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The events of 2020 have highlighted one thing in aquatics — we are an industry and a hobby on a precipice. Maybe it’s time to get a little more self-sufficient, writes Nathan Hill.

In the wake of a viral pandemic of Covid-19, we haven’t so much found the chink in the hobby’s armour as much as we’ve found the hobby naked and shivering, trying to cover its modesty.

There isn’t one aspect of the industry that is escaping unscathed. Stores are both constrained in how they can trade, while simultaneously struggling to maintain stock levels. Manufacturers are nervous. Wholesalers are calling in outstanding debts, and small independent retailers are paying them from shrinking bank accounts. Farms are sat on hungry fish that they can’t shift but have to pay to keep alive. In the Far East, it is likely that real estate currently earmarked for ornamental fish aquaculture will now be redirected to sustainable — safer — enterprises. Closer to home, many UK aquatic staff are furloughed, unsure of whether their employer will even weather this storm.

For the hobbyist at home, online ordering has been a saviour. Several stores have remained open, especially those not ‘contained’ within another property (like a non-essential garden centre) that has been forced to close. Some allow access for essentials, while some offer a pay-and-collect service. At least we aquarists at home have plenty of time to tend to our fish during all of this. Never has there been so little excuse for an algae-smothered home set-up.

Owners of a run-of-the-mill community or a low demand tanks will be scraping by right now. Owners of the highest end reefs will be struggling with choked supply lines of RO water or live foods. Without either, a magnificent reef tank can soon pickle itself in its own effluvia while fish and inverts starve.

If nothing else, we need to learn from this that preparedness makes us powerful, and that our hobby would benefit from as much self-reliance as we can manage.

While we need to do all that we can to support our retailers — if we have no stores then we have no hobby beyond some underground scurrying — we can also steel ourselves to be ready for a possible Covid-20.

Make your own

There are a few areas where the hobbyist can free themselves from dependence on a broken supply chain. When the hobby started it was a gold rush of ingenuity and innovation. We can look to our aquatic past for some guidance…

Water

We’re in an advanced enough civilisation that the tapwater will continue to flow, but for keepers of delicate fish — excessively softwater species, or coral reef dwellers — our domestic supplies aren’t usually up to scratch.

RO units can be purchased, though these are costly to both acquire and run; for every litre of ‘clean’ RO water a unit makes, several more litres are sacrificed in the flushing process. For the marine keeper with delicate corals, they are inescapable, and so you will need to bite the bullet.

For the freshwater aquarist, rainwater is generally abundant (especially with the promise of April showers looming), and with some precautions makes a fine alternative to RO water. Indeed, some aquarists prefer it.

Rainwater can be collected into food-safe buckets or a large barrel via some redirected guttering. As long as the guttering and pipework that the water flows through is scrupulously clean (ideally get out there once a week and give it a quick once-over) then the water should come with little debris. A small internal filter running in the barrel should remove this if you’re worried about it.

Using a generous bag of activated carbon (100g or so in a barrel) and oxygenating with an air pump will help to remove any undesirables that may have found their way in as the rain filtered its way through the atmosphere.
And going on the testimony of breeders who use it, the chances are you’ll see increased spawning through using it as well. Which brings us nicely to…

Get breeding

Now is the prime time to consider breeding projects, especially if you’re one of the many aquarists who happens to be sat on a ‘spare’ tank. You might not even need a tank at all — some ice cream or margarine tubs with added perforations could be all you need to get a project or two started.

At its core, fish breeding requires adults to be isolated and young to be reared. If you can isolate out sexually mature adults from the prying, potentially egg-eating mouths of community tankmates, you’re already most of the way there.

Conditioning fish to breed (usually) involves separating them from each other for a while. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and all that.

They’ll also need fattening up, especially female fish who require extra calories and materials to make hundreds or thousands of fish eggs.

In almost all cases that involves boosting the protein content of their diets without going over the top. For your typical omnivorous fish like barbs, corydoras and tetras, a few days of live foods like Daphnia can go a long way.

As for what to breed — what have you got? While it shouldn’t take the industry long to get back up to speed with ‘bread and butter’ fish like Platies and Angelfish, anything slightly left-of-centre is likely to be in demand. Loricariid catfish will be wanted, and not necessarily just the high-end fish like Hypancistrus zebra. Even the humble Bristlenose catfish will likely be coveted by stores and hobbyists when trade resumes.

Breeding Dwarf gourami in a community tank

To be fair, high quality Dwarf gourami, Trichogaster lalius, supplies were in something of a state even before Covid-19, and these would be a typical fish I’d aim at home spawning. They’re known to breed in community tanks, though the fry always get eaten.

You will need:

  • One ice cream tub with fine holes punched into the sides
  • Either small floating plants like duckweed, or a bunch of plants with small leaves
  • One pair of dwarf gourami (males brightly coloured, females usually plumper and plainer)
  • Some infusoria and a boiled egg yolk
  • A little flowerpot or similar hiding place
  • *optional* an air stone connected to a weak air flow

How to do it:

Set the ice cream tub floating in the tank. You might need to use something to fasten it into place to stop it moving around. Making ‘straps’ out of old bunched plant weights usually works nicely, anything that will secure the tub to the glass.

Place the flowerpot at one end of the tub. Add the floating or bunched plants and add the female gourami from the main tank. Now spend a week fattening her up with Daphnia and bloodworm. At this time, start on your infusoria cultures, which you’ll find a simple recipe for below.

Add the male after a week and he should start to make a nest out of the plants in a day or two. If he continually attacks the female, remove him and give it another week before trying again.

He’ll make a floating nest from leaves and spit, entice her over to it, and they’ll spawn in a ‘conjoined horseshoe’ shape underneath. Once they’ve finished, remove her back to the main tank or he’ll kill her.

Eggs will hatch in one day, and the fry will be swimming about in three. Remove the male and put him back in the main tank at the free-swimming stage, then start to feed the fry on a couple tablespoons of infusoria throughout day. Watch the water quality in the main tank like a hawk during this and waterchange at the first hint of an ammonia, nitrite or nitrate increase (something will increase, I’m afraid). As the fry grow on, move them on to powdered egg yolk, finely powdered flake food and tiny livefoods like Grindal worms.

Easy.

Culturing infusoria

If you’re breeding fry, you’ll need some live fry food. To culture infusoria you’ll need:

  • One glass jar
  • Some tankwater
  • A windowsill
  • A cabbage leaf or cut grass

To make it, add tank water to the jar. Pop in the grass or cabbage leaf and place on a bright windowsill.

Wait for the water to go cloudy. Leave it some more until it turns clear again. You know have infusoria.

Make your own foods

It’s unlikely dried foods will vanish altogether, but manufacturers could be struggling to source ingredients right now. As long as you’re still able to get to markets and grocers, now would be a prime time to try making some bespoke fish diets.

Making your own fresh food is so easy you’ll kick yourself for not doing it sooner. The next time you’re out hunting for some toilet rolls, pick up some plain gelatin — leaf or powder, it makes no odds. I use the Dr Oetker Vege-Gel for great results. One sachet of it will set one litre of water, which is plenty for what we need.

Next, get together a lot of what your fish would like. If they’re omnivores, use fish fillets, maybe some chicken, prawns, mussels, squid and mix it in with fresh spinach, peas, carrots, broccoli and other veg. Avoid acidic fruits, just keep to plain veg. I even crunch up a multivitamin into mine, along with any flake that’s close to expiration (flake food is good for about six months after you open the packet. Use it or lose it.)

Chop it, dice it, and blend it all up into a slurry, make up your gelatin solution and mix it all together while the gelatin is still warm. Spoon it into a few freezer bags and flatten it out into a slab. Pop the bags into the freezer. Presto, frozen fish food for your fish.

Tweak the ingredients in favour of meat if you own carnivores, and towards veg if they’re herbivores. I’ve always found that fish at all ends of the scale (see what I did there?) will chomp down my standard omnivore mix happily enough.

Oh, and congratulations, you also just saved a ton of money.

Buy a gift voucher!

All this is well and good, but even as we start to safeguard the hobby, the retailers — our very life blood — are sinking fast all around us.

Where you can, support your local stores. If they offer pay-and-collect, take them up on it as part of an ‘essentials’ shopping outing. You’ve a legal requirement to keep your pets happy and well, so you’ll need things like foods and medications. There’s nothing that says you can’t bulk that order out with other bits while you’re doing so.

If you genuinely can’t get out to a store, and if they can’t deliver goods to you, consider taking a gamble on a gift voucher. Why a gamble? The shop might not survive. Your £40 might vanish forever. Or if enough of you get involved it could be the difference between that store still existing in three months’ time when you want to start buying fish again.

Join a club

All club meets are off for the foreseeable, but if you have less stores around you by the time Covid-19 has gone, you’ll want a good network of like-minded aquarists to share fish and knowledge between. At the very least, most local clubs have a social media presence, and are welcoming of newcomers.

Remember, you get as much as you give from clubs, so don’t expect to be all take, take, take. If you’re a breeder with some good live food cultures and surplus to share, you’ll be especially well received.  
Get involved, go to the conventions, be a part of something bigger, because we need this hobby to be bigger than all of us. And hopefully, in a few months’ time when all this is behind us, I’ll bump into you at an auction somewhere.