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Some modern aquarists might be a bit sniffy about this ‘outdated’ substrate, but it still has its place — by which I mean it is a total breeze to clean.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.
Ponds attract wildlife to the garden and can provide an oasis of life for aquatic organisms, but not all visitors are as welcome as others…
WORDS: JEREMY GAY
We all love wildlife and, unlike an aquarium, a pond can attract visitors that are free to travel to and from the water at will. But which are desirable and which are a downright nuisance?
It all comes down to whether you want a fish pond or a wildlife pond — the two are very different things, and what benefits one may not benefit the other.
If you have fish in your pond they must be your number one welfare priority. Unlike insects, amphibians and birds, they can’t leave and that makes them sitting ducks for all manner of predators. What makes it worse is that we then handicap them with bright colours, fat bodies and a lack of hiding places or distance to escape to.
Here’s the list of regular offenders:
Public enemy number one has got to be the heron. These lanky grey birds will frequent your pond before you get up in the morning, and with no one about, having your pond close to your house is no defence either. Once they’ve found your pond they can more or less empty it of small to medium sized fish, and stab and injure those too large to swallow.
- You can’t harm them as they are protected (although you should never think of doing that anyway).
- Netting can be effective but it would have to be fine, taut and effectively cover all areas.
- Fishing line placed strategically around the pond on stakes can prevent a bird from landing or wading in. Wire can also be placed at pergola height to prevent flying down to the pond.
- Plastic herons are the most commonly practiced defence, although we have heard many stories of owners seeing a live heron feeding next to their plastic one!
- Very visible fish in the pond will be targeted first and are easy to spot from the air. Try mottled Shubunkins instead of bright red goldfish, but failing that, netting is the only way.
I believe that otters have as much right to the waterways as we do, but I can imagine how gutting it would be to find your prize Koi massacred of a morning. Otters are well and truly back, and gorging themselves on ornamental fish all over the UK.
- Netting a pond won’t work, as otters will crawl under it. Instead, you’ll need a wooden frame with no gaps, and a wooden frame with wire mesh on top, with a latch or even a padlock on it.
- Build a waist-high wall or fence around the whole pond, or opt for a raised, formal pond with the frame and mesh top.
Rats are great swimmers, and ponds provide lots of feeding opportunities for them, including eating your fish food. They are a menace though, chewing through pond liners and weeing in the water, spreading Weil’s disease to humans, which at best is flu like but can be much worse. They can predate on other animals, too — I’ve seen them taking baby ducks, so they may have a go at a sluggish fish.
- Don’t leave buckets of pond food poolside, and don’t leave uneaten food on or around the pond. Having bird feeders near the pond may attract them, too.
- Brick-built raised ponds with no exposed liner and no subterranean access to the liner either, solved by a concrete base.
- Small gauge wire mesh.
One of my all time favourite birds, a kingfisher is a wonderful sight. Even the most staunch pondfish breeder surely can’t deny such a handsome and diminutive bird the odd snack, so I say them let them stay and enjoy the moment. They’ll only predate on small, minnow sized fish anyway.
- You are unlikely to have kingfishers if your pond is nowhere near a river or stream — so you could move!
- If you want to say ‘bah humbug’ to ever having a kingfisher visit, or your fry happen to be tategoi or tosakin worth a few hundred quid a pop, simply cover the water with fine netting or a plastic corrugated lid.
Damsel and dragonflies
Only dangerous to your fish when they are fry, damsel and dragonfly larvae are voracious predators which may take tadpoles and baby fish.
- Don’t have any plants and heavily filter the pond. A clinically clean Koi pond with large hungry Koi is unlikely to support any dragonfly larvae, as the fish will eat them.
- Remove all plants and if you are particularly wanting to raise Koi and goldfish fry, very small gauge insect netting will keep the adult insects from laying their eggs in the water. But really, the visual benefit of adults often outweighs the few fry you could lose to their larvae.
These 'sea' birds travel inland the world over in search of food, and can gobble up fish on an industrial scale. If a cormorant lays eyes on your pond and can access it, your fish are in trouble.
- Stop the bird from flying in, perching and diving into the pond.
- High level netting or wire to prevent flight in, and very coarse netting, securely fastened to prevent the birds taking fish. Make sure the net gauge is fine enough to prevent the beak, head or neck from poking through it and grabbing or stabbing fish.
Wild ducks finding your ornamental pond is a wonderful thing for all of about five minutes. They get all excited, wade in and start to dabble and bathe. If you have a waterfall they may play in it — and even climb up and ride back down it! But by the time you’ve rushed to grab that camera, the idyllic scene will have turned into carnage as the ducks start to demolish all your pond plants, uproot the soil in the plant baskets and poo and drop soil into the water, making an instant mess. Your fish will scatter too.
- You need to prevent ducks from both flying in and entering the pond.
- Net the pond high up to prevent ducks flying in, and also at water level to prevent them from wading in. And don’t be tempted to feed the ducks — they will come back.
During heat waves, grass snakes may take to the water to cool down. They can hold their breath and swim underwater, and are reported to occasionally predate pond fish.
- A grass snake won’t wipe out a pond like a heron or otter, and if you have the kind of undergrowth that encourages grass snakes, you’ll probably have frogs and toads too, which the snakes will eat instead. The defence is to prevent access for the snake.
- Why would you want to stop grass snakes from thriving in your garden? Native reptiles are so cool and grass snakes are not in the least bit dangerous. But if you want to stop them, a waist high brick built raised pond will do it. They tend to prefer ground level water with poolside vegetation to retreat to.
In my retail days we regularly fought a very clever crow, which could tell the time and would wait until closing time, before it swept in. Its favourite prey were 5–7.5cm/2–3in Comet goldfish which it would pick from the water, always leaving the head for us in the morning as evidence (herons and cormorants always swallow fish whole, head first).
- You’ll be OK with foot-long fish. Understocking the pond will also not so be as tempting. Feed fish away from the pond edge, as the crow can’t reach very far.
- Net your pond or use a frame and cover, which you can hinge up and down depending on whether you are in the garden or not.
A pretty menacing, quite large aquatic insect, the water scorpion can and does consume large tadpoles, baby newts and pond fish fry.
- The water scorpion will favour sluggish, weedy areas where it can hide and ambush fish, and where smaller fish like to hang out.
- Don’t introduce any plants, stock large fish only, which will eat them, and regularly vacuum your pond walls and base.
I’ve never seen a wild otter, but I saw plenty of mink in the waterways when I was growing up. Mink are indiscriminate pond fish killers and should be treated in the same way as otters. If a mink finds your pond all your fish are in trouble — and chickens if you keep them, too.
- As with the otter, you need to totally block entry to your pond and even small gaps or holes in netting will allow easy entry.
- Brick built raised pond with strong wire on gap proof, lift-proof frame or a strong metal grid.
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.
Patriotic Nathan Hill goes native for his latest step-by-step aquarium project and salutes the best of British waterlife.
It’s a jungle out there. Snarling, lip-curled predators lurk in dense mats of underwater foliage, seeking out alien-looking crustaceans. Dip in to the waters and you might unsettle a writhing leech or plunge a toe into a tangle of mollusc eggs. This is the wilderness that can be found in any UK stream or pond.
Many things about our islands are seasonal. Recipes come and go according to changing weather. Gardens bloom and decline. And the same applies to what’s available in our aquatic stores.
Many retailers gear up with the varieties of greenery and fish they can only sell for only a short window of the year.
We say let’s grab these seasonal fish when they present themselves!
The typical Brit aquarist is only fond of fish from remote, tropical extremes of the globe, but it’s high time we took our native fishes more seriously, and that’s what we’ve chosen to do here.
Previously at PFK we’ve recreated the Amazon, dabbled in the Congo, and made renditions of the Far East. Now we’ve come full circle…
Actually that’s not strictly true. Our initial plans for this set-up involved imitating a Burmese lake. We had in mind a Barb-filled, slightly sub-tropical set-up replete with mud and tangles of Elodea. We’d even started buying in bits to turn those plans into reality.
Then a PFK delegation chanced upon the Nottingham Aquatic Centre — and all that went out of the window. Within minutes we’d spied plump Sticklebacks (Gasterosteus aculeatus) and a further recce revealed pond plants in full swing outdoors.
We chewed the idea over with the store’s owner and manager Guy Stephenson and, being even more enthusiastic than ourselves, he sold us on the all-native concept in a matter of seconds.
His vats were heaving with vibrant, native plants and as an added bonus they were also brimming with worms, crustaceans, leeches and so much more.
All systems go then! We would prepare the hardware and he would source us the plants, fish and miscellaneous wrigglers.
The concept of a native tank is not new and there are many around the UK. We probably all have fond memories of school tanks, filled with bobbing Daphnia, and tiny larval fish. However, there’s nothing juvenile about revisiting those days with a tank that pays homage to our indigenous wonders.
In this project I have opted to use the current aquascaper’s choice of tank — the TMC Signature Optiwhite 60 x 45 x 30cm/24 x 18 x 12" open-topped. We felt that its open nature seemed the
logical approach for utilising plants that break the water’s surface and flower, adding to our illusion of a waterside British summertime.
Besides, who’s to say we can’t have a stab at an aquascape that’s less Japanese and more Blighty, just for once?
What did we use?
The beauty of this tank is that, compared to some, it’s cheap. Sticklebacks are modestly priced and potted pond plants can be excellent value for money. A £4 pond plant can often be the equivalent of as many as three or four £3.50 aquarium pots.
Many species don’t often crop up in tropical selections either — like floating Water soldiers.
The priciest parts of our tank were the glassware and cabinet, lighting and filtration. Everything else involved mere pennies.
The Signature tank and cabinet will set you back around £239.98, and the Kessil A150W LED light another £230. For filtration we’ve used a Fluval 306 external canister retailing for £134.99.
Given that it’s a native set-up, we don’t even need a heater!
You can chop and change as you see fit. Want to use a T5 tube? Fine, the plants won’t mind. Want to use a second-hand glass aquarium? No bother, go right ahead.
Sticklebacks don’t need a great deal of room, so any 60cm/24” area for a small group will work. If you happen to have a small internal canister filter floating around that’ll make a fine alternative to an external. We were only using all this gear as we wanted to push the boat out!
We used half a 25kg sack of silver sand, which equates to about £4 or £5. On top of that we sprinkled gravel, mostly from the pots the pond plants came in, so that cost nothing. A few small pieces of Sumatran driftwood will cost you £10 to £15 maximum and the rounded cobbles we used to bulk up the back can be picked up from a garden centre for a pittance.
For plants, although we took a large selection we ended up using some loose Ranunculus fluitans, a pond pot of Eleocharis acicularis, one large pot of Fontinalis antipyretica, a single Water soldier (Stratiotes aloides) and some loose Stonewort (Chara) that’s actually a type of algae rather than a plant.
Astute readers will even spot a little Myriophyllum at one edge of the tank photograph, along with a few floating and sub-surface duckweed types.
Livestock was equally cheap, but just as exciting as any tropical shrimp and tetra combination. We opted for six Three-spined sticklebacks, comprising four brighter males and two silvery females. Given time these easily-spawned fish, distant relations of the Seahorse and the Sea moths, will happily start to nest and breed. Ours quickly showed signs of doing so!
We added a handful of Ramshorn and Stagnalis snails, both of which got right at home.
Nottingham Aquatic Centre even went the extra mile for us. When we returned to collect the livestock the staff had rummaged around in their pond filters to get together a bag full of wriggling Asellus and Gammarus crustaceans.
These detritivores clean up some debris in the tank, as well as acting as a constant food source for the ravenous Sticklebacks in much the same way as marine copepods are used in reef tanks. Ask your retailer nicely and it’s likely he or she will happily collect a few for your coldwater set-up from one of their pond displays.
For the finishing touches the guys at Nottingham even rustled up a few tiny, non-aggressive leeches for us, as well as some Tubifex to sit buried among the sand. Alongside a handful of Glassworms, these completed the feel of what we hope you will agree is one very domestic, British Isles display.
Sticklebacks: The larvae controllers
Three-spined sticklebacks represent the largest species in the Stickleback family – at just 5cm/2" fully grown! However, there are variations within the aculeatus complex, and some anadromous types (facultative brackish and seawater dwelling) can reach 11cm/4.5".
They tolerate a moderate range of conditions, but are susceptible to tanks that are too warm. Like many native fish, they will happily live in water down to 4°C/39°F, but above 20°C/68°F they suffer, their metabolisms increasing considerably.
In most unheated tanks of 18°C/ 64°F or under, they will do just fine.
They prefer water to be slightly alkaline when in freshwater, though acidic populations cope without repercussions. Extremes aside, hardness and exact pH values are not critical.
They prefer to live over mud or sand and though plants add to offer effect they are not essential.
Sticklebacks are among the fiercest kind of carnivore and in the UK play a superb role in helping to control midge larvae — their food of choice. All kinds of meaty foods will be taken in the aquarium. When our own left their transport bag they immediately tucked in to some stray Asellus!
Spawning these fish is simple and breeding time is the only period when these fish don’t prefer to be in shoals. The male makes a nest in a crater he has dug and amasses plant debris which he spins into a tube, using excretions from his body. He’ll then invite a female across to lay eggs before chasing her off.
The eggs hatch after around eight days at room temperature, at which point the fry can be fed on rotifers, Artemia nauplii, and liquid or powdered dry foods.
A few days after that the male will stop caring for them and rebuild his nest for a second attempt at mating!
How I created my step-by-step UK native set-up
1. The tank is cleaned thoroughly and placed on the base mat. Two large lava rock pieces are used to bulk the rear while the display cobbles are positioned forward.
2. Around 12kg/26lb of pre-washed silver sand is added, piled high in the rear left-hand corner. This will allow surface-breaking plants like Ranunculus to set down roots.
3. Four small pieces of Sumatran driftwood from Unipac are added to the high area, banking toward the centre, and smaller cobbles are scattered between gaps.
4. The tank is carefully filled and two smaller grades of gravel, fine and coarse, are scattered between the cobbled areas. Around three large handfuls of each are used.
5. The Fontinalis is planted at one end and Hairgrass at the rear, breaking the surface. Two Water soldiers are added, one later being removed as it imposed too much.
6. The remaining plants are fitted to the gaps and the lighting and pre-matured filtration installed underneath. Livestock is added and the tank is complete!
How much would it cost?
Signature 60 x 45 x 30 tank and cabinet: £239.98
Fluval 306 canister: £134.99
Kessil A150W LED light: £230
Glass inlet/outlet: £40
Silver sand: £4
Gravel: free in plant pots
Plants: £20 (but we had too many!)
Total cost: £742.85
Do it cheaper!
Use an old tank, an internal and a T5, and you could easily do something similar for a paltry £167.88!
This tank would not have been possible without the help, fervour and infectious excitement of Guy, Helen, and all at The Nottingham Aquatic Centre. If interested in a tank like this, I strongly recommend you pay them a visit. We got everything we needed, both at short notice and with minimal planning.
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Jeremy Gay highlights a goldfish which can truly be called Englandâ€™s glory â€” our very own Bristol shubunkin.
Get into goldfish and sooner or later someone will tell you that the best Ryukin come from China, or the best Ranchu are from Japan. However, if you want world-class goldfish look no further than the UK.
For here in England we have our own breeds, strains and standards, like fantails, veiltails — and the beautiful Bristol shubunkin.
Put simply, a Shubunkin as we know it is a single-tail Calico goldfish and examples are sold up and down the country as popular pond fish. Speak to an English goldfish aficionado, however, and those aren’t Shubunkins, merely Calico comets.
The British goldfish societies recognise two types of Shubunkin: the London, which is a short tailed, stocky fish, and the Bristol, which has flowing fins and a very characteristic rounded, tail.
Like all goldfish the Shubunkin has its origins in the Far East, namely Japan. It started life as a Calico, also known as nacreous, goldfish.
The Americans are thought to have given it the long Comet-type tail and then we Brits, namely members of the Bristol Aquarist Society, bred them and produced their own breed standard.
More than 100 years later we have created the world’s finest Shubunkins and highly priced exports are sent all over the world.
Anecdotal evidence also suggests that in China, for example, high water temperatures prevent breeders there being able to produce fish with that special rounded tail — so numbers of Bristol shubunkin remain low worldwide compared to other fancy breeds.
Buy a Bristol shubunkin from a British breeder and you will be tapping into those proud and original Bristol bloodlines.
Single-tail goldfish can grow to more than 30cm/12” in length, putting them beyond the scope of most aquaria and necessitating an outside pond as a long-term home. Bristols don’t tend to grow quite that large, although they are active and will be best in the largest home you can give them.
If you want to show your fish in the UK it must adhere to certain breed standards. Any show potential Bristol shubunkin needs:
- A depth of body between 3/7ths (43%) and 3/8ths (38%) that of its body length.
- Pectoral and pelvic fins to be paired, dorsal and anal fins single.
- Caudal fin to be single and well spread with rounded contours.
- Body to be smooth, not angular.
- At least 25% of the body to be a blue colour.
- Minimum body length to be 7.5cm/3”.
These specifications are from Bristol Aquarist's Society, which stresses that only Calico fish must be shown.
Such fish should be bright and alert with the caudal fin carried high without drooping or overlapping. The body should be long and slender with a smooth outline. Quality fish will have a high colour intensity with the pigment extending into the fins.
A show fish will have a blue background with patches of violet, red, orange, yellow and brown, spotted with black.
Shubunkins are as easy to feed as any other goldfish — readily accepting flake foods, pellets, granules, frozen and live.
Being single-tail goldfish with slim body profiles they don’t suffer from the swimbladder disorders like the fatter fancies, so floating flake and pellets are fine.
As for any goldfish a varied diet is best, combining lots of algae-based foods and vegetable matter with treats like chopped earthworm and bloodworm. Newly-hatched fry should be fed on brineshrimp nauplii.
Leave a group of Bristol shubunkins alone in a pond, with good food, good water and seasonal temperature fluctuations, and they will readily spawn.
Females become plump in the belly, with smaller, slimmer amorous males frantically chasing them, especially in the mornings.
When water temperatures reach 18°C/64°F or more males seek to wedge a female in some marginal plant roots in the shallows, in some filamentous algae, or some oxygenating plants. The exertion in trying to wriggle free will be enough to release her eggs and the males will then dive in next to her and release sperm.
You can spawn Bristol shubunkins artificially too, raising as many eggs as you can under controlled conditions. Most people use a glass tank, or small pond vat, and introduce two males to one female, with clean, wool spawning mops.
If there’s morning sunshine the fish should do it all for you and the parents can be removed at noon.
Experts may hand strip parent fish, using skilled fingers to massage eggs and sperm from each parent fish into a bowl.
Preparing to show
If you manage to breed them or condition them into glorious adulthood, you could show them. It’s a bit like entering a village fete cake competition or showing off your prize vegetables...
It’s also cheap and those involved in showing are always accommodating. As in any competition there will be those who have spent a lifetime perfecting their entrants and take shows very seriously — but there will also be those more than happy to show you how to bench a fish and maybe win a prize!
Where can I buy these fish?
Bristols are rarely for sale in the shops, but juveniles are usually for sale in the auctions at any goldfish society meeting. You can either join, or just visit for the day.
Failing that, contact one of the societies, stressing that you are looking for Bristol shubunkins. Star Fisheries usually sells them all year round.
A detailed profile of the Bristol shubunkin is available on the Bristol Aquarist's Society website — this is the very club that actually created the variety!
You may pick up young fish for as little as £5 each at auction, though they will vary in quality and breeders will always keep the best for themselves.
You may have to pay £75 for a decent pair, or even £50 each for quality fish. Metallic bronze coloured or colourless fish, known as pinks, are worthless, regardless of tail shape.
5 things you didn’t know about Shubunkins
- They develop more black coloration with age.
- Shop bought shubunkins are actually Calico comets.
- A drooping tail in a Bristol shubunkin is deemed a fault in the fish.
- Shubunkins should incorporate seven colours, including black.
- Bristol shubunkins are called sierironisiki in Japan, in reference to that fan-shaped tail.
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Jeremy Gay goes to Great Yarmouth to visit Mark Brumell - a breeder who turned his passion for breeding British goldfish into a profession.
I first bumped into Mark Brumell a few years ago when he was advertising Calico veiltails in the Goldfish Society of Great Britain bulletin. Later he sent me his copy of the now iconic Tommy Sutton interview by then PFK editor Nick Fletcher in the 1980s — an article still requested and which is also online.
Mark has been keeping goldfish seriously for the past ten years, learning from many breeders, including the Suttons.
He’s been keeping fish since he was seven and he's done the lot — including tropical and marines. He’s fascinated by goldfish varieties because they are man made and, when it’s man versus fish, it’s the breeder’s job to keep the lines adhering to the breed standard while the fish wants to revert to the wild type, brown, single-tail.
Mark openly admires the Suttons and their fish, and was in regular contact with Tommy junior before he ceased business in 2010 due to ill health. He learned much from Tommy about keeping and breeding goldfish and acquired many Sutton fish over the years, including Bristol shubunkins, Ranchu, Fantails and Orandas.
For those who aren’t aware of the source of Mark’s inspiration, Tommy Sutton senior was a goldfish breeder in the West Midlands who filled his garden with glasshouses and shallow ponds full of goldfish to sell on.
As interest and his business grew, Tommy bought up neighbours’ gardens and even after the boom of the 1980s and the business long gone, the Sutton name and bloodlines still ring around all the society meets and members.
The remarkable father and son dynasty had endured for more than 80 years.
Tommy’s garden business gave Mark the idea to start his own venture — that and the fact he had to retire early from working on offshore gas platforms.
He was already producing many goldfish per summer month and selling them to other members of the GSGB, but local retailers and even wholesalers were getting interested too. These were fish of considerable quality and true Bristol shubunkins, Veiltails and other varieties conforming to the UK nationwide standards but not available to import via the normal channels.
Mark has metal pins in his leg and in serious need of a new hip, but, despite these mobility problems that may have deterred others, he got in touch with the government about starting a goldfish breeding business from home. He was then sent on a five-week business course before gaining an Enterprise Grant.
A few tweaks had to be made to his fish house and garden to meet health and safety rules and regulations. Then he was awarded a pet shop licence and given the thumbs-up by local officials. The fish house was extended, another new polytunnel went up and I visited just as he was about to officially open for business.
Mark is a diehard fishkeeper and feels he has seen the quality of some shop goldfish steadily decline.
He believes that premium British-bred goldfish should be more widely available to the public and wants British aquarium and pond keepers to be able to buy British fish that have endured British winters, instead of having to rely on imports.
Mark uses traditional breeding and rearing methods, relying mostly on water changes, regular feeds of live foods and letting the fish do the rest. As he’s now into breeding as a business Mark must calculate the cost of each fish to produce and reckons he will have to upscale considerably to produce 2,000 fish every two months.
That’s a lot of fish and he already gets through a kilo of live bloodworm weekly — and other foods on top.
Boy, can he grow fish too. Mark gets fry to 1.5” in just one month and 3” at two. At 3-4” they are ready to be sold on.
Books state that if you want to breed goldfish properly you need to plan for them the year before — and in January Mark was already planning the first of his Veiltails. Fish sit all winter at 10-13°C/50-55°F before being raised to 18°C/65°F in January and the metallic and Calico veiltails are spawned.
He puts one female with three males, not hand stripping them but leaving them to spawn naturally. Eggs are laid over fine greenhouse shading material, then warmed to 20°C/68°F then 22°C/72°F once free swimming.
Fry get their first water change seven days after that and are then fed on newly hatched brineshrimp for three weeks until they can take live bloodworm, sieved flake and “000” fry food from ZM Systems.
Stability is first year target
Mark just wants people to be able to get hold of great fish and his aim for year one is to be able to hold steady and be able to pay the bills.
He invites enquiries from hobbyists, retailers and wholesalers and can be visited by appointment on Saturdays and Sundays.
Mark’s greatest passion
Mark is well known for his Veiltails as they are his favourite fish. A GSGB member for eight years, he got a first for a team of four Calico veiltails at the GSGB show in 2010 — so his fish are truly from award-winning bloodlines!
Veils are not without their problems though, as they are difficult to produce to a certain quality. Much of the reason is down to those trailing fins which become a key entry point for disease.
Last year Mark invested in a pond vacuum as he was convinced his veils were getting infected after dragging their delicate tails along the bottom of his rearing ponds.
Although many of his fancies are kept outdoors all year round, Mark doesn’t recommend veils be maintained this way because of this very factor.
They are also susceptible to ice during periods of severe cold and even embolisms in hot spells when having to endure green water.
Embolisms cause problems at home and on the show bench and Mark believes that the tiny air bubbles release air into their veins and rip tails.
Mark's top tips
- Buy British-bred fish naturally acclimatised to British weather.
- Look at your water quality before you put in fish.
- Sufficient room is paramount.
- Always encourage algae, as it is a constant food and a constant filter.
How Mark has set up
Green water can help the goldfish keeper as all that algae can aid coloration and is the base food when raising Daphnia which go on to be fed to fish.
A combination of light, bright polytunnels and clever use of shading will normally get green water just right.
On our visit Mark’s fish were kept in a combination of three small polytunnels, his old fish house, the fish house extension and a large Koi holding pond.
About 1,000 fish were spread over six ponds and 15 tanks totalling 20,460 l/4,500 gal. Filtration was present on most tanks, usually involving simple sponge filters and air stones, but the real key factor in all of Mark’s set-up regime is feeding and water changes.
Like the Suttons, Mark is a firm believer in regular water changes, and all his tanks and ponds have a 24/7 supply of treated tapwater flowing through them.
Mains water goes through sediment and carbon filters before being diverted via a manifold and plumbed to each tank using rigid pipework. Flow can be controlled to each tank’s individual needs before draining off via standpipes and drains and back into the supply.
A constant flow of freshwater makes a huge difference as it washes away nasty growth-inhibiting hormones that cypriniids, especially goldfish and carp, like to emit. Unlimited freshwater keeps parasite numbers down, flushes away waste, yet feeds algae at the same time — all part of the goldfish food chain.
Mark told me that he encourages algae on some tanks and explained to visiting local authority officials that "algae is filtration, and algae is food." After going away and doing their homework, they were inclined to agree.
He also supplies environmental health staff with pH, nitrate and oxygen readings on demand.
Mark’s feeding regime will seem extreme to most, but when you are in business to make money you have to up a gear. Fish are fed six times per day on live bloodworm, live Tubifex and live Daphnia. He also feeds pellets from ZM and live earthworms — another Sutton practice.
Slabs of live bloodworm as big as dinner plates arrive in newspaper and are stored in the fridge. Mark prefers live over frozen and says that you can’t pollute with live if you overfeed, as the worms don’t decompose in the water — as would frozen dead ones.
He’s also got a great supplier, called Yorkshire Brineshrimp Supplies. After looking at the size of portions and prices, and with fish growth as testament, I can heartily recommend it.
Mark has ponds just for Daphnia, which he sieves each day. They feed on green water and yeast, Mark finding that a common kitchen sieve has just the right size of hole to remove adults for feeding and let juveniles slip through to grow on.
I asked him how to achieve good head growth on UK fish, as some struggle in comparison to those in China. Mark believes that live food and peas help a great deal, especially loads of live bloodworm, with algae, of course, being the basis of everything.
The new business is very much a family affair and when Mark worked away a lot he had trained his daughters to raise the brineshrimp for him!
Mark's breeding varieties
- Metallic veiltails
- Calico veiltails
- Metallic orandas with veiltails
- Calico orandas
- Bristol shubunkins
Mark’s trading name is English Bred Fancy Goldfish and the business operates Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from 9am-6pm and Sundays from 10am-4pm. English Bred Fancy Goldfish is also on Facebook. You can arrange a visit to see Mark by appointment on 01493 718650.
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After the heavy bombing of Japan during World War Two only six Tosakin goldfish had survived. Jeremy Gay finds out more.
Few people will have heard of the Tosakin and, to date, very few people keep and breed them in the UK. Originating in Kochi, Japan, this fancy goldfish is characterised by its very flamboyant undivided tail which, when viewed from above, fans out and even curls, stretching from gill to gill.
As to its origins, although ornamental goldfish keeping originated in China, it quickly spread to Japan where certain varieties became synonymous with certain areas, like the Ryukin from the Ryuku Islands and the Ranchu from Tokyo, formerly known as Edo.
The Tosakin was first recorded in 1845 in the Kochi Prefecture (formerly known as Tosa) and became established in the Meiji period dating from 1868 to 1912.
However, the Tosakin was very nearly lost for ever after a string of events in the mid-1900s.
An earthquake and Tsunami in 1946 followed heavy World War Two bombing of the Kochi Prefecture, leading to some people thinking that the Tosakin had become extinct.
Then Mr. Hiroe Tamura, a Japanese hobbyist who had lost all his fish in the bombing, found six.
He discovered them in a restaurant of all places and managed to trade a bottle of sweet potato vodka for them. With the country on its knees, cash had become worthless and a bottle of vodka would prove far more valuable to a restaurant trying to revive its fortunes.
Among the six restaurant fish were two breeder fish and four two-year-olds, which then went on to fix the strain once more. This led to the Japanese government declaring them a natural treasure of the Kochi Prefecture.
Wouldn’t it be nice if Bristol shubunkins were declared a natural treasure of Bristol?
The Tosakin is now also known as the Peacock tail, Curly tail or the Queen of goldfish by the Japanese, with the Ranchu being the King.
All of the world’s living Tosakin are now thought to have descended from those six tough restaurant survivors!
The Tosakin is bred to be viewed from above, and doesn’t look very pretty or graceful, when viewed side-on in the normal way it would be viewed in an aquarium.
This variety has a full dorsal fin, and all other fins are intact too, apart from the major characteristic of that tail, which has been described as a triple lobe or a cherry blossom tail. The inner edges are webbed and the outer lobes upturned and twisted towards the head, making the tail look as if it has been turned inside out.
One book on Japanese goldfish claims that that the Tosakin was originally formed by crossing a Ryukin and an Osaka ranchu — another very rare, almost extinct breed that is kept going by as few as five people in Japan.
As for keeping Tosakin, the traditional way that these fish are kept in Japan may seem very unconventional to us in the UK. They are kept in bowls (no change there then!) yet these bowls aren’t made from glass and sit inside the house. Instead they are shallow, earthenware and designed to be placed outside, with the fish viewable from above.
This traditional type of bowl even pre-dates glass and is reminiscent of the first ornamental fish ever kept by humans!
Traditionally these bowls aren’t filtered either, relying solely on frequent water changes to manage water quality and sometimes including floating plants like Water hyacinth or a water lily.
One Japanese Tosakin website has referred to them as the "water lily bowl Tosakin."
The shallow bowls are traditionally 60cm/24" wide and 18cm/8" deep with sloping sides, holding just a few fish depending on their age and size. After their first spring and autumn in these bowls the fish are moved to larger, rectangular containers.
Because of that unique tail, Tosakin are poor swimmers and should only be kept with each other to avoid being out-competed for food or chased around endlessly in times of spawning frenzy.
The traditional style bowls are said by many to be essential for the development of the tail, yet a quick Google search will reveal many Tosakin keepers across the world using modern plastic bowls, larger, rectangular plastic tubs or, in the case of expert Andrew Barton, featured below, shallow glass tanks.
The bowl methodology may seem a bit cruel and out of date to most and anecdotal evidence suggests that the idea is for the fish’s body not to grow too quickly, while the tail continues to grow and develop.
To develop it traditionally would mean to restrict movement and activity somewhat, as a Tosakin racing round a large pond may not develop that tail. Yet it prevents long bursts of active, linear swimming anyway, so this may not particularly matter.
However, water depth is a common factor with all Tosakin keepers, with 20cm/7.8” or less the unwritten rule.
As fancy goldfish go Tosakin are very buoyant, so even if you ignored all the advice from fancy goldfish keepers on the need for shallow water to develop body and head shape and placed them in deeper water, they would remain near the surface.
Where you can buythem
Because they are so rare here you won’t find them without searching round. Andrew knows of just six Tosakin keepers in the UK and estimates just a handful of fish in the whole of the UK.
However Stan Woolridge bought 16 from Andy Green of Star Fisheries and Andy then had four from Stan.
The fish were for sale at £300 each when we visited in 2008 (the top picture shows them as they were then, and the bottom picture two years on). So do the maths — and no I won’t reveal where Stan or Andy live!
These were juveniles too, so a quality adult fish may be worth much more. If you want to track down fish of genuine Japanese origins you will need to join one of the UK’s specialist goldfish societies.
Several features of the Tosakin are meant to form imaginary circles. In a mature fish the tail will spread out as wide horizontally as the fish is long, so in theory, with a circle drawn around the fish when viewed from above the nose, end, left and right tips of the fishes’ tail will touch the circumference of the imaginary circle.
Furthermore the trailing parts of the tail should form a semi circle, and the folded parts of the tail edges which stretch up right along the fish’s flanks should also be able to form those imaginary semi-circles.
These ilustrations show what a good Tosakin should look like. Note that circles should only be possible when viewing mature fish with fully-grown tails and will not be possible to observe while raising any young.
What you need to know
Maximum size: Tosakin seem to get to a maximum body size of less than 15cm/6”, though so few are kept in the UK that they may well grow larger than this and we just haven’t seen any yet.
Average age: Ten years.
Preferred water parameters: pH 7-8.5, 15-30°C/59-86°F.
Food: Bloodworm and pellets.
Pond size required: Although the traditional methods dictate that 60cm/24” diameter shallow bowl, PFK always recommends a tank at least six times the length of an adult fish for long term care, so we recommend one of 90cm/36”. A black plastic water feature tub like the ones from Rolf C. Hagen would be good. They are long and wide, yet shallow and durable.
Filtration: The Japanese don’t use any filtration, but we recommend an air powered sponge filter to provide oxygen and biological filtration, yet with little current in the water.
Aeration: On top of filtration you will also need additional aeration via an air pump and air stone, and maybe even a heater.
Extras: You’ll also need a dechlorinator to make tapwater safe, a good brand of dry food for fancy goldfish and some decent frozen bloodworm.
In your medicine cabinet, arm yourself with a test kit, medications like anti fungal treatments, and some salt, to be administered if necessary.
Red, red-and-white, iron black and more recently, calico are the easily recognisable colours. Those Tosakin with silver-white or yellow on their tails are designated national treasures.
The trouble with Tosakin
Fancy goldfish are prone to many health problems, because of their very unconventional shape.
They can also have line breeding related problems, which should be bred out.
Even the Japanese experts regard the Tosakin as a weak fish due the intensive in-breeding programme that had to be put in place in an effort to resurrect and revive the breed from those six wartime survivors.
Tail curling (above) is definitely a Tosakin-only problem, and was noted by Andrew Barton in some of his early fish.
Basically the tail fin becomes so developed that it protrudes all the way along the body and can actually stick in the gill when the fish is at rest.
A skilled Tosakin breeder may note those most likely to develop this condition early on and cull them.
Exactly as it sounds, gill curl (above) means that the gill plates curl outwards from the head, sometimes making the red gill filaments visible. It’s not life threatening, but unsightly.
This can happen to lots of fancies, with Tosakin more prone than most. Also scored as "deportment" when showing fish, a fish should be able to hold itself upright in midwater while at rest and not float tail-up with its head down.
Curl control: fact or fiction?
To keep tail curl correct as it develops, it is said that a Tosakin should be kept in a round container. The water 'waves' bounce back in ways that encourage the tails to take on that characteristic shape. When in too deep a container, or one that’s rectangular, or a pond, the tail is said to flatten and develop mis-shapen bends and curls.
Is a Tosakin the fish for you?
When fish rarity and large sums of money are mentioned, that may be enough for some people to want to get involved and keep and breed them.
Tosakin are one of the most extreme forms of fancy goldfish however, being severely restricted when they swim and not particularly hardy.
A mass market of Tosakin may well bring the price down and increase availability, though, as with other forms of fancy goldfish, a poor quality version doesn’t do anyone any good.
Turn up at a UK goldfish show and have a look at some first, then think long and hard about whether you want to take on this type of fancy goldfish with all the trials and tribulations that comes with it.
The future for commercial breeding
Fish farms in South-East Asia are all about breeding something different to everyone else. The hope is that it will become the next big thing on the world stage.
Commercial treatment of Tosakin is no different, with breeders in Bangkok and Indonesia already producing calico Tosakin, telescope-eye Tosakin, dragon-eye Tosakin and Orandas with Tosakin tails. Just watch this space!
Owner Q and A
Andrew Barton is president of the AMGK, GSGB member, and chairman of the Nationwide Standards Committee. He has been keeping goldfish for 30 years and has two of his own strains of Fantail, maintains a 60-year-old strain of Bristol shubunkins and has his own strain of veiltail Orandas, Ranchu and Lionheads.
Some say that the body and finnage of the Tosakin are the same as for a Fantail, apart from the tail?
They’re similar but wouldn’t be identical and mine aren’t the same shape from the side. The body should be teardrop shaped and the head should be very pointy, particularly with a high nose position and flat dorsal profile. Some say to feed Tubifex and keep the fish in warm water to create the pointed head, yet when offered Tubifex mine wouldn’t eat it.
As chairman of the nationwide standards do you intend to create a British standard for Tosakin?
Stan Woolridge’s intentions and mine are to up the number of Tosakin kept in the UK and to get people interested. I’ve got some information from some Japanese websites via a translator and we’re now working on a British standard.
Internet sources quote the importance of algae. What are your thoughts?
Green water helps to develop the colour of the fish though I wouldn’t have long, stringy algae in a Tosakin tank.
Expert Q and A
Geert Coppens is Europe’s most famous Ranchu keeper. He used to import and keep Tosakin too.
Many UK sources say that Tosakin are the rarest variety of goldfish in the world. How rare are they in their Japanese homeland?
In Japan Tosakin is not a rare variety. Ranchu is the most popular one in Japan, but neverthelesss Tosakin can be bought quite readily from aquatic shops and there are several Tosakin-only goldfish clubs.
We’ve heard it said that if you don’t have the space to culture Ranchu, culture Tosakin instead. Would you agree?
It’s true that you need less space for Tosakin, and the Tosai (the fish in their first year) should be kept first in bowls before moving on to rectangular tanks in their second and third years.
Are genuine Tosakin bowls available outside of Japan?
I haven’t seen them. To keep my Tosakin I found similar bowls in a garden centre and drilled them at the bottom so that I could easily change the water.
Have you ever seen a calico Tosakin and why don’t you keep them any more?
Yes I have seen calico fish, but they are not of the quality of the original red and white fish.
I like to look at pictures of Tosakin but I don’t like the way they swim. They are not graceful swimmers,like Ranchu.
Could Tosakin ever make good aquarium fish for fancy goldfish keepers?
Japanese goldfish are bred to be viewed in ponds and from above. Because of this keeping them in glass aquariums, as is the modern European way, is a waste of time.
1603-1868: Bred in late Edo period.
Early 1800s: A low-ranking Samurai warrior breeds them at Kochi Castle.
1845: Original Tosakin bred here, document and first painting of a Tosakin.
1856: Tosakin become established by the Suga family.
1910: First Tosakin competitions.
1929: Document from fish fair listing Tosakin categories.
1937: Mr Suga dies.
April 7, 1945: Kochi Air raid, World War Two.
December 21, 1945: Earthquake resulting in Tsunami. Six Tosakin left.
1969: Designated natural monument in Kochi Prefecture.
1971: Juvenile Tosakin go on sale in Tokyo.
2006: PFK visit and photograph Tosakin at Andrew James’ house.
2008: Star Fisheries import Tosakin. Stan Woolridge buys some.
March 2009: Andrew breeds Tosakin.
June 25, 2010: PFK staff visit Andrew Barton.
June 26, 2010: Tosakin display at AMGK.
Ray Rich took up the gauntlet to breed goldfish and describes his success with the fantail variety.
They may be one of our more basic fancy varieties, but fantails have a simple, sturdy charm. Strangely, although hardly the most highly-developed fancy, they can be very challenging to successfully and consistently breed.
Goldfish are easily tough enough to survive our winters, responding quickly as soon as spring arrives. With the arrival of warmer weather, the males start charging about and looking for something to breed with!
Good English fantails should have strong, stiffly held split tail fins, showing a deep fork and a good fan shape when they are viewed from above.
The top lobe of the tail should not droop below the horizontal. Fin extremities should look even and rounded. Some enthusiasts prefer the shorter finnage and some a slightly longer style of fins.
The body should be deep and evenly rounded with no bumps, especially behind the head. As with all fancy goldfish, females tend to have deeper bodies.
The colour in calico fish should be a deep base blue background with patches of red, orange, yellow, brown and black. Colour should extend into the finnage.
Many breeders prefer black spotting over the body and black stripes in the finnage.
The metallic effect fish should have a very deep colour, like polished metal. The deeper and more brilliant the better.
All of these 'shoulds' are fine in theory, but achieving them and successfully breeding year after year is an entirely different matter! Most breeders have to try hard to keep depth of body and maintaining a good blue background colour can keep you up at night.
Breeding fantails is very time consuming! Just choosing the right males and females can take great thought and often many test spawnings. Just spawning the best two fish you have doesn’t guarantee good results.
Two fish with good colour often produce offspring with dull coloration and the same can be said for finnage. I find that breeding a light-coloured, short-finned fish with a dark-coloured long finned partner can sometimes be the answer.
However, there’s no absolute solution and that’s why I tend to do small test spawnings first.
I would normally start my breeding programme in early spring, around March 1, and often warm the water to about 17°C/63°F. Then I try to spawn one female with three males just to spread my bets. The chosen female is usually two years old, while the males can be only half that age.
My spawning tank is 91 x 61cm/3’ x 2’ and I use lots of Hornwort as the spawning medium. I normally let the female settle for a couple of days first and introduce the males early one evening in the hope of a spawning the following morning.
If successful I normally let the fish spawn all day and take them out for a rest and good feed that evening. After spawning, and when the adults are removed, I turn the thermostat to about 22°C/72°F, sit back and wait.
In reality, after about 24 hours I end up counting the unfertilised white eggs to check fertility rate! It’s so easy to see so many white furry, fungus covered eggs that you expect only a few fertilised ones — but normally a surprisingly good hatch follows in three to four days.
Those tiny fish stick to any available surface, each having a little food sac attached which they absorb after 24-36 hours. Then they head for the surface to gulp air to inflate their swimbladder and they’re off, darting everywhere.
Now your work really starts! They now need food, heat, light and clean water, but, of these, their most important requirement is clean water. They can tolerate being fed very little, cool water and dark surroundings — but certainly not dirty water.
After hatching I normally wait some 36 hours to let the babies absorb their sacs and then feed them daily on newly hatched brineshrimp. I maintain this for the first six days then move them to a clean tank. From then on, until ten weeks old, I move them to new, clean quarters every three days.
Normally about two weeks after hatching, and while moving the youngsters to clean quarters, I begin to identify and select fish with divided tails.
Everyone has their own method, but I wait for a sunny evening and then, looking from above, examine the shadow thrown by the fish’s tail, as that normally reveals if it is properly divided.
If breeding nacreous (speckled) fish any metallics will not normally colour up. They just look dark green and shiny and any matts (white-ish) will not be needed. They just remain pink.
I continually select the best fish, looking for a good deep body, double anal fins, dark, interesting colours and stiffly held finnage for the next eight weeks or so.
Their menu moves on to bloodworm at around four weeks and then gradually to my own home-made food from around seven to eight weeks.
Hopefully by the end of this process you should have some very fine young fantails! However, breeding often takes quite a few attempts before you get confident about things — so be patient as well as persistent.
Eight common fantail faults
- Tails too long and dropping down. Often finnage gets longer as the fish grows — so if a young one already has long finnage it will be even more pronounced in adulthood.
- Tail too narrow when viewed from above. This is not a good fan shape.
- Signs of a hood developing on the head. Top of the head looking like a Ranchu or Oranda.
- End of fins too pointed.
- Bump at the back of the head. Not an even contour from the nose to the dorsal fin.
- Poor colour. Too little blue and a predominance of orange or red.
- Body not deep enough.
- Fish not swimming in an even fashion in the water, either head up or down.
Did you know?
Goldfish (Carassius auratus auratus) were one of the earliest fish to be domesticated.
They were domesticated from the wild fish, a dark greyish brown carp native to Asia, and first bred for colour in China more than 1,000 years ago.
Find out more
The Goldfish Society of Great Britain encourages the study of all characteristics of goldfish.
Members breed and distribute varieties, show and exhibit them, and a bulletin is published regularly.
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The Comet goldfish makes a great choice for the pond or larger aquarium.
Common name: Comet goldfish
Scientific name: Carassius auratus auratus
Size: To 35cm/14”
Diet: Natural foods include insects and their larvae, aquatic invertebrates, plants and detritus. In the aquarium or pond they will accept a wide range of dry and frozen foods.
Water: Goldfish and their varieties prefer slightly hard, alkaline water, pH 7.5-8.5. In nature they experience seasonal variations from 4°C/39°F to the 20s°C/75°+F, though are happiest between 10°C/50°F and 20°C/68°F.
Notes: Comets are now the world’s most common goldfish variety, as many standard single-tail goldfish we buy for tanks and ponds have an elongated, comet tail. They are large fish, regularly reaching 30cm/12” in length, and so are best kept in filtered outdoor ponds or very large aquaria.
Like all single-tail goldfish they are naturally hardy, though often abused through ignorance.
Popular is the red and white pond fish known as Sarasa comet. Having deep red and pure white coloration, they are attractive, hardy and large fish.
Left to their own devices, comets will breed and cross-breed with short-tailed Common goldfish and Shubunkins.
To line breed for finnage and colour these fish must be selected and culled where necessary to prevent them reverting back to olive green, wild type goldfish.
The correct comet tail should be forked and well spread, and not droop or overlap.
Avoid fish with blood visible in fins as this may be a result of poor water quality and/or poor health.
Aquarium: Best kept in a pond, though if indoors the larger the aquarium the better — preferably 120cm/48” minimum, though 150cm/60” or even 180cm/72” are best long term.
All goldfish are messy, especially when large, so an external is the best filter.
Don’t think of combining these with twin-tailed fancy goldfish as the faster comets may outcompete them.
Sexing: Males develop breeding tubercles, white spots on the gill covers, and ridges on their pectoral fins. Females become plump with eggs and become lopsided when viewed from above. Males are more slender.
Identification: Any goldfish with the characteristic comet tail is classed as a comet, be it metallic orange, red and white or calico.
Availability: Widely available from anywhere that sells aquarium and pond fish.
Price: £1 each upwards, though a lot more for larger and high quality fish.
George Farmer responds to a challenge to set up a high-end artificial aquascape for fancy goldfish.
Goldfish and aquascaping are two words rarely used in the same sentence. So when PFK commissioned a set-up for fancy goldfish I looked forward to a new challenge.
I had never kept high quality fancy goldfish before and was excited about keeping something that contrasted so much with my usual taste in fish.
For instant impact and ease — as goldfish are rather prone to nibbling plants — I decided on artificial plants and the selection from Rosewood’s Sydeco range was very impressive. Although they are not based on true
aquatic plants, they suited the style I wanted to achieve.
Due to the high visual impact nature of fancy goldfish the planting and hardscape design would have to be striking and not necessarily naturalistic. However, basic composition rules can still be implemented effectively, such as the positioning of colourful plants and dominating hardscape.
I visualised the design… tall, spiky plants contrasting well with the round shape of the fish. Smooth round stones and pebbles would complement the goldfish profile and complete my desired ornamental look.
Large stones would hide the lower portions of the plants and smaller pebbles in front of them would help create a visual flow throughout the aquarium. Some low plants would creep over large stone, creating a nice foreground.
The tallest plants on the left and shortest on the right would help give a pleasant sloping effect, with plenty of swimming space at the front and ends of the tank.
There’s always plenty of debate on recommended aquarium size for goldfish. Even fancy varieties can grow quite large and need lots of room and good filtration to cope with their wastes.
As far as swimming space is concerned, PFK suggests sticking to the 'six times rule' and using a tank that’s at least six times the typical length of an adult and twice the width. If you consider that a good-sized fancy will hit 15cm/6” then a tank of around 36” x 12” would be the minimum — but the bigger the better!
The six goldfish came to me from Star Fisheries and are quite large (much bigger than I expected when planning this set-up) with the biggest, a beautiful Chocolate oranda, measuring almost 15cm/6" total length.
PFK recommends a smaller number of fish — say three or four — or a larger tank for six of this size, long term.
Goldfish produce lots of waste and have a relatively high oxygen demand, so good filtration is essential.
However, flow rate should not be too high as fancy goldfish don’t have the easiest time swimming.
I opted for two large external filters, each holding almost 10 l/2.2 gal of mature biological media. To ensure good oxygen levels I pointed the filter outlet up to agitate the surface and against the back glass to prevent excess flow throughout the water column.
Two to three one-third water changes are carried out weekly to help maintain excellent water quality — and that’s something goldfish really deserve.
The tank lends itself to this set-up, being relatively tall and wide, so suiting the tall-bodied fish. OptiWhite glass gives maximum clarity and, with overtank lighting, gives an enhanced perspective to the whole aquascape.
Lighting spectrum was also chosen to give best colour rendition, with a pinkish tube and full-spectrum tube used to bring out the colours of fish and plants to great effect. The photoperiod is limited only to viewing times to help reduce nuisance algae.
Tank: 80 x 45 x 45cm/32 x 18 x 18” OptiWhite with cabinet
Filtration: Two large external filters
Lighting: Arcadia overtank luminaire, two 25w T8
Décor: Unipac black quartz gravel, various sizes of stone and pebble
Plants: Rosewood Sydeco artificial plants
Fish: Black moor, Calico ryukin, Red telescope, Red oranda, Chocolate oranda, Calico ranchu — all from Star Fisheries
Doing it for less
We used our studio kit on this set-up. However, you can get this look for less.
Go for a tank of around 90cm/36” or more - it’s cheapest to buy a complete kit, even though you won’t need the heater.
We used lots of plastic plants in this set-up (about £50-100 worth), and some high-end fancies (around £50 each). However, the plants and fish both start in price at just a few pounds, so you can spend as little or as much as your budget allows. A tank of this size should hold three or four small or medium fancies.
How to set up your goldfish aquarium
1. Choosing a big tank
I am using an 80 x 45 x 45cm OptiWhite braceless rimless aquarium with 10mm glass. The low iron increases clarity and is noticeable with thicker glass. The aquarium is on a matching cabinet with overtank luminaire. A larger tank would be more suitable than mine.
2. Adding the gravel
Ten kilos of Unipac black gravel are added. I’m not after a thick layer as there is no live planting. Substrate depth is just enough to cover the plants entirely. The gravel contrasts with the planting and fish, especially in combination with a black background.
3. Grouping tall plants
The tallest plastic plants are positioned. I want a sloping aquascape, so the tallest plants are positioned over the left. Four separate plants are used, grouped with leaves intertwining for a natural look. Most plants are spiky rush types to contrast with the smooth stones.
4. Positioning large stones
The largest stones are positioned around the bases of the plants. They add interest and hide the bottom of the plants, acting as an effective transition from the flat substrate. The largest stones are heavy, so handle carefully to avoid dropping them on the glass.
5. Positioning the plants
Remaining plants are added, taking into account height, leaf shape, colour and texture. Spend time experimenting with different plants in different positions, and the same applies when arranging the stones. This is plastic’s great advantage over real plants!
6. Adding smaller stones
Smaller stones and pebbles are added around the largest stones to further create a natural appearance with nice transitions in perspective. Although the set-up is quite artificial we can still use basic aquascaping principles to create something that looks attractive.
7. Hosing in water
Tapwater is added via a hosepipe from the garden. The tank holds almost 160 l/35 gal, so this saves trips with a bucket. The water is very cool and there’s condensation on the glass. I wipe it to prevent any drips settling on and spoiling the new cabinet.
8. Finishing touches
After fishless cycling the tank is ready for fish. No heater is required for goldfish and lighting is on only when the tank is viewed. A tank of this size is better with three or four fancies, rather than the six large ones added to this set-up.
The fancies selected for our latest step-by-step
Star Fisheries supplied me with six goldfish of five different varieties, all looking marvellous. They really are special, especially compared to the usual specimens we see in some retail shops.
Similar to Lionheads, Ranchus have more arched backs and shorter tails tucked in at a sharp angle.The head is the most prominent feature and there must be sufficient space between the eyes and from them to the front of the head.
The headgrowths (wen) of fry may take at least a year to develop. The young possess broad foreheads and square noses generally produce better wens.
Mature Ranchus can reach between 15-20cm/ 6-8" in length.
This fish is so named because it was said to have arrived in Japan through the Ryukyu Islands that lie between Taiwan and Japan. It is a hardy and attractive variety with a pointed head and pronounced hump on the back behind the head.
It may be long-finned or short-finned, with either a triple or quadruple tail. The dorsal fin is high while the caudal fin is often twice as long as the body. The caudal fin may also have three or four lobes.
Ryukin can reach up to 20cm/8".
Also known as the Demekin in Japan, this is a fancy goldfish characterised by protruding eyes. Variants include the Globe eye and Dragon eye goldfish. Apart from those eyes the Telescope is similar to the Ryukin.
Because of its poor vision this fish should not be mixed with more active goldfish varieties and should be housed in an aquarium without sharp or pointed objects.
This is a fancy goldfish characterised by a prominent raspberry-like hood encasing its head. The hood or headgrowth encases the whole head, except for the eyes and mouth. The headgrowth of young fry may take one to two years to develop.
Orandas can reach 20-31cm/8-12.2" but a specimen from China, named Bruce after the late actor and martial artist Bruce Lee, reached over 37cm/15" in length.
Deep bodies, long, flowing finnage and protruding eyes identify these goldfish. There are veil tail, broad tail and short tail moors, and they possess metallic scales with a velvet-like appearance.
Some claim that Black moors revert to metallic orange when exposed to warm water temperatures.
These fish can range from lighter grey to a dark black, and most don’t stay pure black. Many also change from having a rust-coloured underbelly to one with orange splotches.
This item first appeared in the May 2010 issue of Practical Fishkeeping magazine. It may not be reproduced without written permission.
If you're looking for a legal bitterling for a large coldwater set-up, check this one out, says Jeremy Gay.
Scientific name: Acheilognathus macropterus.
Common name: Giant Chinese bitterling.
Origin: China and Northern Vietnam, in the Yangtze and Ningpo rivers.
Size: Up to 27cm/10.6”
Diet: Omnivorous, this species will naturally feed on aquatic invertebrates, insect larvae, small insects and anything else that drifts past. In the aquarium a mixture of frozen foods, like brineshrimp and bloodworm, and a good tropical flake food will be fine.
Water: Temperature of 15-25°C/59-77°F and pH 7
Aquarium: Fully grown this fish will need a minimum 180cm/71” tank or indoor pond. A heated outdoor pond would be perfect, though luxuries like heaters don’t come cheap and are normally the preserve of high quality Japanese Koi. As these fish come from a coolwater, riverine environment, decorate the tank with sand and gravel, rocks, pebbles and bogwood. Some hardy coldwater plants like Elodea or Ceratophyllum and some swan mussels will set the scene nicely.
Sexing: Males are larger and much more colourful. Females will show an elongate ovipositor when ready to spawn. Some male bitterling also develop breeding tubercles on their heads.
Identification: Easy to spot as a bitterling, though not so easy to tell from the others, apart from its size. It is less hump-backed than the Hong Kong and more colourful than the Taiwanese.
Notes: A lesser known bitterling, this species has recently appeared in a few shops across the UK. Males are colourful and good looking, and will make great additions to the larger coolwater aquarium containing the likes of Weather loach and (the legal) North American sunfish.
As most bitterling average 10cm/4” or less you may be surprised to find that this one reaches nearly 30cm/12” and we can only imagine the splendour of a coloured-up adult male in full breeding coloration.
There has been a resurgence of what’s left of the legal species of bitterling, with several nice species in the shops, including the Taiwanese bitterling (Paracheilognathus himantegus) and the Hong Kong bitterling (Rhodeus ocellatus ocellatus).
Note that the European bitterling (Rhodeus sericeus) we used to see often is banned here.
Bitterlings are also well known for their unique breeding behaviour whereby their eggs are laid by the female into a live, freshwater mussel.
Legality: You do not require a licence to keep these in the UK as they are not as coldwater tolerant as the European bitterling and therefore deemed legal.
Availability: It’s been spotted in a few shops throughout 2009 and this fish was photographed at Bretonside Tropicals in Plymouth.
Price: £11.95 each.
This item first appeared in the January 2010 issue of Practical Fishkeeping magazine. It may not be reproduced without written permission.
The Ranchu goldfish is said to resemble a Japanese sumo wrestler. Jeremy Gay visits the founding members of the Ranchu Brotherhood UK.
Regular readers will be aware that my fishy tastes could be described as eclectic to say the least. Although I love wild type fish I’m interested in the ornamental too, and when Paul Green invited me to see some Ranchu owned by a new goldfish society, the Ranchu Brotherhood, I knew I’d be in for a treat.
Ranchu are a man-made fancy goldfish variety, with a dorsal-less back, short twin tail and developing a hood all over the head. They are fairly common in the shops, mostly coming from China, but you won’t find the likes of these in shops…
According to the guys I met, real Ranchu come from Japan where they are highly prized, almost as an art form, and there they can get similar attention and sell for similar money as some Koi carp.
Attention to detail and mating the right fish is paramount to producing the near perfect progeny, and the whole hobby is conducted in a manner similar to Bonsai, with quality being everything, followed by patience and meticulous long-term dedication.
I love how Japanese aquatics always seem to represent something, and go hand in hand with ancient proverbs and techniques. The planted aquarium can be arranged to represent mountains, fields and streams.
Paul said that Ranchu were originally bred along the shape guidelines of sumo wrestlers, with a big head and a heavy body. He says that culturally they represent good things about Japan and bring a sense of harmony. Called the 'king of goldfish' there, they have a big following.
The Ranchu Brotherhood was created by Belgian Geert Coppens who is quite famous in Japan. He built many relationships while there and developed the Ranchu brotherhood bloodline.
The brotherhood has members across Europe, including Holland and Belgium, with 18 members in total and four of those in the newly-formed UK organisation. They meet up regularly in the UK and with the other European members at shows.
Paul Green (above centre), Craig Smith (left) and Graham Edwards (right) are the three UK founding members and on our visit were just leaving for a show in Belgium. They were to be travelling on Eurotunnel and the trip was to be a social event as much as anything. The good thing is that they can be there and back in a day.
Paul Green started keeping fish at 13. He got a job in an aquatic centre which soon took over his life and, although at first his parents wouldn’t let him have a tank, Paul went on to have 13. His first fancies were a black Telescope and a white Fantail, and his first Ranchu was a white one that arrived at the aquatic shop.
After that he started keeping all sorts of fish, from cichlids to marine to freshwater stingrays. Eight years ago he got back into Ranchu — and this time the bug really bit.
Paul admits to loving all things Japanese, although he hasn’t had a chance to go there yet. He says that one of the main fishkeeping problems in Japan is room and to be a top breeder there, and to have space to do it, you need to be wealthy.
"To breed top fish you need a good eye," adds Paul, and talking to him and the other members about their fish, their lives and their other bits, they all seem perfectionists — but in a nice way of course!
One of his top tips for keeping show quality Ranchu is to never catch them in a net. Paul cradles each one in his hands, as he says you remove less mucus from the fish with a wet hand than with a net.
From what I learned on my visit you initially need to seek quality bloodlines, and this isn’t something you can just buy into. Craig Smith decided on Ranchu after keeping a full-blown marine reef aquarium and exchanged emails with breeders in Japan for 18 months before they would let him buy from them.
I have also heard similar stories about top Koi breeders there who won’t sell to just anyone and would rather cull fish than let inferior specimens get into circulation — or be kept by people for the wrong reasons.
Once here, different methods are used to what we would normally employ with fancy goldfish in tanks. The fish are kept in ponds, or vats, as this gives them maximum growing on and swimming room, and the Japanese breed Ranchu to be viewed from above, like Koi.
Water depths are shallow at around 25cm/10” in most cases, and I have seen this on other fancy goldfish breeder visits. Paul doesn’t filter the vats and instead understocks them, relying on large 100% water changes every 6-7 days. However Craig does, using Koi- type filtration methods. PFK recommends filtering if you are set to have a go.
All the fish I saw had access to natural daylight too, albeit through plastic covers, but daylight is key in developing rich colours.
Food is very important for producing quality fish and they are fed twice a day — and up to six times per day if growing on youngsters or preparing for showing. The Ranchu Brotherhood members prefer Saki Hikari pellets as a staple along with frozen bloodworm.
At 20°C/68°F the fish will breed and Paul says to start by choosing your best male and female for spawning. Then you can try the female with different males in future spawnings.
Paul is always looking for the best quality male and the best quality females for spawns. English lionheads can be bred to fit a breed standard, but in Japan there are no such standards and the attributes in favour may change over time.
Ranchu are now longer in the body and stronger swimmers than they used to be, which is much better in terms of fish health.
If your fish are happy and temperature right they will breed — and the members say that fish will never breed unless happy and settled.
Japanese Ranchu are shown in shallow bowls to be viewed from above. If the Ranchu themselves are said to represent sumo wrestlers in looks and shape, the bowls are said to represent their ring arena. In Japan there can be three to five judges evaluating each fish and they all offer a score.
Fish in Japan are picked up by hand, inspected, and then replaced in the show bowl. Even how they swim away after being picked up counts towards points! This isn’t something practised in the UK…
The Ranchu should have a long, wide, well-developed head, a long body and a tail like swallows’ wings. The 'bracelet' on the tail — the base of the caudal peduncle — should be wide and catch the eye first with reflective scales.
As with Koi, the colour on a Ranchu can change almost completely as it matures — and with age, like many goldfish, they often become whiter. According to Paul, until a few years ago you would never see a white fish ranked highly in shows, but in 2004 a 98% white fish won the All Japan Show. Yellow heads are now favoured too.
You don’t have to show your fish if you keep top quality Ranchu, but if you develop your own lines and take the time and money that these people have, you would probably want to show the fruits of your labour too.
Is it expensive?
When you get hold of quality fish from famous Japanese breeders it can be quite expensive, but Craig advises that all you need to get started is a plastic water feature tub, and air stone. That’s your first little Ranchu pond! We would advise a small filter too of course!
Craig previously spent a lot of money on his reef tank and took the same route when he got into Ranchu. He advises switching your electricity to Economy 7 and says to get a water report from your supplier, as they are free on request.
The winners of the All Japan Show may be worth a staggering £15,000 and by breeding your own fish, who knows… you could create the next champion!
The founding members encourage new UK members and enjoy sharing the experience of learning and studying the fish. There is a social side too, just meeting and conversing with like-minded people, and the three members I met will all have a beer together too.
Ages have names!
Ranchu are shown in groups according to age. A Tosai is a Ranchu in its first year. The following January 1 all Tosai — regardless of when they hatched in that first year — become Nisai. The next January they become an Oya. They remain so from then on, but referred to as young or old Oya.
Get in touch
If you want to contact Paul, Graham or Craig, email them at firstname.lastname@example.org. Unfortunately, the website is not ready yet, but should be up and running shortly!
Check out some of the other fancy goldfish-related stories on the PFK website:
This item first appeared in the January 2009 issue of Practical Fishkeeping magazine. It may not be reproduced without written permission.
The Black-banded sunfish could be a refreshingly different choice for your coldwater aquarium, says Jeremy Gay
Scientific name: Enneacanthus chaetodon
Common name: Black-banded sunfish
Origin: North American Atlantic and Gulf slope drainages from Florida to New Jersey and west to Georgia.
Size: Up to 10cm/4” but usually smaller in the aquarium
Diet: Frozen bloodworm, black mosquito larvae, Daphnia and brineshrimp are readily taken. May also accept flakes or micro pellets. Matt Clarke has kept this fish and his were fond of small earthworms and live bloodworm.
Water: Unusually this species inhabits a cold, yet soft and acidic habitat. Natural temperatures range from 4-22°C/39-72°F, with pH from 6.5-7.5. This is a true coldwater fish that should not be exposed long term to high temperatures.
Notes: If looking for a totally different coldwater fish this could be just the species for you. It belongs to a family of sunfish that inhabit much of North America and many cousins including the Pumpkinseed (Lepomis gibbosus) are controlled in the UK as they are considered to be a threat to
The Black-banded sunfish naturally inhabits vegetated lakes, ponds, quiet sand and mud-bottomed pools and backwaters of creeks and small to medium sized rivers. Its liking for plants will suit its camouflage, and as it doesn’t eat plants, a natural looking coldwater planted aquarium with sand and wood would really show these pretty fish off at their best.
Unlike many other coldwater fish they are also a challenge to keep, due mainly to the dislike of any foods that aren’t live, so they should only be attempted by experienced fish keepers.
Aquarium: A 90cm/36” minimum, to easily hold a group of five or six. Remember to keep the aquarium in a cool place, or have plans for cooling in place, come the summertime.
Sexing: The males are larger with longer fins. The females become fuller when ripe with eggs. They breed by building a nest and protecting it from predators. We have not heard of anyone breeding them in the UK.
Identification: There are three Enneacanthus species, E.chaetodon, the Black-banded sunfish, E. gloriosus, the Blue- spotted sunfish and E. obesus, the Banded sunfish. Of the three, the Black-banded shows the most prominent black, vertical barring whereas the others may lose the bars altogether, depending on mood. E. gloriosus and obesus have more rounded dorsal, and caudal fins.
Availability: Rarely available from specialist stores. Choose large, quarantined specimens over small, wafer thin juveniles as they are much more hardy.
Legal position: One of the few North American fishes that can be kept legally in the UK without a licence.
Price: £5 for juveniles, though expect to pay £10-15 for adults.
This item was first published in the December 2009 issue of Practical Fishkeeping magazine. It may not be reproduced without written permission.
Paradise fish make a great choice for the unheated indoor aquarium, says Jeremy Gay.
Scientific name: Macropodus opercularis
Common name: Paradise fish
Origin: China, Taiwan and north Vietnam
Diet: Flake, frozen and live foods. Good at eating snails.
Water: A very hardy fish, living perfectly well in hard or soft water, pH 6-8, and warm or cool water, temperature 16-30°C/60-86°F. Perfect for the unheated indoor aquarium, though it would not survive a British winter outside.
Notes: Known as possibly the first “tropical” fish to be kept in aquaria, this can actually be put down to the fact that this fish will happily tolerate cooler water and low oxygen levels, as it is an air breather. These survival tactics would have led to success with the species by early aquarium keepers, whereas other tropical species would have quickly died.
It enjoys a mixed reputation in the hobby as although it is known for being a good snail destroyer and a pretty, cool water alternative to goldfish, it can be pugnacious, attacking small fancy goldfish and sometimes fighting with each other.
The key is to keep the species on its own or mixed with other temperates including Rosy barbs, Danios and Flagfish. A trio of two females and one male may result in the females fighting, so a nice mature, sexed pair is best and when temperatures rise they will breed, by way of the male constructing a floating bubble nest. Don’t keep two single males together as they will fight.
Aquarium: A single specimen can be kept in an aquarium of 45-60cm/18-24” length, though a pair will need larger and they will look and behave at their best in a large, cool water planted aquarium. Floating plants are essential for bubble nesting, along with an area of calm water. Again, don’t add one to an existing goldfish aquarium as they should not be mixed.
Sexing: Males are larger, more colourful and with longer fins. Females become fuller bodied, with eggs, and more dull in colour.
Identification: There are other Paradise fish in the tropical hobby, though you won’t get them mixed up, and they will be much less commonly available, and less gaudy than the species mentioned here. There are a metallic blue colour variant and an albino form widely available too.
Availability: Available the world over, from small pet shops to aquatics specialists. Easy to get hold of.
Legal position: Officially classed as a tropical fish, Paradise fish are not affected by coldwater, non-native fish licensing, so importers, retailers or hobbyists do not have to apply for any special permits.
Price: £2-5, depending on size, variety and quality.
This article was first published in the November 2009 issue of Practical Fishkeeping magazine. It may not be reproduced without written permission.
Jeremy Gay answers some of the most frequently asked questions on green water and explains how you can keep your pond water crystal clear.
What is the best way to get rid of green water?
Green water is caused by microscopic algae living in the water column. The most effective control is to use a combination of a pond pump, ultra violet clarifier (UVC) and a pond filter. Algal cells are damaged by the harmful UV light so continuous use should ensure clear water at all times.
Other methods include algicides — chemicals that kill the algae, like a herbicide — though these are merely short-term fixes that don’t address the initial cause of the algae. Chemical filter media like phosphate removers can help to prevent or starve green water by removing their food – the nutrients from the water.
Aquatic plants are nature’s algae battlers as they use excess nutrients for their growth, depriving algae of them as they go, and, by shading them, cutting down the amount of available light reaching the algae.
Do any animals eat the green water?
Yes, green algae is close to the bottom of an aquatic food chain and predated by lots of microscopic organisms which, in their turn, are eaten by fish. Daphnia can clear green water over time and numbers can be limited if insufficient algae and food are present.
However, in a filtered pond the Daphnia will quickly be eaten by the fish so cannot do their job properly. Yet it is still a great natural solution to still, fishless wildlife ponds.
I keep changing the pond water for beautifully clean tapwater, only to watch it go green again within a few days or weeks. Why is this?
Green algae cells only need light, water and nutrients to survive. Every time you change the water you are also adding nutrients from tap to pond, including nitrates and phosphates which the algae use as food.
Leave the water, which, if dechlorinated is perfectly good for fish, and the green algae will strip the nutrients until there is none, then crash.
PFK has received many enquiries from readers experiencing green water. Every expert we associate with has recommended just leaving the problem to sort itself out, unless you want the more instant and prolonged results gained from using a UVC.
I bought a pump, UV and filter package that guaranteed clear water for my pond. Six months on and it still isn’t clearing it. Why?
If the pump UVC and filter have been matched up by the manufacturer, the problem could be at your end. Have you calculated the pond volume accurately and what volume figure did you give the shop assistant when you bought it?
Check and re-check the dimensions and get an expert to calculate the volume for you. If the package is undersized for the volume of water it may never clear your problem.
If you fitted the UV bulb, is it working? Wait until dark then see if a purple light is glowing inside the filter.
Have you split off or manipulated the water flow in some way? These packages need all the rated flow to go through the filter in a cycle — not “teed” off so that some of the flow goes through an ornament. Is the pond situated in full sunlight? A badly placed, badly designed pond will be much more prone to algae problems.
What is the fish load in the pond and how much are you feeding the fish? These clear water guarantees are based on averages and ten goldfish produce far less waste than ten Koi.
Once all these factors have been checked out and eliminated, tell the manufacturer you want it sorted. You may be offered a model upgrade, discounting the price of the original system from the new larger one. Guaranteed means guaranteed, so fight your corner.
From experience I always like to choose a system that will filter at least half the pond volume added again, or even twice the volume. This will seem like a waste of money at the time but buying a small system not up to the job is false economy.
I’ve put together my own filtration system and the green water isn’t clearing. Why is this?
Nine times out of ten the pump will be too powerful for the UVC, and UVCs have a recommended or maximum flow of water to allow the algae cells enough contact time with the harmful UV rays.
If the algae whizzes too quickly past the UV bulb, there won’t be sufficient contact and the green water will not be cleared. Use a fine mechanical filter after the UVC to catch the disrupted algal cells.
Which is better? One long UV tube or a compact one?
Again it is all about contact time. Compact UVs only work because the water is spun around the light for better contact time. For large ponds and commercial systems everyone uses long, linear tubes, so these are probably the most effective.
How often should I change my UV tube?
Six monthly is best, unless the manufacturer states otherwise. This doesn’t necessarily mean two bulb changes a year, just ensure you have a new UV bulb for the spring/summer season. Many people turn off UVs or remove them completely in winter, so a new bulb from March to September will be fine.
This item was first published in the August 2009 issue of Practical Fishkeeping magazine. It may not be reproduced without written permission.
William Wildgoose BVMS CertFHP MRCVS is a veterinary surgeon at the Midland Veterinary Surgery in London and specialises in ornamental fish. Here he explains what causes ulcers and how you can treat them.
What are ulcers?
These are one of the most common lesions in Koi and affect most external parts, including the fins and mouth. It is important to check all fish, particularly the belly of pond fish, because this area may be badly ulcerated yet may not be obvious until too late.
What causes them?
Most ulcers are caused by bacterial infections that are commonly found in ‘healthy’ ponds but cause little harm until the fish are stressed by poor water quality or environmental conditions.
Increasing parasite burdens and substantial temperature fluctuations may also stress fish indirectly and make them more susceptible to bacterial infection and ulcers.
Are fungal diseases linked?
Fungal infections usually occur after the ulcers have developed rather than cause ulcers directly. Therefore it is vital that water quality is improved by carrying out a 30% water change every three or four days for two or three weeks.
My water tests are proving fine, so what else could cause the problem?
Even when basic water tests for ammonia, nitrite and nitrate might suggest that the water quality is good, there are many other substances in pond water that may cause problems. These include hydrogen sulphide from decomposing organic matter. If in doubt, change some water.
What about treatments?
After the first water change, adding salt at 1.5 grams per litre (or quarter of an ounce per gallon) helps wounds to heal in freshwater fish by reducing the osmotic effects of water seeping into the ulcer and by having a mild disinfectant action. The salt content should be maintained after each water change by adding 30% of the original amount of salt.
This can be checked and monitored by using a hydrometer, or, more accurately, a conductivity meter to measure dissolved solids, like salt. Adding an antibacterial product to the water such as Virkon, or one of the many proprietary brands, may be helpful.
What if I find that the ulcers are extensive?
If this is the case, then the fish will require an anaesthetic and the wounds surgically cleaned up, disinfected and dressed with a waterproof compound.
If only one or two fish are affected then they may benefit from being kept in a heated isolation tank, but this should be set up carefully, be of an adequate size and water quality monitored frequently. Heating the water to 25°C/77°F improves wound healing, particularly if pond water temperatures are low in spring and autumn. However, if several fish are affected then they are best treated in the pond, where water conditions will be more stable.
Ulcerated fish often require antibiotics given by injection and, if more than a few of your fish are affected, all of them should be given antibiotic medicated food for two weeks. Contact your local veterinary surgeon for professional advice.
This item was first published in the November 2009 issue of Practical Fishkeeping magazine. It may not be reproduced without written permission.
The North American Fathead minnow, Pimephales promelas, is a really interesting little fish for the coldwater aquarium and has fascinating breeding behaviour, as Jeremy Gay explains.
Scientific name: Pimephales promelas.
Common name: Rosy red minnow, Fathead minnow.
Origin: Canada and North America, to Mexico.
Size: Up to 10cm/4” for males. Females at 5-7.5cm/2-3”.
Diet: In the wild feeding on detritus, algae, copepods and aquatic crustaceans — in the aquarium taking flake and dry foods frozen and live.
Water: From 10-20°C/50-68°F is ideal, though will tolerate temperatures cooler and hotter.
Notes: Rosy reds have fluctuated in availability, probably because retailers and suppliers are unclear as to their legal status in the UK.
They are noted for tolerating low oxygen and turbid water conditions other fish cannot.
The red coloration was discovered on a US fish farm and then line bred. Natural Rosy reds, or Fathead minnows, are grey/brown with dark patches and a feint horizontal stripe from head to tail.
Rosy reds lay eggs and guard them much like a cichlid. They use caves or the underside of lily pads and can be bred easily in the home aquarium.
Aquarium: As active, shoaling fish we recommend a minimum tank length of 90cm/36” and around 100 l/22 gal in volume. Keep on their own or with other temperate, similarly-shaped fish like Red shiners or danios. They are best not mixed with goldfish.
Sexing: Males develop a fatty growth on the head, hence Fathead minnow. They also develop pronounced tubercles on their heads at spawning time and naturally coloured males develop vertical stripes at the same time.
Identification: As we only see the red form in the UK they are fairly easy to identify — and other members of the Pimephales genus are not available. They may be mistaken for young Golden orfe, though Rosy reds have a shorter head profile.
Availability: In several UK retail outlets in the summer of 2009 and most shops should be able to order them in.
Do you need a licence? Defra state: “Rosy red minnows are a non-native species, the keeping of which is regulated under the Import of Live Fish Act (1980). To prevent the potential spread of this species to the wild, those wishing to keep or sell these animals must be licensed.”
Wholesalers and retailers must have individual licenses for their premises. Wholesalers must also record which retailers they supply and the number of the fish supplied in each batch. Retailers must keep records of the number of fish received and sold.
A general licence allows Rosy red minnows to be held in indoor aquaria for ornamental purposes.
Hobbyists can hold them in their tanks without requiring an individual licence, but they must not introduce them to garden ponds or allow them to escape into the wild.
Price: About £2.00 each specimen.
This item was first published in the October 2009 issue of Practical Fishkeeping magazine. It may not be reproduced without written permission.
Matt Clarke answers some of your most frequently asked questions on pond pollution...
How can I tell if my pond is polluted?
Some fish may show changes in their behaviour if the water is polluted. They usually gasp at the surface, but might also hang motionless in the water, lay on the pond floor or jump out.
However, although the fish may provide some clues, you can't tell how polluted the water is unless you test it with the right kits. Get into the habit of testing regularly for ammonia, nitrite, nitrate and pH, and reach for the test kits whenever fish die, look sick or behave strangely.
What should I do if I detect nitrite in my pond?
Nitrite reduces the fishes' ability to remove oxygen from the water. So increase aeration by ensuring that fountains, pumps and waterfalls are left running continuously.
Additional food creates further pollution and fish go off their food when the water is polluted. Cut back on feeding until the water quality improves.
Perform a series of large water changes to dilute the concentration of nitrite in the water. Use the pump to remove 25-50% of the water each time. Top up the pond using a hose, but don't forget to dechlorinate the water to neutralise the chlorine or chloramine present.
Salt reduces the toxicity of nitrite, which means fish can tolerate slightly higher levels without falling ill. The exact amount of salt required depends on the volume and the nitrite level, but a dose of 1-3g per litre is very effective in ponds, especially when fish are also suffering from diseases.
Keep testing the water for signs of nitrite until the levels drop. Be prepared to make further water changes to help prevent the nitrite rising to deadly levels.
Why should I test the pH and temperature if I find ammonia?
Ammonia dissolves readily in water to form two different chemicals: ammonium (NH4+) and free-ammonia (NH3).
Most test kits measure the total ammonia nitrogen, which is a combination of the ammonium and free-ammonia present. Ammonium is much less toxic to fish than free-ammonia.
The actual amount of toxic free-ammonia present depends on the pH and temperature of the pond water. So you need to test the pH and temperature to find out how dangerous conditions are for the fish.
Some test kits include a look-up chart to enable you to determine how much free-ammonia is present, depending on your temperature and pH level.
Any free-ammonia level is cause for concern, as levels of just 0.2-0.5 ppm can be deadly for many fish.
I've written an ammonia toxicity calculator to help you work this out.
How can I get the fish through an ammonia problem?
Ammonia damages the gills and causes the production of extra mucus. This reduces the surface area of the gill filaments, making it more difficult for the fish to breathe normally.
To aid breathing, boost the oxygen levels by adding extra aeration to the pond. Then dilute the concentration of the ammonia by doing a large water change, and topping up with dechlorinated tapwater.
Place an ammonia-removing chemical filter media like zeolite in the filter to help reduce levels. Recharge this every couple of days by soaking it in a strong salt solution.
Alternatively, you could try APIs Ammo-Lock - a liquid treatment designed to neutralise toxic ammonia.
Keep testing the ammonia and nitrite levels daily, changing more water if levels go too high. Fish may become diseased during and after ammonia or nitrite problems so keep a close eye on the fish for signs of infection.
How should I clean my filter?
Pond filters contain useful bacteria that remove pollutants, like ammonia and nitrite, which arise when things break down in the water. The chlorine present in tap water is deadly to these filter bacteria, so filter media should only be washed in old pond water, however tempting it may be to rinse it under the hose.
If you kill the bacteria by washing the media in tap water, the pond will become polluted with ammonia and nitrite and the fish will suffer.
How can I keep my pond cleaner?
There are a number of pond cleaning gadgets on the market. Of these, a pump-operated vacuum cleaner is by far the most effective. Some models are very expensive to purchase, but many retailers offer a rental service, which may be more cost effective for smaller ponds.
There are a number of biological treatments on the market designed to break down sludge.
Should I change the water?
Many pond keepers don't change their water, preferring instead to simply top-up evaporational losses. However, it's undoubtedly better for the quality of your water to change some of the water occasionally.
Nitrate and phosphate can build up over time, encouraging the growth of the nuisance algae which can lead to green water and blanketweed.
Making partial water changes every so often can help dilute the levels, providing your tap water is already low in these pollutants.
Use your pump to remove about 25% of the water every month or so. Then top up the pond using a hose.
Don't forget to add a good dechlorinator capable of neutralising chloramine as well as chlorine.
This article was first published in the October 2002 issue of Practical Fishkeeping.
Jeremy Gay introduces what is probably the most colourful fish you can buy for the indoor coldwater aquarium - the stunning Red shiner or Rainbow dace.
Red shiner, Rainbow dace
Widespread across North America and introduced to North Mexico. Originates in the Mississippi river basin.
Up to 9cm/3.6” although usually smaller.
Feeds on terrestrial and aquatic insects in nature, and algae. In the aquarium it will accept a wide range of foods, from a staple flake food to live and frozen bloodworm, mosquito larvae, brineshrimp and Daphnia.
Prefers a temperature of 15-25°C/59-77°F. Great for the unheated indoor aquarium, but not for the outside pond.
Red shiners are an attractive cool water fish that will appeal to those wanting something completely different to goldfish. They could be mixed with other cool water, active fish like danios and White Cloud Mountain minnows, though should not be mixed with goldfish as they will out-compete them and are a fin-nipping risk.
Quite an active fish that should be kept in groups. Combine this with their maximum size of nearly 10cm/4” and a 90cm/35” tank should be considered the minimum length for a group long term.
Easy, as males are far more colourful when mature and when in spawning condition carry raised white breeding tubercles all over their heads.
There are 29 valid species of Cyprinella, all referred to as shiners. You’re unlikely to confuse them with anything else.
Red shiners have been in and out of availability recently, possibly due to confusion over its legal status in the UK. We saw them in several shops here in the spring/summer of 2009 and most retailers should be able to get them in for you.
The choice in coldwater fish these days is very limited and it is illegal to import or keep a wide range of fish due to the Import of Live Fish Act, which was amended in 1996. This is designed to protect native fish stocks from diseases and non-native fish species. Dealers need to apply for a special licence to handle many species.
Some of the licenced fish can be kept by the public without any need to apply for their own licence, but others cannot, and we’d be surprised if Defra ever issued licences for some of the listed species.
The Red shiner is a fish that shops need to hold a licence for in order to import and sell it legally. However, the general public are covered by something called a general licence. For this species, they don’t actually have to physically apply to Defra for permission to keep the fish.
Store owners need to record where they buy these fish and who they sell them to, so expect to be vetted when you buy them.
Defra say that the Import of Live Fish Act is under review and more species may be added later.
About £5 each.
This item was first published in the September 2009 issue of Practical Fishkeeping magazine. It may not be reproduced without written permission.
We answer some of the most common questions on the wonderful little Rhinogobius gobies for the coldwater or cooler tropical aquarium.
What are these fish?
These small Asiatic gobies, known as Rhinogobius, reach about 5cm/2” in length. They’ve been recorded from Thailand, China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Russia, the Philippines, Japan and many islands in the West Pacific. There are more than 70 species, as well as probably dozens more awaiting description.
Are they coldwater?
Sort of, they are probably better considered sub-tropical and they’ll do fine in an unheated aquarium indoors. Temperatures between 10-25°C/50-77°F are tolerated — and some go as low as 4°C/39°F. Many are fine in indoor coldwater aquariums or cooler tropical tanks.
In what habitats are they usually found?
These are generally considered fish of streams and typically occur in swift flowing streams over sandy or stony riverbeds, often in relatively cool water. They have sucker-like pelvic fins just below their pectorals, which they use to stick on to rocks and aquarium glass. A few live in still water, such as the lacustrine species, but most are current loving.
Are they freshwater?
Most are. However, Rhinogobius fall into three groups: amphidromous, lacustrine and fluvial.
The amphidromous fish may be found in fresh, brackish or saltwater. These spend their adult lives in freshwater and breed in rivers, but their larvae are washed out to sea where they spend their early life. As they mature they migrate upriver to spawn.
Lacustrine fish spend their lives in freshwater lakes, while the fluvial ones do so in rivers. Some species migrate out of lakes and up rivers and some remain entirely in lakes — making them quite a diverse bunch.
Are they interesting to keep?
Definitely, but you can easily become addicted to them! Although some may look a bit drab, these little fish have a fascinating behaviour and their size means they can be kept in small aquariums.
UK legislation has restricted the sale of many fish but these half-tropical-half-coldwater fish haven’t been affected by this.
How do they feed?
It depends on species. Some feed on midge larvae and other morsels drifting past. Others are foragers.
What’s their aquarium food?
Frozen bloodworms and brineshrimp are the top choice. Some may take tablet foods. They rarely accept flake and won't thrive if this is all you offer them.
Which are most common ones in the shops?
There are more than 70 poorly known species, plus lots of undescribed ones, so they tend to be very difficult to identify.
Members of the Rhinogobius duospilus complex are most widely seen, all of which have oblique stripes on the cheek of adult males. Species in this group include R. changtinensis, R. duospilus, R. genanematus, R. henryi, R. lungowensis, R. ponkouensis, R. sulcatus and R. wangei. They’re often sold as R. wui — the former name for R. duospilus.
These Chinese species are landlocked, living only in freshwater. They’re sold under a range of common names, including Red-cheek gobies, Red-neck gobies and Hong Kong gobies. Imports can consist of several species.
In the shops now is R. giurinus, found in Taiwan, China, Korea and Japan and reaching 8cm/3.1”.It occurs in freshwater, brackish and marine conditions, though most do fine in freshwater and entirely landlocked populations do exist. Expect to pay about a fiver each.
There are also some stunning candidianus in the shops (about £14 each) and others on sale as gigas and nagoyae formosanus, which look very similar.
Can they be sexed easily?
Fairly easily. Males normally have much brighter colours, often with distinctive markings on the cheeks and branchiostegal membrane — the flappy skin between the underside of the gill covers.
Males often have dorsal markings that are absent in females and their fins are also more pointed.
Females giurinus are plumper when in spawning condition and golden patches of eggs can be seen through their flanks.
However, scientists have observed female mimicry in one species. Males of Rhinogobius sp. ‘OR’ in the Kamo river, Japan, can sometimes resemble females, perhaps as a tactic to enable them to sneak in and fertilise the eggs of females when they’re trying to mate with rival males. Such fish are known as sneakers.
Did you know?
- Rhinogobius have adapted pelvic fins that form a sucker-like organ, allowing them to cling to rocks in fast flowing water.
- Some species are migratory and live in lakes as juveniles but migrate up inflowing rivers and live in the upper reaches as adults. Fry are swept downstream into lakes when they breed.
- Studies on wild fish in Japan have shown that they breed between April and July. At least half of females spawn more than once during the breeding season.
What size tank do they need?
Anything above 45cm/18” is fine, but 60cm/24” is an ideal minimum as in this size you could keep a few without problems. In a 45cm tank you’d probably be limited to one male and a couple of females. Add a decent filter too as these fish like turbulent water and use it for courtship displays. Several species can be mixed.
What of water parameters?
They’re unfussy, but seem to do well in slightly alkaline water — so a pH of 7.0-8.0 should be fine. High temperatures aren’t tolerated and they prefer cool water, so unheated tanks in centrally heated homes are fine. Most do not need salt, as the most commonly sold species are completely freshwater.
What other fish can I keep them with?
In warmer water, Danio and Microdevario, would be good choices. They’ll also mix well with hill stream balitorine loaches, such as Sewellia and Gastromyzon. These will also tolerate the slightly cooler conditions that Rhinogobius prefer, but if the temperature drops below 20°C/68°F think carefully about the species you’re mixing, as not all tropicals will appreciate this.
What décor should I add?
Go for a natural looking mix of sand, gravel and small pebbles, plus rocks and boulders embedded into the substrate. They often excavate a nest around the underside of a rock.
What mix of sexes should I put together?
Males are territorial, so avoid keeping too many close together. Go for several females for each male in the tank, unless the tank is larger and contains many more hiding places — in which case a group should be fine.
How do they breed?
Males make nests under stones. They show off to potential female mates by displaying in fast flowing currents. The females are drawn into the nest to lay a clutch of eggs, usually under a rock.
Do they exhibit parental care?
Yes, the male guards a nest of eggs and sometimes his nest contains the eggs from more than one female he’s lured into the nest. The male won’t normally leave the nest while watching over the clutch, nor will he feed, so he may lose weight.
Can they be bred in captivity?
Several species have been bred, mainly members of the duospilus complex, though they’re so tricky to ID accurately that it’s not really known which ones.
Signs of impending spawning include nest construction by the male, usually centred around an excavation under a rock. The males display to potential mates in flowing water, often around the spawning site, and display heightened colours.
The eggs vary in size according to the species. Those with larger eggs have bigger fry which are easier to raise than the small egg varities. The eggs have an adhesive filament that secures them to the rock and prevents the current sweeping them away.
The eggs reportedly take a couple of weeks to hatch (though this will vary according to the water temperature). The large-egg varieties will take newly hatched brineshrimp, so you should have plenty of time to get a culture on the go. The adults are fry predators, so remove them if you want to rear the offspring.
Some species are amphidromous and their fry are swept out to sea where they grow as larvae before migrating back into freshwater. These are the trickiest forms to breed.
This item was first published in the September 2009 issue of Practical Fishkeeping magazine. It may not be reproduced without written permission.