear to be bidirectional protogynous hermaphrodites — starting out as females but can undergo a sex change if necessary.
However, such gender bending is reversible and males may turn back into females if required.
The main challenge with breeding arises from an ability to successfully rear the tiny larvae, which need first feedings of rotifers, followed by enriched Artemia nauplii.
Gobies, however, can be a good bet if planning on a first breeding project for marines. Neon gobies (Elacatinus spp.) are probably the best prospect, as they will spawn in even small tanks if conditioned with varied regular feeds.
PVC pipes will provide a suitable love nest and the resultant larvae should be moved to rearing tanks with identical water chemistry to their original system.
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Some hobbies sit well together: fishing and reading, surfing and skateboarding, chess and vintage Claret... But what if your hobbies appear diametrically opposed, like fishkeeping and classic cars? It might appear that never the twain shall meet. But, in sunny Florida, Mike Wetzel found an ingenious way of blending his two interests.
Mike is a saltwater aquarium enthusiast and Dub devotee who is determined to bring the sea to his camper, rather than the other way around.
"I did it on a whim, really," says Mike, who goes on to explain that the idea came about because he wanted to decorate the showroom for the local car dealership he manages with a beach theme:
"We acquired a VW franchise and had plans to incorporate a mini Volkswagen museum with vintage Beetles and Buses and needed a centrepiece."
They wanted something which would reflect the Florida coastline, and even the fish in the tank are native to Florida’s sea water.
Ten years younger
But before it could be pumped full of water, the 1970s VW bus required extensive work and preparation. They took on a man solely for the purpose of repairing the bodywork, and he devoted more than three months of full time work to get the van looking ship shape, and fully transformed from its initial sorry state:
"It was in black primer and would barely run when we bought it," Mike explains, "I was going to trailer it down, but one of my drivers wanted to take a trip down nostalgia lane and drive it from Daytona Beach, which is usually a two hour drive. However, it ended up taking him over five hours because the van couldn’t go over 50mph, nor did he want to go any faster for safety’s sake!"
A painstaking endeavour
For the huge 800-gal custom made acrylic tank to be fitted into the van, the entire half side had to be cut out, and hinges were welded on to the roof to create a door. Using support mounts, and with enough hands on deck, the tank could then be pushed in and out of the van smoothly. Before the water went in, to endure the substantial weight, the rear suspension had to be reinforced with sections of 4x4 fitted under the axles.
The engine was removed to create enough space for all of the pumps, filters and sumps, which have been fitted on the van floor, where they are hidden. The tank itself is fixed 8" beneath the side windows, so that the finish is clean and what you see are the plants and the fish in all their glory, without any of the distracting mechanicals or engineering.
For the time being, the van has been disassembled but will be ready to take centre stage at the new Fort Pierce VW dealership when it is opened in March 2015. Mike is expecting a throng of visitors eager to have their photos taken sitting in the driver’s seat of the van. Luckily, without an engine, the van can’t be driven, so he’s not too worried about the threat of car theft.
Tara Gould is a writer, blogger and classic car enthusiast writing for VWHeritage.com
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They have skin like sandpaper and can be fascinating and entertaining masters of disguise. Dave Wolfenden spotlights the filefish.
One of the most overlooked groups of fish in the marine hobby has to be the filefish. Many believe them too sensitive to be maintained successfully and some species are definitely unsuitable for aquarium life. Yet several are worth considering, providing you know their requirements and are aware of potential pitfalls.
Filefish, also known as the leatherjackets, closely resemble triggers and puffers, with features common to both groups.
In fact, these fish are all in the same order, belonging to the Tetraodontiformes.
The filefish family name Monacanthidae — meaning one spine — is derived from the prominent dorsal spine that’s used to wedge the fish into crevices, triggerfish style.
Filefish have an unusual scale morphology, in which setae (or spines) are present. These give the fishes’ skin a particularly rough texture, hence the name.
Filefish skin was reportedly once used as a substitute for sandpaper and if you’ve ever held one in your hands you’ll understand why.
Filefish can be hardy, but choose specimens already allowed to settle after the stresses of transport. I’d always want to see one feeding before purchasing.
It can be difficult to initially tell if an animal is emaciated due to their characteristic laterally compressed body shape, but any with a noticeably pinched abdomen might spell trouble.
A period of quarantine should allow the fish to settle into long-term captive life and adapt to a variety of foods before being added to the main aquarium.
Health problems are not generally a major issue, although obviously the usual parasitic diseases may arise. The viral disease Lymphocystis is sometimes seen soon after introduction on newly acquired specimens, but this will clear up spontaneously if water quality and diet are optimal.
In terms of lifestyle, these fish tend to use stealth, crypsis, mimicry and masquerade to avoid detection and predation, so replicate their habitat as closely as possible. Lots of rockwork with plenty of crevices, nooks and crannies are ideal.
Are filefish reef safe? Bearing in mind that these are mainly opportunistic feeders on a variety of invertebrates, with some species specifically feeding just on coral polyps, they’re risky in reef aquaria.
If going to add a one to a mixed fish/invertebrate system, accept that some inverts may be eaten. While some enthusiasts successfully maintain filefish in invertebrate systems, I’d be wary of adding one to a reef.
On balance, a Fish Only With Live Rock (FOWLR) system is perfect for these fish. Tank mates should be non-aggressive, as overly boisterous species will not only harass filefish but may also out-compete them for food. That includes large angels, big puffers and large triggers.
Feeding (picture above of Acreichthys tomentosus by Haplochromis, Creative Commons)
Most, but by no means all, species are easy to feed, thanks to their mainly catholic tastes. Omnivorous filefish will graze the biofilm of algae and invertebrates from the reef’s rock, as well as consuming sponges, sea squirts, anemones, gorgonians, worms and molluscs, plus other fare.
Variety in captivity is therefore important and regular two, three or more daily feeds are recommended. Live rock will go some way to stimulating natural foraging behaviour and providing food items, and this should be augmented with fresh and frozen feeds. Mysis, mussel meat, Artemia, it’s worth trying all of them.
However, there are exceptions — specifically the Harlequin filefish (Oxymonacanthus longirostris) — which, along with others of the genus, is an obligate corallivore and unsuited to life in the aquarium.
Choose from six of the best…
The Blacksaddled leatherjacket (Paraluteres prionurus) — pictured above — from the Indo-Pacific and which grows to 10cm/4” is fascinating. It mimics the toxic Valentini puffer (Canthigaster valentini) — pictured below — hence the alternative name of False puffer.
P. prionurusis among the toughest filefish and its mimicry is really interesting. I’ve kept both mimic and true puffer together in a public aquarium and this can work well, provided there’s enough room for both of them.
The Tasselled filefish (Chaetodermis penicilligerus) — pictured at the top of the page — comes from the Indo-Pacific and looks bizarre. Growing to 20cm/8” in captivity, possibly more, this cryptic filefish sports weedy outgrowths over the body with disruptive coloration serving to disguise the animal. Despite its delicate looks, this is a hardy species benefitting from regular feeds.
The Hawaiian orange-tail filefish (Pervagor spilosoma) is recommended only for experienced aquarists. Hailing from the Eastern Pacific, especially around Hawaii, this occasionally-imported species can be delicate and difficult to get feeding. However, once trained to accept prepared foods, it should do well in the aquarium.
Coloration is interesting, with a mottled body and red fan-shaped tail. Expect adults to reach 15cm/6” in the aquarium.
From the same genus, it’s not hard to see why the Flame filefish (P. melanocephalus) gets its common name. Having a length of up to 15cm/6” and originating from the Indo-West Pacific, this species sports a black head, but a bright red rear half. This is another species for seasoned aquarists, as feeding can be problematic.
The Clown filefish (Cantherhines macrocerus) from the Western Atlantic earns its name thanks to its bizarre coloration. Growing to 40cm/16”, the fish’s front half tends to be black, while its rear is a deep golden yellow. White spots adorn the body and it’s easy to see why this species ranks among the most expensive of filefish.
Sexing is possible among adults, with males possessing more prominent spines at the base of the tail, along with an orange patch just in front of these spines.
The so-called Aiptasia-eating or Bristletail filefish (Acreichthys tomentosus) from the Indo-West Pacific is now top of many wish lists, thanks to its wonderful habit of munching on Aiptasia and Majano anemones.
This new kid on the block, which grows to 12cm/4.8”, is a cryptic species, ranging from brown to green, allowing it to blend with the vegetation of its environment. It’s not stunning by any stretch, but its unusual appearance compensates for its drab coloration.
They tend to more commonly frequent seagrass and mud habitats — not traditionally regions exploited by ornamental fish collectors. Recently, however, collectors have tried to capitalise on demand and it’s now pretty widely available.
To sex this species, look for a patch of prominent setae around the caudal peduncle (tail base) of an adult — the presence of which identifies a male.
However, beware of imitations as several species with a similar appearance appear frequently sold under the same common name, although it’s hit and miss how effective these misidentified specimens are at anemone control.
Despite the name, even true Aiptasia-eating filefish don’t feed exclusively on pest anemones. So be cautious as it’s possible that any specimen can feed on other polyps – including your prized SPS corals.
The Harlequin or Orange-spotted filefish (Oxymonacanthus longirostris) from the Indo-Pacific is truly stunning, displaying a psychedelic livery of orange spots on a bright green background. It’s also a specialist feeder, being an obligate corallivore feeding exclusively in the wild on SPS coral polyps — specifically Acropora.
This diet means this species is difficult to maintain long-term and I suspect that dismal survival rates are the norm.
Although some have maintained Harlequins by providing adequate Acropora, or by weaning them on to substitute feeds — and they have even been captive bred — success stories are rare.
Fair play to those keeping them, but this 12cm/ 4.7” filefish is best left, if only because of its poor captive survivability.
There may be additional issues too. Populations, already under pressure from coral bleaching, may be nudged closer to local extinction by collection for the trade.
Predators are fooled by coral disguise
O. longirostris’ coloration is believed to be used to mimic the appearance of Acropora branches among which it lives.
It feeds diurnally (during the day), but at night it has been seen head down, wedged in place with its dorsal spine.
The fish’s behaviour, spotted coloration and even the pale tip of the caudal fin, appear adaptations in resembling its coral habitat. Biologists refer to this as masquerade — looking like another organism to misdirect potential predators.
Can I breed any filefish species?
It’s possible to maintain a pair of filefish if you have the room.
Many species will exhibit sexual dimorphism and/or dichromatism as adults — in other words, male and female displaying varying size or morphology (dimorphism) or coloration (dichromatism).
Juveniles, however, are generally monomorphic, that means having a similar appearance between the sexes.
Filefish are egg depositors too, which adds to the ease with which you can collect the fry.
Add to this the fact that newly-hatched filefish fry are of a relatively large size — making Artemia nauplii a suitable first food for them.
A good first species to try out would be Aiptasia-eating filefish (Acreichthys tomentosus), which has already been successfully raised by several breeders in captivity.
Don’t lift in nets
The rough skin of filefish, with its prickly setae, can become entangled in fine-mesh nets, which can lead to tangling and potential trauma when handling. It’s less risky to use a net simply for manoeuvring the fish, then using a beaker or bucket to capture it.
Many filefish are small, but…
Despite the diminutive size of many filefish, some species can attain large adult sizes, so research any potential purchase and ensure positive ID.
The Scribbled filefish (Aluterus scriptus) is found in all tropical oceans and is the largest of the family. Growing to just over 1m/3.3’ in length, it’s an awesome sight and definitely best left to public aquariums.
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Many corals can survive without light, but none can survive without water movement. Jeremy Gay looks at types of flow pumps available for the marine aquarium.
Creating water movement is one of the simplest tasks you can do, yet it’s also one of the most vital for the very livelihood of corals.
Water brings the corals their food — phytoplankton and zooplankton to catch with their polyps — but it also brings them oxygen, new zooxanthellae algae and washes away their waste.
You won’t find a still part in any ocean and marine life is adapted to live in an environment that’s constantly moving. Here’s a rundown of important features to consider when buying a circulation pump for your aquarium:
This is related to how much water is pumped during each hour. A reef tank will need its total volume turned more than 20 times per hour, so if you have a 180 l/40 gal reef tank you’ll need a pump(s) with an output of 3,600lph.
All pumps will have their output stated on their packaging, in either litres per hour (LPH) or US gallons per hour — and one US gallon equals 0.8 of a UK gallon.
Watts per litre
This is a measurement of efficiency and one of the things I look at when reviewing or comparing a type of circulation pump.
The cost of electricity always seems to be going up, so we want a pump that’s low in wattage and cheap to run. By choosing a pump with the highest output of water against energy consumed you get the most efficient model and so the cheapest to run in relation to its output.
Modern circulation pumps are getting incredibly efficient, some turning over 800 lph per watt of energy consumed, and I have no doubt that they may soon even perform at 1,000 lph per watt.
This is a huge improvement on the old powerheads and can only be a good thing. It’s not the be all and end all of pump selection, but every little helps.
You’ll find this phrase used on marine forums when users talk about pumps, especially the likes of Tunze and VorTech pumps.
In a closed body of water, powerful pumps push water across the tank, while at the same time dragging water across the substrate in the opposite direction.
This is called undertow and can easily be demonstrated by putting food into the tank and watching where it goes. If there is good undertow the pump will shoot it across the tank where it will travel in a big loop and float just across the sand at speed, returning back to the pump.
Good undertow is linked to good water movement and helps to prevent dead spots of water. This will also mean that detritus or food will remain in suspension, which is good, and strong water flow across the substrate can also help prevent slime algae.
Use pumps with wave maker devices and the undertow may even rock across the substrate, really dragging up any dirt or algae as it goes. This is a positive.
As the name suggests, this is when pumps are used to make waves in the tank using a controller which switches the pump on and off in quick, regular succession. This leads to a sudden surge of water to the left, then another surge as the water returns to the right.
Get the frequency of that movement just right and an actual wave will form.
Tunze and Vortech equipment can actually create a wave in the tank which rocks side to side, whereas most wave makers move water left and right but not enough to make the water rock or produce an actual wave.
Either way, wave makers in general are considered beneficial to the reef tank, as they offer alternating, more realistic water flow, create better undertow and may actually help prevent slime algae by producing sudden gushes of water powerful enough to tear the slime off rocks. That’s the theory anyway!
One pump with a controller can be used to create a surge — or two can be run at opposite ends of the tank with one coming on as the other goes off.
A good controller may also be able to control pump output and speed — although the pump must be electronically controllable to do so — and may even be able to produce varying waves, from a short, sharp pulse to a long, soft surge. Some may even have a random mode for multiple pump control and varying currents.
Some pump controllers have other advanced features, including light sensing apparatus to slow the flow of water when the tank lights go out. However, I don’t see the ocean flow slow down at night so question the merit of this.
However, night time is when corals open their polyps to feed on zooplankton, so maybe a slower flow may make food easier to capture in the tank.
Feed mode usually involves pushing a button on the pump’s controller to either slow down or stop the pump altogether for a few minutes. The idea is to prevent your food get minced by the pump and less likely to be removed by the filter. Instead it’s more likely your fish will get it all!
I’ve had this function on many previous pumps but confess to never using it.
I think three other features have simply revolutionised modern circulation pumps.
The first is the wide outlet and we’re talking going from a half or three-quarter inch outlet, which you would stick a filter pipe on, to a two-inch (5cm) or more on some pumps. This changed pumps for the better as it enabled more water output and at a lower velocity, so it didn’t take so much wattage to push it on.
The ocean doesn’t have tiny jets of moving water — instead chunks of water get lifted up and moved elsewhere by the tides. Wide outlets also mean lots of water flow to corals that need it, yet not strong enough to blow them off the rocks.
So, in a nutshell, the invention of the wide outlet pump and a new impeller design enabled pumps to go from 1,200 to 12,000 lph without a huge increase in wattage. This means having just one or two pumps in the average reef tank as opposed to the battery of Maxi jets, Aquaclears or IPH powerheads we used to have — and fewer pumps means less heat transfer into the water.
Next improvement is the longer power cable. The vast majority of all pumps and powerheads used to come with really short cables, which, when used in large tanks, didn’t even make it down to the base of the cabinet. This also posed a risk with water dripping into electric sockets.
Now I look for a 5m/16.5’ cable, giving me loads more freedom in placing pumps and running cables well out and clear of the tank and where I want them.
Last advantage is the magnet fitting. All pumps used to have rubber suckers which would lose grip, go brittle, perish or become stuck fast. Magnet fittings changed that, clinging on forever yet being easy to detach and move.
I highly recommend them — and get them while you can as the cost of magnets globally is rocketing.
Five things to look for in a circulation pump
- Control capabilities
- High output/low wattage
- Wide outlet
- Magnet fitting
- Long power cable
Five ranges I would recommend:
Anything from Tunze, as its pumps are whisper quiet, very efficient and run forever. The company came up with many of the features I now consider standard, including wide outlets, long cables, wave makers and magnet fittings. The products are very good on all hobby levels.
EcoTech Marine also contributed massively to pump technology progression with its VorTech range. These pumps come infinitely controllable as standard, have a unique two-part pump with only the impeller and cage actually inside the tank, and integrated wireless technology enables pumps to talk to and control each other — and pumps and their Radion lighting to communicate too.
These are very much in vogue right now.
If you want an all-round value package you can’t go far wrong with the Hydor Korallia range. These items have all the entire box ticking features you would want.
Without a magnet fitting, yet very good in all other areas, is the Newave range from Aquarium Systems. They offer high output, low energy consumption and good value.
The Seio Prop range also ticks all the boxes and I choose these in preference to the bulkier Super Flow Pump from Taam — the same manufacturer.
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Dave Wolfenden investigates the Centropyge genus and the fiesty little angelfish that just know how irresistible they areâ€¦
Small, attractive and cute — no wonder pygmy angels endear themselves to many marine aquarists. There are some 34 described species in the Centropyge genus, rarely ever longer than 15cm/6”. However, they can vary in ease of keeping and some are big on attitude.
If trying to keep Centropyge get to know the pitfalls in maintaining these confusingly feisty but shy fish.
For a smaller dwarf or pygmy angel, such as the Cherub (C. argi), an aquarium volume of 150 l/33 gal is sufficient, but larger species, such as the Lemonpeel (C. flavissimus) will demand double that size.
Aquascaping for Centropyge angels, which lie in the Pomacanthidae family, needs to reflect the reef zones that they naturally inhabit. This commonly comprises areas of rubble, although these fish may also be found on the crest among Acropora corals and in the depths of the reef’s drop-off zone.
Plenty of rockwork, preferably live rock, is therefore desirable and the more caves, nooks, crannies and overhangs the better. These are territorial fish and spend much time grazing on the substrate of the reef. A mature system with ample live rock is therefore highly desirable.
A refugium or deep bed of ‘live sand’ and coral rubble may also provide the suitable invertebrate life they will consume.
Food variety is important and these angels are generally easy to feed in the aquarium. Chopped fresh and frozen meats, algae and even frozen sponge-based angelfish diets should be eagerly accepted. Small feedings at least twice daily are required.
Occasional supplementation with vitamin preparations may help maintain health and prevent disorders, such as head and lateral line erosion (HLLE).
Smearing ‘feeding rocks’ with gel-based diets can help provide adequate nutrition and encourage natural foraging.
Can I breed them?
Several species have spawned in captivity, with even some success noted rearing offspring. Huge kudos awaits any hobbyist managing to successfully produce dwarf angels.
Getting a pair of Centropyge to spawn isn’t difficult or demanding, but adequately feeding the larvae is a tall order.
All Centropyge angels appear hermaphroditic. To be precise, they are protogynous (female first) hermaphrodites. They probably start out gender neutral, then develop female gonads before reaching sexual maturity and becoming a fully-functional female.
More dominant individuals will undergo an irreversible sex-change to become breeding males.
In some species, females congregate into small harems. In others, heterosexual pairs form.
You can obtain a spawning pair or a group, but take care to prevent unwanted aggression. Best obtain juveniles and allow them to pair naturally, allowing the most dominant individual to become male. Harems can be formed, but plenty of room will be needed and harmony can’t be guaranteed!
For many species spawning takes place during a ‘simulated spring’ — created by raising temperatures to around 28°C/82°F and gradually increasing ‘day length’ from ten or so hours to around 13 with artificial lighting.
Spawning often occurs at ‘sunset’, with the angels swimming upwards and releasing gametes in the water column. Sufficient tank depth is therefore important and at least 60cm/2’ preferred. However, overall volume can be surprisingly low for an established pair, with 200-300 l/44-66 gal often all that’s necessary. In fact, great success has been achieved using simple plastic drums as spawning vessels.
The eggs are buoyant, as their oil droplet enables them to float to the surface. While collecting them is challenging in a standard reef system, dedicated set-ups employ techniques allowing the eggs to flow into collection vessels for larval culture.
The eggs hatch within 24 hours and the larvae will need a constant diet of copepods. This aspect of care represents the greatest challenge to captive rearing.
Angels or devils?
Adding Centropyge angels to the reef aquarium is always a gamble. Some species are more risky than others, loving to nibble the mantle of tridacnid clams or pecking at the polyps of LPS corals. Regular feeds, however, may dissuade such destructive pecking.
Many an aquarist has had to undertake complete stripdowns just to extract a rogue individual in the tank.
Take the Cherub angel, for example. Considered one of the most ‘reef safe’ dwarf angels, even here some individuals may become destructive. However, other species have behaved impeccably in reef systems for years.
Safest home is a mature Fish Only with Live Rock (FOWLR) system. Such systems provide great foraging material and are a good compromise between the sparse ‘traditional’ fish-only system and the invert-laden reef tank.
Hardiness varies between species, but Centropyge angels can be sensitive.
Damage and stress during transport can spell trouble, so ensure any potential purchases have been sufficiently rested before committing to buy.
Thoroughly inspect any in the dealer’s holding tank. Look for frayed, torn fins or signs of haemorrhaging around the fin rays. Evidence of any should be a warning.
Any fish should be alert, active and preferably feeding.
Acclimatisation should be a slow process under subdued lighting to minimise stress and quarantining is highly recommended for two reasons.
Firstly, it will provide an opportunity to treat any fish affected with parasites, such as Brooklynella or Cryptocaryon, or otherwise suffering other health-related problems.
Dwarf angels may be sensitive to copper treatment, so pay particular attention to dosage rates.
A second reason for quarantining is to allow these fish to begin feeding in a controlled environment and some seeded live rock in the quarantine system will be welcomed.
Centropyge angels are heavenly but feisty, so choose tank mates with care. Avoid larger predators, so large lionfish, big puffers and porcupines — and larger morays and triggers are out.
Similarly, overly shy species should be avoided as the angel may begin to bully them.
Keep dwarf angels with such as hawkfish, tangs, wrasse and other semi-aggressive fishes. Adding the angel towards the end of the stocking list may help limit territorial squabbling — but don’t bank on it.
Conspecific tank mates should be avoided, unless adding small individuals to create a breeding pair or group, and even heterospecifics of the same genus can be trouble. Overall, it’s safest to limit stocking to one Centropyge per aquarium.
The African pygmy angel (C. acanthops) is from the Indian Ocean and has a prominent cheek spine. Reaching 8cm/3.1” in length, this has a golden dorsal surface and head marking, and a deep blue body.
Provide plenty of rubble and at least 200 l/44 gal of volume for this angel that’s often mistaken for the superficially similar Flameback pygmy (C. aurantonotus) from the Western Atlantic. The two species can, however, be easily distinguished — C. aurantonotus having a blue caudal fin instead of the African pygmy’s gold.
From the Indo-Pacific, the Coral beauty (C. bispinosa) is aptly named with its often deep purple and vivid orange coloration. Individuals can vary, depending on location of origin — some being almost completely blue. This enduringly popular angel reaches 10cm/4”.
The Cherub angel (C. argi) - pictured above by Brian Gratwicke - is from the Western Atlantic, although it superficially resembles the allopatric C. acanthops from the Indian Ocean. This is one of the hardier Centropyge, although it must eat sufficient algae. Growing to 8cm/ 3.1” this can be kept in 150 l /33 gal.
The Multicolour angel (C. multicolor) hails from the Pacific and reaches 9cm/3.5”. This species sports bizarre coloration; a combination of yellow, white, black and electric blue. Being a deepwater species and therefore difficult to capture, specimens are expensive.
This angel is surprisingly hardy and, providing that enough rocky crevices are provided, adapts well to captive life, although iffy in terms of being 'reef safe'.
C. nox, the Midnight angel, comes from the Western Pacific and reaches 10cm/4”. It is inexpensive and, despite its uniformly black coloration, is a stunner. It is relatively shy and demands plenty of hiding places, as well as careful acclimatisation and an optimal diet. Only add to a well-established system.
The Flame angel (C. loricula) is extremely popular, despite a hefty price tag. It’s easy to see why, however, with its brilliant orange/red body and electric blue dorsal and anal fins. Originating from the Central to Western Pacific, this species reaches 10cm/4” or so and is generally pretty hardy, provided specimens have been transported well.
The Lemonpeel angel (C. flavissima) from the Indo-Pacific is common in the trade, but not necessarily suitable for aquarium life. It reaches some 14cm/5.5”.
Coloration comprises an overall bright yellow with an electric blue rim around the eye and blue edging on the fins — and it’s not to be confused with the ‘false lemonpeel angel’ (C. heraldi), which lacks blue markings.
Lemonpeels can be territorial, so add them last. Unless a huge amount of room is available, avoid housing with conspecifics.
The Bicolour angel (C. bicolor) is another large, attractive Centropyge, reaching 15cm/6” and looks like a miniature Holacanthus angel. Originating from the Indo-Pacific, this species requires at least 300 l/66 gal and is a risky addition to the reef. Provide plenty of rubble in the aquascaping.
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Any retail price index for marine puffers may be high, but you get personality and intelligence for your investment. Dave Wolfenden reveals a high interest rate for these gilt-edged fish.
What makes marine puffers among the most endearing aquarium fish? Is it their crazy behaviour or amazing adaptations? How about their out-and-out personality?
These fish have a lot going for them — but, before plumping for a puffer, be aware of what you’re taking on...
Their families include Tetraodontidae (the 'true' puffers) and the Diodontidae (technically porcupinefishes and also including burrfishes). There’s also a related family, the Triodontidae, comprising solely the bizarre Threetooth puffer (Triodon macropterus) which is rarely seen in the hobby.
True puffers differ from porcupinefish firstly in dentition. True puffers have four teeth, to which their family name translates, while porcupinefish possess only two teeth ('di'- meaning two and 'dont' meaning teeth), fused into a powerful beak.
The morphology of spines covering the body also differs. In porcupinefish these tend to be more developed and prominent, hence the family’s common name.
Regardless, all these fish are highly evolved and extremely specialised in terms of biology. They are, of course, famed for possessing Tetrodotoxin (TTX) — one of the most potent neurotoxins known to science.
This is found in the organs, such as the liver and ovaries, and probably synthesised by endosymbiotic bacteria passed along the food chain.
However, puffers raised in captivity seem to be non-toxic, appearing to confirm that the TTX is externally produced.
A specimen in a holding tank should appear active and alert. Check skin and fins for signs of trauma during transport and avoid any physically damaged fish. If the specimen appears in good condition, go for it — but quarantining any new additions is highly recommended.
Puffers and porcupinefish are generally pretty hardy, but can be vulnerable to parasitic infections such as Cryptocaryon due to their thin, sensitive skin, although conventional copper-based treatments will help to clear up these problems.
Some species appear susceptible to eye infections, which seem to result from prolonged exposure to sub-optimal water quality.
Move with care
When puffers or porcupinefish are moved they are liable to inflate themselves – and porcupinefish particularly can become easily entangled in nets.
It’s also best to avoid lifting them out of the water, as they are liable to take in air, which can cause problems.
Coax them into a bucket, beaker or other suitable container underwater for lifting, eliminating the need to expose them to air.
It’s inevitable that the fish will find the capture process traumatic, but try to minimise stress levels by dimming the lights and reducing handling time.
Despite their often tough appearance, be fully aware of that extremely sensitive and flexible skin. For this reason, puffers are susceptible to damage during movement and they often fare badly with cleaner wrasses (Labroides spp.). Overzealous cleaners can cause nasty wounds, which are prime sites for secondary infections.
Companions need to be chosen fairly carefully, but get it right and most puffers and porcupines are as good as gold.
The smaller puffers have a reputation for fin nipping, so should only be housed with suitably robust species.
Larger puffers and porcupinefish can be extremely aggressive with conspecifics, or even heterospecifics of a similar appearance, so limit stocking to one member of each genus and limit all other tank mates to aggressive or semi-aggressive species. Larger tangs, groupers, eels are good choices.
The smaller Sharpnosed puffers (Canthigaster spp.) require 150 l/33 gal or so in volume. The ‘medium’ puffers, such as Arothron meleagris or Diodon holocanthus, should have an absolute minimum of 500 l/110 gal, preferably double.
As for the largest, such as the Map puffer (Arothron mappa) or the Common porcupinefish (Diodon hystrix), even 1,000 l/220 gal is probably insufficient.
It’s vital to positively ID a specimen and determine a good idea of potential adult size.
Larger species demand efficient filtration. Due to their sheer bulk and large appetite, puffers and porcupinefish can generate inordinate waste and contribute huge inputs of ammonia and solid waste to the system.
This issue can best be dealt with by a combination of strategies. Highly effective and regularly cleaned mechanical filtration can help limit the effects of solid wastes. Aggressive protein skimming, preferably via an oversized skimmer and maybe utilising ozone, is a must and efficient biological filtration vital.
These are intelligent fish, benefiting from a suitably complex environment to explore. Ensure plenty of rocky aquascaping, perhaps with lots of rubble thrown in for good measure. Caves and overhangs will also be appreciated.
As for housing in a reef aquarium, don’t even bother with the larger puffers and porcupines.
However, the Sharpnosed puffers can be worth a punt, but still risky. For the best chance of success avoid SPS corals, smaller brittle stars and other bite-sized inverts in the same tank.
The Sharpnosed puffers require frequent feeding, especially in traditional fish-only set-ups which provide limited invertebrates and algae for them to rasp from the rocks. Chopped prawn, cockle, frozen Mysis, algal feeds and flake should all be offered twice a day.
The larger species from the Arothron, Diodon and Chilomycterus genera should be fed less frequently, with adults perhaps only every other day.
Overfeeding is a big problem with puffers, so don’t respond to their inevitable begging behaviour.
Larger fish should be offered hard-shelled fare, such as cockles and mussels, frequently to wear down their ever-growing teeth. The consequences otherwise could mean dental surgery.
Can I breed any puffers?
As for captive breeding, these fish are extremely challenging and there are no reliable reports of any successes.
However, in Japan there’s ongoing research and some promising work into pufferfish breeding, particularly Takifugu, for the lucrative aquaculture industry there.
Make your tank puffer proof!
Larger puffers can make light work of the crunchiest invertebrates and also trash their aquariums! Make sure vulnerable items, such as thermometers and electrical cables, are well out of reach of those fearsome teeth!
Seven and out?
A persistent rumour claims that these fish can only inflate themselves seven times before they die. What nonsense!
While puffing up is a sign of fear or stress, experience shows that puffers are not rigidly limited to a finite number before they expire.
Even so, never encourage a puffer to inflate. Despite the rather comical appearance, unnecessary 'puffing' may be a traumatic experience.
Meet the species
The Canthigaster genus comprises the Sharpnosed puffers or Tobies which are easily identified by their elongated snout and relatively streamlined bodies.
These are the more diminutive puffers and the choice for smaller systems. However, tank mates should not include any with trailing fins as these fish are notorious fin nippers.
Often on sale is the Jewel puffer (C. solandri) from the Indo-Pacific with its attractive 'spots and stripes' coloration and the Valentini puffer (C. valentini) — pictured above — another Indo-Pacific species. Each reaches 11cm/4.3”.
This species is expertly copied by the creatively named Mimic filefish (Paraluterus prionurus) which exploits the natural aversion that predatory fish have for the toxic puffer.
Occasionally encountered is the Hawaiian (C. jactator) with its striking coloration of white spots on a brown background. This grows to 9cm/3.5” in length.
The Dogface puffers of the Arothron genus always provoke a reaction. Some aquarists love them, many find them creepy. I think they’re great!
All Dogface puffers reach a considerable size, in terms of girth as well as length, and they make a proportional amount of mess!
The Spotted or Guineafowl pufferfish (A. meleagris) from the Indo-Pacific is found in a number of colour morphs, with a stunning 'golden' morph commanding a considerable price. Expect this species to reach around 20cm/8”.
Also worth considering is the Panda puffer (Arothron diadematus) from the Western Indian Ocean. It has distinctive 'mask' markings and attains a similar size in captivity.
Do some research before buying any specimen — and take the bizarre Map or Scribbled puffer (Arothron mappa) from the Indo-Pacific, for example.
This species often rapidly outgrows its system and can reach around 60cm/2’ in length! This is best left alone, unless you have a huge system, so choose a smaller species instead if you’re set on a Dogface. The Map is not even the largest of the genus!
Arothron stellatus, the Starry puffer from the Indo-Pacific, is a mighty beast, reaching some 1.2m/3.9’ in the wild, and is definitely best left to enjoy life in public aquariums...
The most frequently offered porcupinefish is the Long-spined (Diodon holocanthus). Having a circumtropical distribution, this charismatic fish reaches 30cm/12” or so in captivity.
This species is prone to eye infections, however, which can lead to permanent blindness, so maintain good water quality to prevent such issues.
Otherwise, this is a rewarding fish which should live for many years
The Common porcupinefish (D. hystrix) is also circumtropical and a little less outgoing and more cryptic than the previous species. It grows large though — up to nearly 1m/3.3’ in the wild!
Captive specimens are considerably smaller, but large aquariums are still needed as any captive can reach at least 30cm/12”, possibly a lot more.
The Bridled burrfish (Chilomycterus antennatus) from the Western Atlantic is occasionally seen and it grows to some 30cm/12”. This species is readily identified, thanks to its prominent head-mounted 'horns'.
Also from the Western Atlantic and reaching a similar size is the Striped burrfish (C. shoepfi) with its distinctive wavy markings enhancing a very attractive species.
For many, the lure of the marine hobby is irresistible, but before you jump in at the deep end, Dave Wolfenden explains why certain fish should be avoided by newbies.
Having a little slice of the coral reef at home is brilliant — when it’s going well. What’s not to like about the seemingly endless array of attractive fish and invertebrates available? However, many newcomers to the hobby learn the hard way, plumping for fish that, for various reasons, fail to thrive or just don’t survive.
In fact, a good proportion of beginners are so frustrated with these initial experiences that they give up, never to return to fishkeeping. And that’s kind of sad. So, what makes some fish more of a challenge than others, and what fish should be avoided?
Some species are extremely difficult to feed in captivity. This could be because they simply fail to adapt to captive diets, are notorious for going on hunger strike as soon as they’re placed in the aquarium or have such specific requirements (such as obligate corallivores — species which exclusively munch on coral polyps) that it’s impossible in practical terms to sustain them. Notoriously falling into this category are several species of butterflyfish, which have a wild diet solely consisting of SPS (Small Polyp Stony) corals.
Meeting their feeding requirements in captivity is extremely difficult, as it obviously relies on meeting the challenge of supplying sufficient corals for them. Research is the key here, and never buy a butterfly on a whim without being absolutely certain of its feeding habits.
The list of obligate corallivores is long, but luckily, responsible retailers will seldom stock them, and in any case, plenty of butterflies are suitable for the large, mature FOWLR (fish only with live rock) system. Butterflies aren’t the easiest of fish to keep, but species such as the Threadfin, Chaetodon auriga; Pearlscale, C. paucifasciatus, and Golden, C. semilarvatus, butterflies adapt well to captive diets and fare well if given good water quality and ample room.
Back in the day, cleaner wrasses of the genus Labroides were touted by some authors as being a virtual 'must have' for the marine aquarium. The thinking was that their habit of picking off parasites from client fish on the reef would reap benefits to the cleaner’s tank mates.
Sadly, we now know that cleaner wrasse generally don’t fare well in captivity, and as a beginner fish, they’re a no-no. Most systems can’t provide suitable numbers of client fish to sustain their needs (consider that one cleaner wrasse may be visited by many hundreds of clients in a single day, and you get the idea).
Cleaner wrasses vary in their difficulty, with the stunning Hawaiian cleaner, L. phthirophagus, generally considered virtually impossible to maintain in the long-term. The only species that can be remotely recommended is the Bluestreak cleaner, L. dimidiatus, and this is not one for newcomers; it requires a large system, plenty of tank mates and ample supplementary food, as well as perfect water quality. Bear in mind that the obsessive-compulsive behaviour of cleaner wrasses can also be annoying to tank mates, and their constant pecking can damage the skin of many clients in the aquarium.
Fortunately, there are alternatives to cleaner wrasse that are much less challenging. Fish-wise, the cleaner gobies, Elacatinus spp., from the Caribbean are hardy, adaptable and peaceful — just make sure they’re kept with non-aggressive tank mates. And there’s always cleaner shrimp such as the Ambon cleaner, Lysmata amboinensis, which are similarly happy to either clean fish or accept any manner of prepared foods.
The ever-popular mandarins, Synchiropus splendidus and S. picturatus, have that undeniable 'grab factor', and it’s easy to see why, with their outrageous psychedelic markings. Mandarins are best avoided as first fish, however. To thrive, they require a constant diet of benthic copepods, something a newly-established system usually fails to provide. It is possible to add copepod cultures to the aquarium and/or train the mandarins to accept frozen feeds, although these approaches can be expensive and time-consuming. Starved individuals wane away
over weeks or months, assuming a grim look.
Some fish are more prone to disease than others. Disease is, of course, a risk with keeping any fish, and the use of adequate quarantine facilities is a must to prevent parasites and other nasties from entering the aquarium. However, there are several species commonly found in the hobby that represent a high risk of introducing disease, and why give yourself the stress and hassle of having to carry out treatments if they do occur?
Believe me, treating an outbreak of Whitespot, Cryptocaryon, or Velvet, Amyloodinium, in any aquarium is not fun. It can happen with any fish, but avoiding some species lessens the risk. Plenty of folks (me included, unfortunately) have learned the hard way, so you don’t have to.
The 'usual suspects' for parasitic disease include various tangs — the Regal, Paracanthurus hepatus, for example, and I always wince when I see a Powder blue, Acanthurus leucosternon, in any dealers’ holding tanks; I just see these fish as a ticking white spot time bomb. I don’t know exactly why, but they appear to suffer from parasitic diseases alarmingly often. They’re by no means impossible to keep, but as a beginner, I’d be reluctant to take one on. Opt instead for one of the more robust Zebrasoma species. Caution should also be advised with clownfish, as parasitic diseases such as Brooklynella are often a problem; quarantining new stock is a must.
An additional consideration for beginners is the temperament of the fish. The coral reef is a frantic environment, with often-fierce competition for space, and many fish have evolved aggressive behaviours to establish and maintain territory.
Many small species have pugnacious tendencies far out of proportion to their diminutive sizes, and, in fact, many of the most troublesome species are sold as beginner fish due to their hardy nature. Some of these fish may be quite bulletproof, but their constant squabbling and harassment of tank mates (and often each other) makes them less than appealing.
Take damsels, for example. These fish have plenty going for them in terms of outright ease of husbandry. They’re often small, which allegedly ticks the nano tank box. Not only that, they are able to cope with ammonia and nitrite spikes and can often tolerate parameters that will see many other fish rapidly shuffle off this mortal coil. As a result, they’re frequently added as the first stock in a newly-established system, but this is a bad idea.
A little Humbug or Domino damsel (various Dascyllus species) or aptly-named Blue devil damsel, Chrysiptera cyanea, might look like butter wouldn’t melt, but allow one to establish its territory and further additions of stock could be in a whole world of hurt.
Similarly, Tomato clowns, Amphiprion frenatus, themselves members of the damsel family, are very appealing, with great looks, and they’re hardy too. Small ones can be little charmers, but as they grow, they can play havoc with the rest of their tank mates as well as conspecifics in some cases.
Not all damsels are such brutes, however. While not exactly angelic, the Yellow tail and Azure damsels, Chrysiptera parasema and C. hemicyanea respectively, are, on the whole, much better behaved and a better choice for the newcomer. In terms of clownfish, Common clowns, Amphiprion ocellaris, are generally quite docile, and at a push, I’d recommend the timid Orange skunk clownfish, A. sandaracinos, providing optimal water quality and a host anemone are provided. Quarantine all clowns upon purchase, and buy captive bred specimens whenever possible.
Size up your species
Some species simply get too large for the home, and with the rise in popularity of the nano aquarium (sub-100 l/22 gal or so systems), this will be a ‘big’ problem for some. Juveniles of many species on offer by retailers may be small and cute, but look after them and they can soon outgrow their aquarium. A good example is the Yellow boxfish, Ostracion cubicus, from the Indo-Pacific. Almost unbearably appealing, baby boxfish are often imported little more than a centimetre in length, and their bright yellow colouration lends them the appearance of a swimming piece of sweetcorn.
Unfortunately, adults mature to a drab mustard colour and can reach well over 30cm/12" in length!
A quick check of adult sizes on FishBase (www.fishbase.org) can save a whole lot of hassle in the long run. Incidentally, captive sizes tend to be a little smaller than those quoted on FishBase, but to be on the safe side, assume yours can get that large.
Five more to avoid
1. The Blue cheek sleeper goby, Valenciennea strigata comes from the Indo-Pacific and grows up to 17cm/7". It’s an attractive fish with a habit of burrowing in the sand, ingesting mouthfuls of substrate and extracting algal films and microfauna as food. Unfortunately, many slowly starve to death in newly set-up tanks due to a lack of food. They’re straightforward enough in mature aquaria, but don’t get one for a new system.
2. The ubiquitous Green chromis, Chromis viridis (which usually grows up to 7cm/3" in captivity), is one of the top ten marine fish in terms of numbers imported. These small Indo-Pacific fish are a real bread and butter species and continue to be popular. For my money, they’re not a great beginner’s fish for a couple of reasons. Firstly, despite their hardy reputation, they can be extremely sensitive and they tend not to transport well. Secondly, they’re quite boisterous, and while some folks have luck with maintaining them in nano aquariums, I’d be very wary of confining them in a small system.
3. The Harlequin sweetlips, Plectorhinchus chaetodonoides, is from the Indo-Pacific and is a species that is seen far too often in the trade. I’d urge anyone contemplating getting one to think if they can really maintain it. Sure enough, juveniles of a few centimetres in length are cute enough with their waddling movement and attractive brown and white markings. If you can get a juvenile sweetlips feeding and really doing well in the aquarium (and that’s often a big 'if', as these can be extremely poor at adapting to captivity), expect an adult to reach 50cm/20" long — maybe even more — and become a relatively drab colouration, nothing like its bizarre former self.
4. The Twin spot wrasse, Coris aygula, from the Indo-Pacific, is easy enough to keep — at least as a juvenile. It’s a hardy species and eats like food’s going out of fashion. Tiny ones are often imported and they’re lovely, with their orange and black markings and white body. As they age, however, Twin spots change and not for the better. Before long, that cute little wrasse that entertained you with its lively swimming will become a humpheaded, destructive lump of a fish capable of toppling rockwork and generally creating mayhem on a large scale. Oh, and did I mention they can reach over a metre in length?
5. The Copperband butterfly, Chelmon rostratus, from the Western Pacific, which grows up to 20cm/8", doesn’t fall into the obligate corallivore category, but they are still very challenging and not recommended as a first fish. This beautiful species feeds on small crustaceans, fanworms and other microfauna in the wild, as well as being partial to the odd polyp (with many aquarists employing them to deal with infestations of Aiptasia anemones). While some specimens appear to adapt well to captivity, accepting a variety of prepared foods, all too often these fish appear to last only a week or two before dying often for no apparent reason. On balance, these fish require expert care in terms of husbandry, and selecting a good specimen requires lots of experience.
Still want a mandarin?
The good news is that they’re perfectly possible to maintain in the right system. Wait until your reef is fully established (this can take up to a year or so in some cases) and consider additions of benthic copepods to boost populations prior to introducing the fish.
Don't forget that PFK is now available to download on the iPad.
Dave Wolfenden on a partnership sealed purely by mutual benefit between pistol shrimps and gobies â€” and how you can set up your marine tank to foster that special relationship.
For those of a scientific persuasion, it’s generally frowned on to assign human behaviour to animals. However, when watching the shrimp gobies and their little crustacean partners, it’s difficult not to!
Anyone who’s kept them in an aquarium or seen them in the wild will know what I mean. The slightly neurotic, ultra-clingy shrimp keeps in constant tactile contact with the goby — which often has a slightly exasperated demeanour.
It suggests a somewhat dysfunctional relationship. However, it’s a highly effective partnership, being found in more than 100 species of goby — and it’s possible to replicate such a fascinating relationship in your aquarium.
Several pistol or 'snapping' shrimps of the genus Alpheus associate with gobies, primarily in the Indo-Pacific in areas of sand and rubble in relatively shallow water of the coral reef.
The shrimp has notoriously poor eyesight, but is good at constructing and maintaining a burrow. In fact, it may be obsessed with it, constantly shifting rubble and debris from which it is made to keep the entrance clear.
The goby, meanwhile, has particularly good vision, but is less adept at creating burrows which, of course, offer valuable protection on the reef.
In an evolutionary masterstroke, both shrimp and goby have evolved an alliance which utilises the strengths of each — or makes each one’s weaknesses less of a hindrance, depending how you look at it.
In return for 'lodgings', the goby acts as a sentinel to the shrimp. The pair use tactile communication virtually constantly.
The shrimp maintains contact with the goby, courtesy of its long, highly sensitive antennae, while the goby primarily uses subtle movements of its tail to warn the shrimp if danger is imminent.
Often pairs of gobies or pistol shrimps will inhabit the same burrow. The animals tend to be diurnal — daytime active — and the shrimp will often seal the entrance to the burrow at night to shut out predators.
This is a truly mutualistic example of symbiosis – meaning both partners benefit from the deal. In fact it appears to be, for many goby species, an obligate relationship on the reef. In other words, they have to exist in partnership with their respective shrimp(s) due to their vulnerability to predation. Many species of shrimp goby are always with their crustacean 'landlord'.
A study undertaken last year by Californian researchers revealed, through DNA analysis techniques, that the shrimp-goby partnership has twice evolved independently, involving different major groups of goby during each evolutionary event.
Gobies of the following genera are noted as having symbioses with shrimp: Amblyeleotris, Ctenogobiops, Cryptocentrus, Stonogobiops, Vanderhorstia, Tomiamichthys and Mahidolia. Several species of shrimp goby are actually offered in the trade. The shrimps are relatively difficult to capture, so less frequently offered. Primarily, the gobies on offer will include Stonogobiops, Ctenogobiops, Cryptocentrus and Amblyeleotris species.
Despite the intimate association between the shrimp and their feisty fishy lodgers on the reef, you can maintain the gobies on their own in the aquarium, providing they have suitable nooks and crannies to hide in.
However, being the sophisticated, discerning aquarist that you are and looking for something special, you may be pondering on setting up your very own shrimp-goby station. Here’s how...
Setting up for that special relationship
You’ll need to correctly identify the species of both shrimp and goby if a successful interspecific partnership is to be forged. Sometimes matched pairs are offered and these can be a decent bet, otherwise, research carefully!
Both shrimp and goby should be kept in an appropriately furnished aquarium. Plenty of suitable substrate is vital for burrowing and overall a reef system is perfect, but there’s no reason why a dedicated system couldn’t be established specifically for this purpose.
If housing a shrimp-goby partnership as part of an established system, ensure that tank mates are peaceful, as aggressive or even some semi-aggressive species will harass the goby and potentially out-compete it in the hunt for food.
Otherwise, feeding for both shrimp and goby is straightforward.
The goby will accept a wide range of live, fresh and prepared feeds. Frozen Mysis, Artemia and flake foods are usually eagerly accepted and feed at least twice a day. The shrimp tend to be scavengers, so will happily pick at any leftovers.
The gobies, despite their diminutive size, tend to be territorial with conspecifics and even other members of the same genus. Limit stocking to just one goby and shrimp pair per aquarium, unless you have several hundred litres available.
It’s sometimes possible to establish heterosexual pairs of gobies and 'mated pairs' may be occasionally offered. Otherwise, stick to one goby per genus. A shrimp and goby symbiotic pairing can, in fact, be ideal for nano aquariums, as 100l/22 gal is adequate for the smaller species. However, some burrows may be up to half a metre long, so adequate substrate area is important.
The shrimp will need to have a substrate of some 10cm/4” in which to maintain its burrow and fine sand simply won’t cut it as this structure will readily collapse. The shrimp are good at building burrows, but not that good!
Some fine sand is OK, but this needs to be mixed with various other coarser materials to allow a stable burrow to be built. Pieces of shell and coarse coral chips mixed in with the substrate are ideal.
Why not take out your frustrations on some small pieces of live rock with a hammer? As well as being therapeutic, this can create instant rubble pieces which your shrimp will love.
Both goby and shrimp need careful acclimatisation and may be quite shy for several days after being introduced, but disease issues should be rare.
Keep water quality as good as possible, as it’s best to avoid having carrying out any disease treatments. The little gobies can be sensitive to many medications, so your mantra really needs to be ‘prevention is better than cure’.
Poppers are muted with gobies
Pistol shrimps derive their name from their ability to produce loud popping noises from their specialised claws. Specifically, they create a high-speed cavitation bubble which creates a sound as it collapses. Some species can stun or even kill fish using this technique.
However, while they can create sound, those which associate with gobies tend to be small and relatively peaceful. They certainly won’t be keeping you up all night!
Meet the species
Stonogobiops species of goby are small and delicate, rarely reaching more than 7cm/2.8” and have a slender body. This genus includes the fantastically named and expensive S. dracula (Dracula goby) from the Indian Ocean, again reaching just 7cm. This species is very attractive, with alternate thick and thin bands of red-orange.
S. xanthorhinica, at up to 6cm/2.4”, is one of the most regularly seen, hailing from a wide area of the Indo-Pacific. ‘Xanthorhinica’ means yellow nosed in reference to its bright facial marking.
One of the most desirable members of this genus is S. yasha from the Western Pacific (pictured above and at the top of the page). Sporting beautiful red markings and growing to no more than 5cm/2”, this species aptly answers to the common name of the High-fin goby, and one look at its elongated dorsal will tell you why. They’re pricey but worth it.
Ctenogobiops species include the high-fin Spangle goby (C. tangaroai) whose rather showbizzy name is derived from its iridescent, spotted markings. It reaches a diminutive 6cm/2.4” and hails from the Pacific Ocean.
Cryptocentrus species include the Yellow watchman goby (C. cinctus,) a stout, chunky specimen from the Western Pacific, reaching some 10cm/4” in length and having a somewhat grouchy appearance.
C. pavoninoides from Indonesia also known as the Blue spot goby, can attain 15cm/6” in the wild but is usually less in the aquarium. Exclusively from the Red Sea, the Harlequin goby (C. caeruleopunctatus) will reach similar lengths.
Amblyeleotris species are generally slender and colourful. Randall’s goby (A. randalli) from the Western Pacific is one pretty fish, reaching no more than 12cm/4.7”, sporting a prominent dorsal fin and displaying bright orange stripes. Also from the Western Pacific, the Sunspot goby (A. guttata) reaches a similar size and displays distinctive orange spots across its body.
The Aurora goby (A. aurora) from the Indian Ocean is a stunning specimen, reaching 10cm/4” and having bright red stripes and a gorgeously-marked caudal fin.
Also worth a mention is Wheeler’s goby (A. wheeleri) from the Indo-Pacific. Reaching 10cm/4”, this fish is reminiscent of an old-fashioned barber’s pole with its alternate red and white stripes, often dotted with fine blue spots.
Many symbiotic shrimp are often simply labelled 'Alpheus spp.' when appearing in retailers’ systems. It’s worth investigating if the Alpheus species you’re interested in is actually a symbiont with gobies. Some are not and often won’t like the idea of co-habiting with a fish!
One of the best species and one of the most commonly seen is Randall’s shrimp (A. randalli), pictured above with Stonogobiops nematodes. This shrimp is transparent with vivid red stripes interspersed with white banding and yellow-green legs.
This will readily associate with many species of goby, including many Stonogobiops, Cryptocentrus and Amblyeleotris species.
While not the prettiest of shrimps, with brown markings, the Tiger pistol shrimp (A. bellulus) is sometimes offered and makes a good choice for pairing with several gobies. For example, it will act as a symbiont with C. cinctus, A. guttata, A. randalli and S. yasha, plus many more.
Alpheus ochrostriatus, the Fine-striped shrimp, is another good bet and particularly attractive with delicate pink coloration and thin white stripes across the carapace. It pairs with, among others, C. tangaroai, A. guttata, A. randalli and A. wheeleri.
Some species may live symbiotically with gobies if the mood takes them, but they may be primarily non-symbionts.
Take the Bullseye shrimp, and it’s easy to see why A. soror (pictured here by Haplochromis, Creative Commons) commands a high price tag. It’s rarely offered in the trade but, when specimens become available, they’re quickly snapped up.
One admiring look at its orange body, prominent false eyespot and those purple legs and claws will tell you that this is a particularly desirable species.
Mixed results have been seen when attempting to pair this species with gobies — suggesting it’s a facultative symbiont rather than an obligate one.
No guarantees over pairing choices
Appropriate pairings of shrimp and goby largely appears initiated and maintained through chemical cues.
Some species of goby simply won’t act as tenant with certain species of shrimp. Some are less choosy than others, but, to avoid disappointment, research in advance whether the pairing you have in mind is a natural one — and positive ID of species is essential.
Not all Alpheus act as symbionts. It’s possible to pair symbiotic species which would never encounter each other in the wild, but it can be hit or miss.
For further guidance, Debelius and Baensch’s seminal Marine Atlas (Volume 1) is an excellent reference work for identifying the various species of both shrimp and goby.
Nathan Hill grabs at the chance to return, if briefly, to work in public aquaria â€” and is left breathless by a hectic schedule.
From the position of spectator, the job of an aquarist is a hobbyist’s life of bliss. The illusion of playing with hi-tech gadgetry, embarking on elaborate breeding and research projects and frolicking with ocean giants is one that many a layperson covets.
For visitors, public aquaria don’t seem particularly hectic places to work. Guests rarely see panicking staff dashing from leaking pipe to leaking pipe, or catching fish. Everything seems to occur in a quiet and hidden harmony behind the scenes.
Having been out of the public aquarium trade for more than a decade, I decided I wanted to return to see how things play out day to day.
Even so, I fancied myself as more than a tourist, so contacting London SeaLife curator Paul Hale — who used to be the curator of the aquarium where I once worked — we arranged for me to be thrown into the mix of staff.
I’d do what the employed team of SeaLife staff would do, facing the same highs and lows, and be exposed to the same risks. This was to be no cosy, mollycoddled day of being shown things from a distance while health and safety managers fretted over whether my shoes were comfy enough. This was a chance to get stuck into the hard core of public aquatics.
I was tossed from aquarist to aquarist and job to job. Some were familiar and, just like riding a trike, I was comfy within seconds, flaunting skills I haven’t had to dust off for many years. Other tasks were newer and more daunting — not to mention much more perilous than I ever remembered.
Most importantly, and that part of public aquaria I’d forgotten about, by the end of my shift I was totally exhausted!
A combination of carrying buckets of water, going from extremes of tropical heat to Arctic cold and constantly being on my feet chiseled away at my energy until I remembered just how draining a job it really is.
9am: Start the day
I turned up late and missed the first task — checking the life support and livestock.
Don’t think this is comparable to a quick glance inside a 60cm/2’ tank to look for whitespot. This is a rare chance to have an unhindered look at sharks and rays in 1,000,000 l/220,000 gal of water to spot the odd parasite or split fin.
An hour later and such inspections would be tricky, once the doors are open and visitors arrive, so inspection needs to be accurate but fast.
Life support checking is just as laborious. Rather than having a Fluval 2 canister, the tanks involve gigantic spider valves, pressurised sand filters and hundreds of metres of plumbing. A simple leak can fast turn into a headache that requires day-long attention.
9.30am: Feeding jellyfish and quarantine
Unlike sprinkling some flake on to the surface of an aquarium, breakfast for livestock takes considerably more preparation.
In a dedicated live food section, we harvested Artemia nauplii — litres and litres of nauplii. Fixed plumbing accelerated the process as we drained vats through nets and then separated the newly-hatched shrimp.
We used magnetised Artemia and so, once harvested, we placed the culture into a settlement tube teeming with magnets. This drags out the cysts and unhatched eggs, but not hatched shrimp.
As the Artemia settled, we cleaned the harvesting vats using algae pads and dexterous fingers. Then the vats were refilled with reclaimed seawater from a plumbed supply and fresh cultures soaked for the next day.
We enriched adult Artemia with lipids, while constantly keeping an eye on tanks brimming with shark eggs, as well as tanks of pipefish, and the various animals being rested. We strained off the now shell-free Artemia nauplii and started syphoning out debris from jellyfish tanks before feeding them.
More cleaning followed as the magnets were washed off and Artemia separator cleaned out, followed by more feeding. Some food was held back for display anemones and other jellyfish.
Gaining access to the feeding areas for displays took as much flexibility in moving around pipes and other behind-the-scene obstructions as manoeuvring around the newly-arriving visitors. Wearing a SeaLife top is a visible invite to approach and converse, that’s for sure.
10.40am: Main feed preparation
My quarantine session finished after the records had been filled in and I moved to the next task where we were to arrange meals for the larger displays.
Big fish have big appetites but, with so many in the larger displays, meals have to be able to fit different-sized mouths.
For the one tank, we had to arrange supplements in the food — specifically vitamins and potassium iodide. The latter is required for sharks that are notoriously prone to developing goiter — over activity of the thyroid gland.
Individual food fish were incised, supplements measured and the whole lot assembled by hand. We prepared 20 mackerel, 15 whiting, nine haddock, two trevally and almost 9kg of squid.
Some was chopped in the normal way. Others had heads removed before being gutted and cut into strips of varying sizes. With endless squid this was no quick task.
Obviously this job was filthy, requiring gloves and aprons. Despite these, the liquids and their associated aromas still found their way into my clothes and skin, making whoever performs this task regularly an aquatic pariah.
11.40am: Water testing
Next came the closest thing to a break so far — a sit down in the lab to test water.
Water tests are frequent in public aquaria and records comprehensive. The kit here is a step-up from an off-the-shelf master tester and regular tests take place for NO3, NO2, NH3, Fe, SO4, Cl, K, PO4, Cu, Alk, Mg, S.G, and pH.
Some things we could probe, such as nitrate, but for other tests we had to use colourmetric indicators — just like a home test — and then get an accurate reading by placing them in a photometer. Everything had to be recorded. Test tubes and beakers were everywhere and we worked through the lot.
The job was made longer by the need to rinse everything thoroughly between tests. With the ultra-accurate readings of the photometer we used comes a need for complete cleanliness — and lots of wiping up afterwards.
Thankfully we only had a few sections of the aquarium to work through as the duties are rotated daily, but this would easily become a full-time job for any employee if all the systems needed to be recorded daily to this high degree of accuracy.
12.30pm: Penguin feeding
Think that being an aquarist is all about fish? Think again. In the ever-changing climate of public aquaria diversity is essential and even though you may be qualified in fish you’ll likely meet and work with other animals.
The chilled section of the penguins is a brief relief from the heat of other sections, but the labour is just as intensive.
As well as feeding we had to collect ice prepared in another part of the labyrinthine building. We then had to lug it to the other end to drain off excess fluids before heading to the display where we had to don lifejackets.
My second chance to sit down was particularly cold comfort, as all I had to perch on were frosty rocks. I sat shivering as the animals came and took food that had to be rammed down their throats because of their avian laziness.
Post feed, we had to collect and distribute the ice — a delightful task for already chilled hands. Once deposited, there were more records to complete and more cleaning before we broke for lunch. Yet even that wasn’t simple.
Public aquaria get through lots of food and en route to our break we met a pallet of frozen fish and squid, and a handful of staff unloading it. We were instantly collared into lifting ice cold, heavy boxes into the storage freezers — marking and recording everything along the way.
2.30pm: Shark feed
This was the high point of the day, but not as relaxing as a feed session in a home tank. We had to carry buckets across the building and then go behind the scenes into the feeding platforms of the Pacific display tank.
Lifejackets on, we stood in remarkable heat and humidity working collectively to feed the fish. Radio communication from below allowed for targeted scatter feeding, while I knelt on painful, grated flooring to dangle a long feeding pole over the sharks.
I needed to make sure that the food didn’t go to the wrong shark, but I failed. Identifying individuals at a few metres depth, when looking through waves, is not a chore I’d relish again.
Improvisation was key, chasing up and down service walkways above the tank, trying to feed the right fish in oppressive heat. Suitably convinced that all had eaten, we returned the gear to the food preparation area for more cleaning and yet more records.
3.15pm: Moving fish from quarantine to displays
For most of us moving fish would be simple, but usually a crocodile isn’t involved!
Although a peculiar choice, we had to round up some Malawi cichlids from the quarantine area, which involves bringing a bongo to half fill with water — probably to 60-70 l/13-15 gal — and then catch the fish to put inside.
While doing so I took the chance to see some of the ever-problematic big rescue fish in large rounded tubs. There was a gar in one, maybe 1m/3.5’ long, that the former owner kept in her bathtub…
With the fish eventually caught and the bongo loaded onto a trolley, we made our way through the maze of back passages to the crocodile display. Behind the scenes again, we had to bring the bongo to within dripping range, as carrying the thing through the restrictive openings in and out of the display would have been well nigh impossible.
Satisfied we were within several metres, a length of hose was used to lift water from the system and drip into the bongo.
After being briefed on seemingly endless handling protocols —including one explaining what to do while having your arm pulled off by the crocodile — it was a case of luring her into an area which could be remotely closed off.
A game of patience ensued, with aquarists grabbing at levers to lock her away.
We performed a clean, using long wipers and scrapers on poles. Reaching both into and out of the water using a 3m/10’ pole is exhausting at the best of times, but, combined with the tropical temperatures and humidity generated by hidden misters, it becomes particularly unbearable.
After using the drip method for around 40 minutes, the fish were transported to smaller buckets where they were then carried through the narrow access way and released.
It was with some shame that I’d taken too long on this chore as I had actually been destined to remove shark and ray eggs from another tank — a job that, as a result, I missed…
4.20pm: Ocean tank feed
Laden with yet more trollies and buckets of food, we headed across to another gigantic display housing turtles. This time we were armed with both New Era pellet foods, as well as ample greenery in the form of cabbages, cucumbers and more.
Without the benefit of the radio communication this time, we had to simply assess whether the fish were getting the right foods. Much involved scatter feeding, hurling handfuls into the frenzied mass. It was impossible to spot if anyone was missing out.
My role was to distract the two huge Green turtles by feeding them greenery while my co-worker ran a long pipe to the bottom of the tank, dropping food down to more benthic fishes.
Easier said than done, as these diners spent as much time chasing the tube as accepting my offerings!
More scatter feeding ensued, with chopped squid and fish creating yet another frenzied flurry of excitement.
4.50pm: Target feeding the sharks
We returned to the Pacific display as we travelled back from the turtles. Not content that by now everything had a full belly, my colleague had held on to a few fish to feed a couple of specific Black-tipped reef sharks.
While scampering along, I peeked into one of the display filters which looked as though it had more flow than most rivers I had yet come across. I realised then just how deafening that half of the display was and how easy it would be to run into difficulties without being able to communicate your distress to any colleagues.
Target feeding done, we made our way back to the food prep area to sift through uneaten food and store what could be used next day, and clean our buckets and equipment before finishing the day with a final huge dose of yet more record keeping.
Why do the staff want to do it?
As I was working alongside such a wide range of aquarists, I asked what made them buzz – and what deflated them.
Major plus point was the experience itself. Several times my co-workers became dreamy eyed when talking of the magic of working alongside the animals. After all, not many of us get to keep a Sand tiger shark!
One aquarist talked of the sheer diversity of experiences, always trying new things and never tethered to a dead-end job.
Big tanks bring a wealth of new sensations and one worker beamed as she talked of diving in the gigantic, shark-filled tanks.
Another explained that his high point is educating the public. He thrived on breaking visitor misconceptions about creatures like sharks and felt a sense of reward when they left for home far wiser.
However, there are also some lows and most loudly voiced was the amount of paperwork associated with the job.
Pay was an obvious gripe too. Working in a role you enjoy, but knowing so many people want your job, you might not always have financial leverage over your employers.
Abrasive visitors was another — a point I’m sure many retailers could sympathise with. Those who have no compassion for the animals have no bond with those who love them.
Cleaning was another bugbear and, given those endless buckets of slimy squid and fish offal, I can see why. The smell sticks with you all day…
The final gripe was the number of working hours. Those in public aquaria have a greater obligation to work weekends and bank holidays and finish only when the animals have finished needing them.
Given a crisis, you could still be there well into the night. Breeding sharks don’t acknowledge clocking-off times...
Interested in a job like this?
Being a public aquarist is enjoyable, but not something to just walk into.
Work experience is vital, given the hands-on role dealing with animals that can cause you serious harm.
Qualifications are becoming ever more essential and a good grade in a specialist field would be advantageous.
Staff members were mainly from marine biology backgrounds, although zoology and even psychology degrees were also in the mix. Some had worked at internships elsewhere and others had started working on the most menial tasks.
It might help to be aspirational too. Nearly everyone I spoke to eventually wanted a much bigger role in aquatics, citing marine conservation, aquatic research and even their own curator’s job as end goals.
Don’t expect this to be a glamorous occupation. Public aquarists don’t live in mansions and drive Bentleys. They tend to be from the school of life background, appreciating that this is definitely a labour of love.
Would I go back to it? Hell, given the choice I’d be chopping squid right now…
Be fully aware of what youâ€™re taking on if planning to keep a moray eel. They need minimal maintenance but that fearsome reputation is well earned. Dave Wolfenden explains more.
Moray eels are seen as creepy, scary or just plain cool — perhaps all at once. Yet some can be suitable for appropriate home aquaria.
There are more than 100 species in the family Muraenidae. Being scale-less and lacking the pelvic, pectoral and pelvic fins of most other fish groups. They have highly developed dorsal and anal fins which can undulate when swimming.
Their general morphology, however, is an adaptation to a fairly sedentary lifestyle — being 'sit and wait' ambush predators.
Morays suffer a formidable reputation, which isn’t helped by their intimidating appearance. When ambushing, most poke their head out of their hidey-hole and expose fearsome fangs. This is simply the moray breathing, passing oxygenated water over its gills and out through the tiny gill openings.
Having said that, morays have been responsible for numerous ‘incidents’ involving divers, usually as a result of careless poking in the moray’s lair, or through hand feeding.
The legacy of a large moray’s bite isn’t pretty. Those needle-like teeth can cause severe damage and some victims have lost fingers, thumbs and sometimes more as a result. There’s the additional risk of aggressive secondary infection, courtesy of a mysterious cocktail of bacteria in the eel’s mouth.
Avoid hand feeding. They can move exceedingly quickly and their poor eyesight means they can’t readily distinguish between food and fingers. So use a feeding stick, or, better still, tongs when feeding and always keep your wits about you.
Feeding twice a week should be more than adequate for most adults and around three times a week is fine for youngsters. It’s not unusual for new acquisitions to go on hunger strike for several weeks after introduction to new quarters, so it may be necessary to train the moray onto captive diets.
Regular presentation with feeding tongs — and a lot of persistence — may be necessary. It’s rare for them to starve to death, so keep plugging away until they feed!
They need space!
Despite their sedentary nature, morays demand a lot of space and smaller species can be kept in systems at a minimum 250 l/55 gal. Larger morays require correspondingly sizeable housing and I wouldn’t consider keeping a Leopard moray (Gymnothorax favagineus) in an aquarium less than 1500 l/330 gal.
Aquascaping must take into account natural habits — so incorporate some lair, which could comprise some carefully arranged rockwork. Be warned, however, that morays are extremely strong, so a lovingly constructed cave can rapidly become rubble. Fixing rockwork with epoxy putty can provide a solution.
A more elegant method of creating a suitable captive habitat is to employ flexible plastic drainage pipes. These can be cut to length, bent to shape and incorporated into the rockwork. Both ends should be exposed to permit adequate water circulation and prevent build-up of stagnant areas or collection of uneaten food or detritus.
The pipes could be embedded in the back wall of the aquarium, or a series can form the basis of a central rockwork feature on the base of the tank. A little planning and creativity can help to make an attractive display which any self-respecting moray will love.
Lighting can be relatively subdued to ensure the moray is on display as much as possible. Intense metal halide lighting can simply encourage specimens to hide.
Secure the lid of the tank firmly. Morays are escape artists, as I know. Picking a crispy moray from the floor isn’t gratifying, so ensure any gaps are sealed.
An eel can use its tail and powerful, muscular body to lever the lid off a tank, so it will need to be sturdy. Public aquariums keeping the larger species may even bolt on their lids!
Even the smallest species is a relatively large fish compared to most other species commonly kept and, as such, their feed input and waste output is pretty prodigious. Filtration must cope with the large quantities of solid waste these fishes generate, so mechanical media needs to be suitably efficient and cleaned regularly.
Consider the quantities of ammonia that can be generated — and that includes potentially dangerous ‘spikes’ after meals. Extremely efficient biological filtration is also a must, with an adequately sized external canister or trickle filtration being ideal, and ensure a high turnover for adequate oxygenation.
Don’t even consider a moray without a preferably oversized protein skimmer. As an additional tool for water quality ozone could be considered, in conjunction with skimming, to deal with the high bioloading these fishes are capable of exerting on the filter.
Monitor alkalinity and pH, as it’s easy for values to fall outside optimal with a high biomass.
Morays are happy with minimal healthcare and, once settled in, are hardy. In fact, providing filtration is up to the job and water quality is optimal, these are among the most bulletproof of marine fish.
These eels respond poorly to copper-based treatments, presumably because of their scale-less skin. They rarely suffer from whitespot or other parasitic diseases in any case, but alternative treatments should always be sought and care taken not to overdose with any remedy.
Bacterial conditions may occur, especially if trauma is sustained during handling and transport or if water quality dips, and they respond well to antibiotics. Always quarantine new specimens.
When selecting stock, try to undertake a thorough inspection of the whole animal. This may mean asking for it to be coaxed out of its hiding place in the dealer’s holding tank. Check for physical damage, for example around the mouth, and signs of eye cloudiness.
The best form of healthcare is prevention through adequate space, suitable aquascaping and maintaining optimal water quality.
What to feed
Morays diet varies. They’re all carnivorous, but some require a crustacean-based diet while others will favour fish or squid.
The greatest clue to any species’ diet is dentition. Crustacean feeders tend to have flattened teeth for grinding and crunching hard-shelled invertebrates, while the needle-like teeth of piscivorous species are used for spearing and gripping slippery prey.
Whatever the diet of your chosen species, variety is important. Specialist crustacean feeders should have a range of prawns and crabs. Piscivores will benefit from a mix of frozen fish species as well as squid. Vitamin supplementation should be considered for all morays to prevent dietary deficiencies.
Tank mates should vary, depending on species and diet and smaller, crustacean feeders can co-habit with a range of fish species and sessile invertebrates, although they may eat very small fish.
Larger, more predatory morays need to be kept in either a species aquarium or with robust, aggressive or semi-aggressive species. Porcupine fish, puffers, lionfish and triggers can be good choices of companion — providing they’re not meal-sized.
Which system is best for them?
Can morays be maintained in a reef system? It’s possible for the smaller species, notably the Snowflake, Echidna nebulosa, but filtration still needs to be able to cope with relatively high waste outputs.
For larger morays, such as the Leopard, Gymnothorax favagineus, maintaining water quality suitable for invertebrates becomes much more of a challenge.
Realistically, you’ll want to consider these specimens for a fish-only system and species or mixed large ‘predator’ set-ups will be the best route.
Can I breed moray eels?
Morays have yet to be successfully bred in captivity — and for a pretty good reason. It’s down to a bizarre planktonic larval stage, known as the leptocephalus, which the juvenile eels assume as they drift for weeks or months before metamorphosising.
Providing conditions for successful development of the leptocephalus stage in captivity represents a huge challenge, and it looks as if captive moray breeding will elude us for some years yet...
Meet the family
...or at least some of them. Only a handful of morays are commonly available in the trade and the large nature of most species precludes them from being kept.
Here’s a selection of some suitable and not so suitable species you may find a home for:
Justifiably the most popular species in the hobby is the Snowflake eel, Echidna nebulosa (pictured above by Prilfish, Creative Commons) from the Indo-Pacific and Eastern Pacific.
This beautiful, hardy species has plenty to recommend it, growing to a manageable size and rarely reaching over 50cm/20”. It’s a crustacean feeder and, provided there are no crabs and prawns in the aquarium, they are peaceful. Just ensure any fish tank mates are not mouth-sized — just in case!
In fact, it’s possible to maintain Snowflakes in reef systems, providing your filtration is up to the task. They won’t bother sessile invertebrates, but some creative aquascaping will be required to provide them with a dimly lit lair if keeping them with light-loving animals.
The Zebra moray, Gymnomuraena zebra, has a similar distribution and grows to around 90cm/35” in captivity. It’s another crustacean feeder and generally peaceful mixing with larger fish species.
Their size makes them less suitable for reef systems than the Snowflake, with fish-only being the set-up of choice. Obviously, don’t keep them with any crustaceans either!
Many aquarists covet the Dragon moray or Japanese dragon eel, Enchelycore pardalis (pictured above) and it’s easy to see why. With its psychedelic mottled coloration of orange, black and white and its prominent nasal ‘horns’, this is a real stunner.
Hailing from the Indo-Pacific, it is a piscivorous species, reaching around 60cm/24” in length, sometimes more.
Expect to pay top dollar for one — and a £1,000 price tag is not unknown!
A ‘budget’ alternative is the Mexican dragon eel, Muraena lentiginosa (above) from the Eastern Pacific, and it’s another piscivore. While not as attractive as the ‘true’ dragon eel, it is still handsome, attains a similarly manageable size but has a far less hefty price.
Many Gymnothorax species are just too large and aggressive for most hobbyist systems, but a few are suitable for those with enough space and equipment. The Golden eel, Gymnothorax miliaris (pictured above by Nick Hobgood, Creative Commons) is an attractive species from the Western Atlantic and it grows to around 70cm/28”.
It’s occasionally offered in the trade and is a particularly good choice. Feed a varied diet of frozen, supplemented fish and squid to make this eel happy.
From the Indo-Pacific, the Leopard moray, Gymnothorax favagineus, is a hardy predator, but bear in mind that these grow to well over 80cm/32” in captivity. They’re also very girthy and capable of producing prodigious amounts of waste.
These are probably the largest morays that could reasonably be considered for the hobbyist.
They are relatively easy to maintain, but need to be kept in very large systems with robust tank mates and efficient filtration. Feed squid and fish twice a week —and mind your fingers at all times!
The Ribbon eel, Rhinomuraena quaesita (pictured above by Chika Watanabe, Creative Commons) is one to avoid. With its bizarre nasal extensions, it certainly looks fascinating enough, but Ribbon eels are difficult to maintain, with starvation the major cause of death among captive specimens. Some success has been reported with those in public aquaria — but pretty dismal survival rates are the norm.
Thoroughly research and identify any specimen before committing to ownership. Various unusual species occasionally turn up in the trade and positive ID is essential to determine potential adult length. Some reach hefty and downright unmanageable sizes — often with aggressive dispositions.
Just because a specimen is offered for sale, don’t automatically assume it’s suitable for the home aquarium. You have been warned!
Make the most of the gorgeous weather. Relatives of what we keep at home can be found in our rock pools. Richard Aspinall reveals why he loves to be beside the seaside.
As my interest in reefkeeping has grown and my bank account has shrunk proportionately, I’ve rediscovered rock pools. These wonderful features of our tidal and rocky shores that are neither land nor sea cradle a wealth of life inhabiting our inshore waters.
We can also meet some of the distant and slightly more rugged relatives of the creatures we keep in our reefs back home.
My interest in the sea started when I was young, but growing up in a northern mill town did not offer many opportunities to explore reefs — except for that one miraculous week of the year when we packed ourselves on a train and headed coastward.
For kids and adults alike, rockpooling consists of stuffing as many crabs as possible into a small and rapidly overheating bucket. That kind of rockpooling wasn’t for me though.
Crabs were of little interest. I was looking for blennies, anemones, starfish, fan worms, swimming crabs, snails, Sea hares and so on...
I’ve met a few fishkeepers who’ve loved getting their hands wet around our British coastline, but for those of you who haven’t sampled this fascinating, largely free and only mildly perilous activity, here’s a quick introduction to some of the critters you can find in these pockets of water.
Dozens of fish species inhabit our rocky shores, with wrasses such as the Ballan (Labrus bergylta), Corkwing (Crenilabrus melops) and Painted (C. tinca) being equally as colourful as many tropical species.
The average rockpooler though is more likely to come across marooned bottom dwellers. Blennies such as Parablennius gattorugine — the Tompot (above) — are common and remarkably attractive.
Southern coasts may reward the pooler with Butterfly blennies (B. ocellaris), a species having a gorgeous ‘eye-spot’ on its dorsal fin, or Montagu’s blenny (Coryphoblennius galerita).
Crabs regularly feature in the trade, though we usually offer homes to smaller, herbivorous or detrivorous species such as Mithrax or species from the Porcelain crab group — not forgetting our beloved hermits.
Parting the seaweed and carefully lifting it aside, however, could reveal several much bigger and equally interesting species — more often than not the common Green shore crab, but occasionally rarer species such as the small Hairy crab (Pilumnus hirtellus) or tiny Pea crabs (Pinnotheres sp.) that live commensally in the shells of bivalves. There’s also the exquisitely marked Marbled swimming crab (Liocarcinus marmoreus).
After the shore crab the most commonly found are small specimens of the Edible crab (Cancer pagurus) and the dapper Velvet swimming crab (Necora puber). This is a splendid creature with red eyes, shot through with blue on the legs and with flattened oar-like rear legs (periopods) to help it move at considerable speed through the water.
One of the joys of rockpooling is the chance to meet larger versions of creatures we wouldn’t entertain in a captive reef.
A big crab is a nightmare to house and feed — and hard to love — but just catch one, briefly and carefully, and marvel at its construction. It has remarkably ‘engineered’ joints and pincer pivots, wonderful detail in its eyes and a breathtaking complexity of scores of separate ‘plates’ that make up its skeleton.
Our waters also offer a wealth of hermit crabs, which can usually be found in pools as smaller specimens inhabiting the shells of shallow water molluscs such as the Common periwinkle (Littorina littorea). Shells of deeper water molluscs, such as the Common whelk (Buccinum undatum), are much sought after below the low water mark.
The larger crustaceans don’t represent all of the order. Amphipods, ostracods and isopods can found by the more enthusiastic pooler, while several Palaemonid, Hippolytid and Alpheid shrimps can be found around our coastline, though the commercially valuable and very common Brown shrimp (Crangon crangon) is often found in the greatest numbers.
Occasionally, extreme low tides may reveal a Squat lobster (Munida sp., Galathea sp.) or even a Common lobster
Divers often take ‘lobbies’ for the table but, if you must do so, research first and ensure you take only older larger specimens that have had chance to breed — and that you are legally able to do so. These amazing animals should be left well alone!
Corals and anemones
We often associate anemones with warm tropical seas and colourful clownfish, but our temperate waters are replete with anemones, some exceptionally beautiful. The commonest and most easily spotted in the rock pool is the vivid red Beadlet anemone.
This resilient species can survive many hours of exposure to air, baking sunlight and freezing winds, before the tide returns and this small 5-8cm/2-3” creature opens its tentacles to feed in the manner we are all familiar with.
Warmer coastlines on the south and west of the UK might reveal a Daisy anemone (Cereus pedunculatus) buried with its foot in the sand, while, below the low water mark, rocks and harbour sides can be covered in Dahlia anemones (Urticina felina), Plumose anemones (Metridium senile) and one of our few stony corals — the Devonshire cup-coral (Caryophyllia smithii).
Soft coral species are limited in number, but not necessarily in biomass. Alcyoniums, such as the Dead Man’s Fingers often inhabit kelp forests and may cover many acres of shallow water all around the British coastline.
Poolers are likely to come across several starfish species, from the Common (Asterias rubens) to some Cushion stars from the familiar genus of Asterina.
Extreme low tides may reveal some rarer and larger starfish, such as the very spiny and quite large Marthasterias glacialis or the smaller and attractively coloured Henricia starfish.
Several species of Brittle stars can be found in British rock pools — Amphiura brachiata, A chiajei and A. filliformis being common smaller species.
Sea urchins are not commonly found alive in rock pools, but the remains of their ‘shells’ are common and intact skeletons are likely to be found in those seaside curio shops.
Nearly every genus of creatures we keep in our tanks has representatives in UK rock pools and this is much the same with the molluscs. You’ll be lucky to find turbos (order Turbinidae) as the few species in Europe favour warmer waters, but you will find cowries, trochids (Top shells), a cerith or two and nassarids such as the Dog whelks (Hinia sp.) and, if really lucky, a Sea hare.
Most are grazers, such as limpets, winkles and top shells. Look out for the chitons — small, oval, flattened grazers with shells made from eight plates that allow the creature to flex as it moves across the rock. I’ve found the occasional one on live rock but never managed to keep them alive, suggesting their dietary needs are more complex than grazing algae and diatoms.
Also look out for Blue-rayed limpets (Helcion pellucidum). These tinies are often found attached to the stalks of large sea weeds and have neon blue spots arranged in ‘rays’ radiating across the shell.
- Check tide times.
- Be patient. Move seaweed and rocks aside slowly and watch for movement.
- Put rocks and seaweed back where you found them. Many creatures will survive under seaweed when the tide is out, but not in full sun.
- Make sure you put back anything you catch promptly and carefully.
- Take care underfoot. Falling over on a rock covered in barnacles will not help you maintain your beach beautiful body.
- Wander out to the furthest pool you can find as the tide starts coming in.
10 great places to go rockpooling
- Cresswell Shore Nature Reserve, Northumberland
- Flamborough Head, Yorkshire
- Thanet, Kent
- Samphire Hoe, Kent
- Seven Sisters Country Park, Sussex
- Charmouth, Dorset
- Shoalstone Beach, Devon
- Helford Passage, Cornwall
- Portrush Nature Reserve, Northern Ireland
- Rockcliffe, Kirkcudbrightshire, Scotland
Jeremy Gay explains how you can build your own budget sump — even from a fire-damaged tank reject.
A sump is such a useful addition to any reef aquarium that I decided to build one as cheaply as possible. It’s just a tank attached to your main tank in which you can put equipment, heat, change and filter water from that main tank.
Because it is purely functional and doesn’t have to look good I decided to track down any old tank, in any condition, as long as it held water.
One of my local shops had a fire a few years ago and was selling off fire-damaged stock. I purchased a terribly blackened tank for £10. It was old, scratched and covered in soot, but, pheonix-like, it would rise again.
The result is a rather rough looking but highly functional marine sump and, best of all, it’s on a budget of just £40. That comes in about half what you would spend on a new equivalent. Bargain!
No substitute for true quality
This DIY sump is in no way meant to replace or replicate the excellent build quality you would expect from a professional aquarium manufacturer. I built this because I needed a sump, yet was short on time and finances.
To find a reputable sump manufacturer refer to the classified ads at the back of this and every issue of PFK.
1. This 60 x 38 x 30cm/24 x 15 x 12” tank was a right old mess, so I stripped off all the old blue painted backing, pulled off the tatty black tank trim and gave the whole lot a good old scrub.
2. The tank has bracing bars, but this would only ever be half filled and be further strengthened by the baffles front to back. So, using a knife, I cut down the silicone and removed the old bracing bars.
3. I place the protein skimmer in the tank and then draw a line where the first piece of glass will be stuck. The first baffle will set the water height in the first chamber, which in this case is 20cm/8".
4. I bought four pieces of 6mm glass for £20. I simply hold them in place with sticky tape. If you want to move stuff later cut out the baffles and re-stick elsewhere. Aquarium-safe silicone costs £10 for a large tube.
5. To create the baffled system, the central pane needed to be raised up into position. CD cases were used to temporarily hold everything in place while the silicone cured, then the final panes were added.
6. Leave for 24 hours for the silicone to cure. The sump is now ready for protein skimmer, heater and return pump and can be installed in the cabinet underneath your tank.
The Fuzzy dwarf lionfish is so called because its scale structure makes it appear indistinct to its prey. Itâ€™s clever, cunning and cute, as Dave Wolfenden explains.
Small and manageable as a pet, Dendrochirus brachypterus has bags of personality for a lionfish — although it can still pack a punch and tank mates should be chosen with caution!
Found in virtually the entire tropical Indo-Pacific, it’s regularly available in the trade. It naturally inhabits shallow coastal areas, favouring weed-encrusted rocky outcrops and caves in which it can ambush small crustaceans.
It grows to around 15cm/6” in length and there are several geographic colour variants — ranging from a deep red morph, through to a rare silver and orange form with striking yellow pectoral and dorsal fins. Most on offer, however, exhibit a far more subdued coloration.
Nonetheless, these are still attractive fish, with their ‘fuzzy’ appearance — created by a distinctive scale morphology — and striking patterns being used as cryptic camouflage when hunting.
So what are the aquarium requirements of this diminutive lionfish and which species is it compatible with?
Potential owners should ideally replicate the rocky habitat which the species inhabits in the wild and, if caves and overhangs can be provided, the fish will often lurk underneath them in an upside-down position. Therefore be prepared for life with not the most active fish in the hobby…
One possibility is to make them the subject of a species aquarium; several living around an artificial bommie — or pillar of live rock — can be very effective and they rarely tend to exhibit aggressive tendencies towards conspecifics.
Lighting can be subdued. In fact, they will not display to full potential in typically intense reef-quality lighting, so if you have super-bright illumination in the aquarium at least provide some form of area sheltered from the brightest of the light — otherwise considerable stress may result.
Dwarf lionfish can be housed in smaller aquaria than larger cousins of the family Scorpionidae. That’s not just because of their size, but also because they are less active swimmers. However, they still need a fair amount of room and are by no means suitable for nano aquaria. Consider 150 l/33 gal as the minimum volume to comfortably house a single adult.
copyright © Richard Ling, Creative Commons
Why that name?
The Fuzzy dwarf lionfish’s scientific name Dendrochirus brachypterus comes from a quite a mash-up of Latin and Greek terms, and together means ‘tree hand.’
Dendrochirus refers to its branched pectoral fin rays, and ‘short wing,’ with brachypterus describing the relatively stubby appearance of the pectoral fins in general.
Are they reef safe?
D. brachypterus could be considered for the reef aquarium, and it’s not unknown for specimens to be seen in invertebrate aquariums.
Of course, this will limit tank mates to species which won’t fit into the lionfish’s ample mouth! Bear in mind that even these dwarf lionfish can consume surprisingly large prey, so damsels, blennies, gobies and other fish can be vulnerable — as can many shrimps and other mobile invertebrates.
By the same token, take care to ensure that the lionfish itself isn’t targeted by larger, more boisterous tank mates. Morays, triggers, puffers and other large specimens may harass it, so choosing compatible species is critical.
Feeding D. brachypterus, as with other lionfish, can initially be tricky, at least if only frozen feeds are available.
Have a plentiful supply of live so-called ‘river shrimp’ when acquiring a new specimen, as these are invariably readily accepted and help to ensure adequate nutrition during the settling-in period.
This is especially important for such dwarf species, as research shows they are much more susceptible to starvation than larger-bodied family members, such as the ‘volitans’ lionfish (Pterois volitans). However, they will still go several weeks without food with seemingly little effect.
Weaning the lionfish onto frozen meaty foods can be a battle of wills and the owner must have great patience.
Some individuals will present few problems, but others can be stubborn. Get tongs or long-handle tweezers and try waggling strips of lancefish or other silvery fish in front of the Fuzzy. They’re very responsive to movement when it comes to prey detection.
Once a lionfish has accepted an item of frozen food, experience shows there should be no turning back and subsequent feedings will become straightforward. Eventually the fish will probably become swimming dustbins and it’ll be a challenge to prevent overfeeding!
One feed every other day is more than enough and show restraint as lionfish can easily eat far too much in one sitting!
It’s also best to avoid excessively large food items as these can be difficult to digest. Due to their healthy appetites, even small species are capable of generating considerable pollution.
Filtration should be capable of coping with the ammonia spikes and other changes in short and long-term water quality associated with the intermittent feeding of such predators, especially if a few specimens are housed together.
While they are generally extremely hardy, common sense should prevail when selecting a specimen. Behaviour in the dealer’s holding tanks should demonstrate a bright and alert fish, and if it’s possible to see one feeding all the better.
Quarantining new specimens is highly recommended and introduction and settling in should take place in subdued lighting.
The usual range of marine diseases can affect dwarf lionfish, but they respond well to most treatments and, provided water quality is maintained at optimal levels, they should be extremely tough additions to any aquarium.
Dwarf lionfish will occasionally shed their skin in the same manner as the related Leaf scorpion fish (Taenianotus triacanthus).
At first it’s a little disconcerting to witness, but is probably done to slough off accumulated ectoparasites and may warrant close investigation of the fish’s health status as well as the aquarium’s water quality.
Think of this occurence as a possible early warning...
The 13 dorsal fin rays are each linked to a venom gland and D. brachypterus is capable of delivering an excruciating sting — despite its miniaturised appearance. Although it isn’t generally outright aggressive in the aquarium accidents do happen, primarily through careless handling or inattentive maintenance.
Should a sting be experienced, the accepted treatment is immersion of any wound in water of 45°C/113°F — certainly not boiling — to destroy the protein-based venom. Even so, this treatment may not be entirely effective and the resulting wound may become infected and need greater medical attention. Getting stung by any lionfish is decidedly un-user friendly!
Will they breed?
There are few reliable reports of this species spawning in captivity, although full closure of the life cycle is yet to happen. They are known to be dioecious —the sexes being separate — with the male and female taking part in a relatively simple spawning ritual.
Some sources claim that males can be distinguished by a slightly larger head, longer pectoral fins and larger number of bands on those fins. Spawning appears to be internal and the eggs have a frothy, gelatinous mucus coating which helps keep them afloat for the first few hours after spawning.
Netting them without traumas
Take care when netting any lionfish — although they really shouldn’t be handled at all — that the spines don’t get entangle in the net. This can traumatise them, as well as creating a hazardous situation for the aquarist who has to cut it out! Very fine-meshed nets are best, as the fish’s spines tend not to become stuck in the material.
Dreams can become reality if you invest in the right equipment. Nathan Hill drools over the magical reef tank of D-Dâ€™s Stuart Bertram. And you can see more of it on the video at the end of the feature.
I’m not usually a jealous man, but when my editor sends me out to look at certain tanks I can’t help but covet them.
My excursion to see the home project of Stuart Bertram, co-director of D-D The Aquarium Solution, filled me with a desire for a leviathan of my own — only to know that I’ll never fulfil it.
Those aware of the people behind D-D will already be aware of the jewel that is the tank of managing director David Saxby. Although not on the same, gargantuan scale as David’s, this is nevertheless a tank that makes knees go weak.
Both photographer Neil Hepworth and myself were stunned into silence when shown the aquarium room. Stuart has good reason to be proud. Inside the 2,200 l/484 gal reef set-up are some of the most developed corals I’ve yet witnessed, a cloud of fish nigh on impossible to count and a gigantic clam that doesn’t look out of place in these surroundings.
Amazingly, almost everything in the tank has been grown from tiny frags which Stuart cultivates himself. To see the size of the small-polyp-stony corals within, and to know that they all emerged from tiny shards, leaves any observer with a sense that something very special has been achieved.
In fact, as Stuart himself notes, the only problem is that the tank has now reached the stage where corals have grown so successfully that they are in danger of shadowing themselves out and starving their own, lower polyps of life-bringing light. We were shown some areas — hard to spot if not consciously looking — where this has started to happen.
It’s unusual to find a reefkeeper who complains about delicate corals growing to the point of nuisance, but this is what has happened with pulsing Xenia which is periodically harvested to stop it behaving like a weed.
The Xenia is even taking over one of the sump tanks, where Stuart rears his home frags in the water supplied by the reef above and bathed in the light of a single, 400W Giesemann metal halide. All corals down here are growing fast, literally with no home to go to, as all space is accounted for in the tank proper. Stuart trades these inverts with local retailers for fish.
The life forms in this tank have taken hold incredibly fast, given that the project only started in February 2009. Initially, Stuart had installed a different tank, but there was domestic conflict involving the degree to which this aquarium encroached on living space.
He sought to resolve the issue with a larger, equally customised tank in its own dedicated room. This was originally a garage and subsequently converted to match the feel of the tank.
The 2.2 x 1.5 x 0.72m/7.2 x 4.9 x 2.4’ custom built Deltec aquarium would have posed a problem to most home aquarists, and even here it was tricky getting it through the garage door. The fit was so tight that, using a pump-truck, the pallet had to be cut away from beneath for the tank to be set down.
Once in place, feet within the frame could be adjusted for balance and equipment installed. For a tank of this size, glass bracer bars are too brittle, so instead of transparent beams running across the top, taught metal cables run from side to side and lengthwise.
Despite these cables, pipework and live rock was installed, and 350kg of live rock supplied by Calico was glued into place around the piping — creating a rockwork frame on back and sides, as well as an elevated area that sits centrally. Looking at the pipework now, it is hard to discern where pipes end and corals begin.
Because of the size of tank and close proximity to the wall, Stuart had to build his own access door in the rear of the garage. In the event, this wasn’t large enough to remove his existing, temporary tanks whole, so he tried to break them up. After several unsuccessful attempts he resorted to using cheese wire to slice through the silicone of these old tanks, removing them piece by piece.
Water was being added in mid-March. Although the tank is only 2,200 l/484 gal, the attached sumps and a separate water change chamber boosts overall volume to around 3,000 l/660 gal – that’s three tons of water!
Filtration is surprisingly basic. Stuart believes in good quality live rock and a big protein skimmer, and has both. A huge Deltec SC3070S resides in the sump, a model normally suited to a 5,000 l/1100 gal system. It is enhanced by fluidised beds of Nutri-fix media and the combination maintains water quality.
Other gadgets include a huge calcium reactor, and more fluidised systems brimming with Rowaphos. Water flow is taken care of by a network of piping now completely grown over with encrusting algae, as well as opportunistic star polyps that adore the flow provided.
Circulation is provided by numerous 17,000 lph Abyzz pumps, each digitally controlled, and some working in tandem or opposition to each other to create surges. When the pumps fire up the change in movement is noticeable, with fish being flung sideways and darting headlong into the powerful flows. The large tangs, in particular, clearly enjoy flitting through these currents.
Water changes are simple enough. Stuart simply closes off a 600 l/132 gal tub from the rest of the system, drains away the water, and allows it to refill with the RO supply that usually accounts for evaporation via a float valve.
Once the tub is filled, he only has to add the salt — a bucketful to be precise — and once it has had adequate time to mix he can reintroduce the tub to the rest of the system, gradually filling it with the cleaner supply.
Normally, Stuart runs a vodka-fuelled nitrate-reducing filter on the sump that houses the coral frags, but this was out of action on my visit, although the peristaltic pumps attached were still doing their thing.
The tank may as well have its own miniature sun, such is the intensity of lighting, and there are 16 x 54w and 16 x 39w T5 fluorescents within two matrix systems, as well as another three 400w Giesemann metal halides. The latter provide a compliment of white light and, running lengthwise across the middle of the tank, they are each staggered to come on for a three-hour period, crossing over at hourly intervals — moving a path of light over the aquarium.
The viewer’s perception of colours in the tank changes the more you look at it. The room has no natural light sources and the eye seems to create its own white balance, dulling some of the colours in a way you fail to notice until you leave the room for a while and re-enter.
I was most impressed by the care taken to aesthetically blend the tank into the room. The front fascia has been surrounded, professionally, to look more akin to a plasma TV screen rather than an aquarium. That’s not to say it has buttons and lights, but it is smart, and creates the uncanny illusion that you could be watching a live, high-definition documentary filmed on some distant reef. It really does transport you there.
How about maintenance?
Stuart likes to perform a monthly water change of some 600 l/132 gal at a time. This may sound a lot, but only accounts for one-fifth of the whole volume of the system. The nitrate filters do a grand job of keeping readings low and in keeping glass and substrate tip-top Stuart dedicates no more that two hours each week to maintenance.
He has no need for fiddly dosage with endless bottles of coral additives. The only supplementary chemical added to the tank is the occasional dose of iodine. Other elements are taken care of in the D-D salt mixture.
How much would your dream cost?
A tank of this majesty doesn’t come cheap. When considered as a whole, including custom built Deltec aquarium and frame, pumps, lighting, and filtration then the price begins to creep into the region of £25,000 to £35,000. It’s certainly not a light-hearted commitment.
Stuart has lost track of the value of his fish, mainly as some have been traded, swapped and simply reared on from much smaller sizes. However, given the huge groups of anthias — no less than five species reside here — and the selection of striking tangs, angels, wrasse and chromis, it’s safe to assume that his outlay on fishes is more than I’ll manage for some time.
By comparison, the inverts have cost Stuart near to nothing, as he raised all the small polyp stony corals himself from frags. This magnificent reef would have cost a paltry sum to fill, although it required patience to make it what it is.
What’s in Stuart’s tank?
Clavularia — clove polyps, green and brown species.
Pachyclavularia — green star polyps
Anthelia — waving hand coral
Xenia — pulse coral
Briareum — corky sea fingers
Unknown sea whip — courtesy of David Saxby’s tank
Various zoanthids — range of colours
Hard corals SPS:
Pocillopora damicornis — pink
Stylophora pistillata — bright pink
Seriatopora hystrix — pink with blue polyps
Seriatopora caliendrum — blue birds nest
Acropora species — in multiple colours and sizes
Acropora millepora — multiple colours and sizes
Acropora granulosa — bottle brush acropora, large central coral
Montipora digitata — in red and green
Montipora capricornis — red
Montipora species — red, brown, green, purple
Porites nigrescens — green
Porites — general
Pavona — cactus coral
Fungia — disc coral
Galaxea astreata — galaxy coral
Oxypora — chalice coral
Turbinaria reniformis — scroll coral
Hard corals LPS:
Blastomussa — two or three different species
Lobophyllia — orange and green species
Caulastrea — trumpet coral, green/blue
Favia species — moon coral various colours
Platygyra species — brain coral
Goniastrea palauencis — unusual honeycomb coral
Trachyphyllia geoffroyi — red open brain coral
Catalaphyllia jardinei — elegance coral
Euphyllia parancora — branching hammer coral
Duncanopsammia axifuga — Duncan coral
Acan — couple of species
Bubble tip anemone
Large Derasa clam
Four Yellow tangs
One Purple tang
One Powder blue
One Yellow eye tang
Two Blue chromis
20 Green chromis
Ten female Squamipinnis anthias (four males)
12 female Diamondhead anthias (two males)
Three female Lori’s anthias
Three female Tuka anthias
Ten Resplendent goldie anthias
One Fathead anthias
One Sixline wrasse
One Iridis wrasse
Pair of Cleaner wrasse
Pair of Sebae clownfish
One multibar angel
One Bellus angel
One Bicolour blenny
One Spotted mandarin
One Foxface rabbitfish
At least a couple of Mantis shrimps that are sometimes heard clicking away…
You can see a short video of Stuart's aquarium below:
Itâ€™s smart and normally peaceful â€” but donâ€™t threaten the Striped poison-fang! Dave Wolfenden explains why Meiacanthus grammistes deserves respect.
The Striped poison-fang blenny (Meiacanthus grammistes) is commonly available. Growing to some 10cm/4", the species is widely distributed around the western Pacific, from the Great Barrier Reef of Australia northwards to southern Japan, and from Papua New Guinea westwards to the Gulf of Thailand.
It is part of a specialised group of fang blennies, poison-fang blennies or sabre-tooth blennies consisting of a few dozen species over a handful of genera, all with fascinating behaviour and unique defensive adaptations.
Meiacanthus grammistes is very attractive, with a white ventral surface, often with a brilliant blue hue in some regional variations and yellow and black longitudinal stripes, believed to be a form of aposematic or warning coloration.
The striped markings terminate in black spots on the tail, which is much less lyre-shaped than other Meiacanthus blennies.
Unlike many other blennies, which tend to be benthic and spend most of their time on and around the substrate, the Meiacanthus are semi-pelagic. They have a well-developed swimbladder and can hover comfortably in mid-water where most of their feeding takes place.
This habit leaves it exposed to predation, so the species has evolved a venomous bite. This fish possesses a pair of prominent, grooved canine teeth, each linked to a venom gland, and which are employed when threatened.
On the reef
The poison-fang blenny inhabits sheltered areas of the reef, in relatively shallow water, usually no more than 20m/66’ or so.
Your aquarium needs to provide, in addition to an area of open water for swimming, a range of rocky crevices which the fish can use as boltholes in order to replicate this environment.
The more of these nooks and crannies the better, and the fish will tend to be more conspicuous if more shelter is provided. The blenny often enters hideaways tail first and may poke its head out to survey its surroundings when not actively swimming.
M. grammistes is naturally a solitary species. Occasionally individuals may be found on the reef relatively close to each another, but they don’t form pair bonds or social groups.
Bear this in mind for smaller aquaria. Where space is limited, intraspecific aggression may result in fatalities, and poison-fang blennies don’t mind using their bites against each other in territorial disputes!
Water movement should range from low to medium flow, and they are tolerant of a wide range of lighting intensities.
The venomous nature of Meiacanthus grammistes has been effectively exploited by another species of blenny – the Striped poison-fang blenny mimic (Petroscirtes breviceps.)
The mimic isn’t a venomous fish, but has evolved to look morphologically very similar to M. grammistes, complete with fangs, which it isn’t afraid to use, although it does lack those glands that produce the venom.
Other fish avoid the venomous species (the 'model' fish), either instinctively, due to its warning coloration, or learning the hard way — and that’s by surviving a bite! The mimic is also given a wide berth by other species.
A species of Cardinalfish (Cheilodipterus nigrotaeniatus) also bears a remarkable resemblance to this fish, as does a juvenile form of the bridled monocle bream (Scolopsis bilineatus).
M. grammistes is relatively hardy, and tends to be fairly disease-resistant — provided optimal water quality is provided. It can succumb to any common marine disease, but is remarkably trouble-free. Deteriorating water quality can be the trigger for an outbreak, however, so parameters must not dip.
Despite their relative hardiness, brief quarantining of new stock before introduction to the main aquarium is wise.
M. grammistes naturally feeds on small pelagic zooplanktonic organisms, as well as tiny benthic crustacea such as amphipods.
The captive fish has varied tastes and is adaptable to a wide variety of aquarium foods. Once settled in it will eagerly accept a range of frozen feeds such as Mysis and Artemia, although unenriched Artemia is nutritionally fairly poor, as well as freeze-dried and flake feeds.
Finely chopped fresh feeds may also be accepted and these fish like small feedings several times a day. A mature aquarium with live rock, with its natural populations of plankton, will help M. grammistes settle in and feed most naturally.
Reef tank safe
These fish are perfectly suited to the reef tank, provided there are no other fish of the same species, or even similar appearance, except in larger aquaria. They are generally peaceful and tend not to harass tank mates.
Most other fish tend to wise up fairly quickly as to their venomous tank mate’s potential and M. grammistes will not set out to harm sessile invertebrates.
They use their fangs only for defence, aimed at predatory fish or competitors trying to muscle in on territory. However, take care when catching a specimen. Avoid handling them and take care when using nets. Hand feeding is not recommended!
It appreciates a fair amount of swimming room as fang blennies naturally feed over a relatively wide area in comparison to many other blenny species. A minimum volume of 150 l/33 gal is recommended.
How dangerous is a bite?
A bite might hurt us, but shouldn’t cause anything other than mild, localised pain. In any case, the chances of venom being delivered with a bite are slim, due to the small size of the blenny’s mouth.
However, some people can be allergic to the venom, which can potentially be serious. Those sensitive to bee and wasp stings are likely most susceptible to an allergic reaction and the fish should be treated with the same respect as for a lionfish.
There have been infrequent reports of M. grammistes being cultured in captivity, although captive-reared specimens currently seem a trade rarity.
Various Meiacanthus blennies have been captive-bred for several years and this species is an interesting challenge.
The male looks after the eggs. He entices the female into his prepared hiding place — PVC tubes are ideal if creating one — and she deposits clumps of adhesive eggs which the males fertilise and tend until hatching. This takes under two weeks.
One male may mate with several females, as the ladies appear to ‘do the rounds.’
The tiny larvae can initially be fed on rotifers, later moving to Artemia nauplii.
Sexing is possible. The species seems to exhibit sexual dimorphism, whereby the males and females appear different. The caudal and pelvic fins of males appear to be larger in relation to those of females. There may also be extensions to the edges of the male’s caudal fin which are not present on the female.
While hardy, M. grammistes can be sensitive during acclimatisation to new aquarium conditions. Take care when doing so and avoid subjecting it to sudden changes in water chemistry.
Minimise stress by acclimatising in the dark and subsequently leaving lights off for several hours.