Top 10 Mistakes New Fish Owners Make – #8

The #8 Mistake – Worrying Too Much About Algae

I’m very sorry to have to tell you that if you have fish in water, algae will grow. There is no way around it. Fish produce the perfect fertilizer for algae, nitrate. You may not be able to avoid it, but there are ways to mitigate it.

However, remind yourself that fish don’t care about algae, people do. Just because your tank is a little bit green does NOT mean that you are a terrible fish parent. It means your tank is healthy! But this does not apply to a tank so thick with slimy green scum that you cannot even see your fish.

Algae is a single-celled plant that can replicate very quickly. It may clip together with similar cells to produce hair or string algae, or it may stay singularly suspended in solution. During the daylight hours, algae converts sunlight and carbon dioxide into oxygen and water, a process known as photosynthesis. However, once the sun goes down, the algae start to use the oxygen in the water to respirate, converting oxygen back into carbon dioxide. This can produce respiratory acidosis, where the carbon dioxide levels start to drop the pH. In tanks that are very, very green, the algae can out-compete with fish for oxygen AND start to decrease you pH. As long as you kH or alkalinity is sufficient, your pH will not drop drastically. Having sufficient aeration in your tank will make sure there is plenty of oxygen to go around.

So, how do you keep algae from getting out of control?

  • Keep up with your regular water changes. Algae uses nitrate as a food source, so by limiting your nitrates by doing regular water changes, you will keep your algae in check.
  • Try to minimize direct sunlight on your tank. Not only will it keep your temperature from spiking, removing sunlight will help keep the algae from growing too quickly.
  • Scrub your tank walls regularly. Once the algae is loosened and sent into the filter, it will die from lack of sunlight.
  • Out-compete the algae with aquatic plants. Aquatic plants work the same as algae, just on a larger scale. For everything you want to know about aquatic plants, check out our webinar on Plants in Fish Systems. They will not rectify the entire problem, but will give minor assistance.

What should you not rely on?

  • Chemical additives are rampant on store shelves. These have NOT been tested on all species of fish. They are NOT controlled by any governing body.
  • UV lights only catch particulates in suspension. They will have NO affect on any algae trapped to the sides of your tank. But they will help zap it if you scrub.

Need help cleaning your tank properly? Check out our How-To video!

Top 10 Mistakes New Fish Owners Make #9

The #9 Mistake – Adding Fish Too Early

You have a plan, you got your tank and all the additional items, so it’s time to add the fish! But how many fish do you add? In what order do you add them? In the beginning, your biggest hurdle will be establishing your nitrogen cycle. This cycle is made up of commensal bacteria living in your substrate and biological filtration media (sponges, matting, bio balls, ceramic cubes etc). These helpful bacteria convert the primary fish waste of ammonia into nitrite and from there into nitrate. Ammonia and nitrite are highly toxic to fish, and can cause lethargy, loss of appetite and death.

When a tank is brand new, the bacteria have not been colonized. There are many commercial starters promising to “instantly start” your tank, but they are the aquatic equivalent to snake oil. Our office tested over half a dozen of these products with no decrease in time to conversion. You do NOT need to add these products to your tank, they will come with the fish; they just take time to become established. It will take 4-6 weeks for your tank to go through all the necessary steps to become established. If you follow your tank’s progression with your water quality testing kit, you will yield a graph like this:

You will see spikes in ammonia, nitrite and then nitrate. When you see this DO NOT PANIC. It is a normal occurrence in EVERY new fish tank. It is called “New Tank Syndrome” and there is no way around it unless you have another established tank with similar water parameter requirements that you can steal some filter media from.

The best way to combat New Tank Syndrome and avoid crashing your tank with a major ammonia spike is by starting with just a few fish in your new tank. Start with one or two goldfish or 3-4 tropicals, like zebrafish or tetras, before your tank is established. Slowly increase your fish levels from there and you will never have an issue.

Be patient! It is extra work, but I guarantee by following these steps, you will not lose a fish from New Tank Syndrome. Buy a test kit, know how to use it and don’t panic when those spikes hit. By having fewer fish in a larger volume of water, you will produce a smaller, more tolerable spike, keeping your fish alive.

New Tank Syndrome

New Tank Syndrome

When you set up a new fish tank for the first time, there are a few things you can expect to happen.

With a brand new filter, your nitrogen cycle has not been established. It will take 4-6 weeks MINIMUM to start cycling your new tank. There are countless products who claim they can instantly start your cycle, but they DO NOT WORK. We tested many products and only one was able to shorten our cycle by one week.

During those sensitive weeks, your tank will undergo the following spikes in ammonia, nitrite and finally, nitrate, as those bacteria colonies are established. You tank’s temperature and filtration capacity will determine how fast your cycle is established.

As your nitrogen cycle is established, your fish can be in danger of toxic levels of ammonia and nitrite. Therefore, it is essential to keep you bioload low in those first few weeks! Rather than fully stocking your tank from the get-go, start with only a few, hardy fish until your cycle is established. Keep a close eye on your parameters with a water quality test kit. Plot your readings and you will match the graph above.

Ammonia-binding products will prevent this cycle from occurring. Your tank will be stuck in perpetual “new tank” standing. We understand that it can be very scary to see your new tank spike with ammonia, but you cannot get to the end stage without the journey in between. Keep a close eye on your parameters and bioload low in the first 4-6 weeks and you’ll be all set from then on! If you’re really worried, or your fish start to act sickly, do a small water change to decrease the spike. And if you decide to replace your filter media every month, your tank will be continually cycling. So, ignore the box, and invest in a sturdy sponge instead.

Stop Replacing Your Filters!!

Dear Fish Tank Owners,

Please stop replacing your filter media every month.

I know it says to do so on the box! But, guess what? They do that in order to SELL MORE!!

When you take out your old filter media and toss it in the trash, you are discarding all of your good bacteria. These good bacteria maintain your biological filter and keep your nitrogen cycle up and running.

Most of those floss filter pads are designed to fall apart rapidly. Replace your filter media with a sturdy sponge and it will last you for several years! In order to keep them clean, squeeze them out gently in your waste water after siphoning your tank.

I know this goes against everything that is printed on the sides of your box of filter media pads, but you have to trust us. We are telling you this in the best interest of your fish and system. Just try it!

The Truth About Aquatic Plants

The Truth About Aquatic Plants

To plant or not to plant? As is the dilemma facing most freshwater tank and pond owners. Live plants can add beauty and filtration, but come with their own set of issues. If you are interested in pursing adding live plants to your system, be sure to read through the following points.

WAIT! I was told you can’t have plants in koi ponds! No matter what the purists say, you can absolutely have plants and koi together. You can also mix koi and goldfish, but that’s another article.

  • Your system needs to be producing nitrate in order for plants to thrive. If you constantly use an ammonia-binding additive or have a brand new tank, hold off on adding any plant life. Buy yourself a test kit and make sure your nitrogen cycle is established prior to getting those plants in there.
  • Plants can carry pathogens, especially if they were previously housed with fish. That means they need to be quarantined too! Set them up in your quarantine with a few fish to signal if there are any issues. You can also do a hydrogen peroxide dip that will take care of most bugs.
  • You will need to trim your plants regularly as parts die off. If you leave the rotting bits in your tank, you’re only making your ammonia levels worse. Make trimming your plants a regular part of your weekly maintenance and your system will thank you.
  • Fish will try to eat your plants. It doesn’t matter if you feed them the most awesome food on the planet, they will harass your plants if they’re simply bored. Don’t get too attached. You can try to create a buffer zone between plants and fish using mesh or netting. But, be prepared for some losses.
  • If you’re expecting a few plants to significantly decrease your nitrate levels, you will be sadly mistaken. The amount of plants you need to make a dent in your water quality is immense. If you want to use plants for filtration, consider adding a bog filter for ponds or an aquaponic system. Don’t expect those three fronds of anacharis to do the trick.
  • Any medications or treatments you add to the tank or pond will affect the plants. Salt treatments in particular can kill plants. However, if there is a disease in your system, the plants could be harboring pathogens. If you have a disease that could be hiding in your plants, make sure you treat the entire system appropriately. With some diseases, replacing the plants entirely may be the best option.

If you have any interest in adding plants to your system, but aren’t quite sure what to add, please call The Fish Vet Store at 831-728-7003

The Nitrogen Cycle

The Nitrogen Cycle

As you may well know, water quality is a significant aspect of pet fish health. Like the air we breathe, the water a fish swims in is directly linked to their overall health. As a fish veterinarian, we routinely test the water our patients swim in for various parameters. We discussed pH and kH previous, so today, let’s look at the nitrogen cycle.

As you may notice, the traditional nitrobacter and nitrosomas bacteria species have been omitted from this diagram. This is due to the fact that there are just SO MANY different bacteria species involved in nitrogen-fixation, that we cannot simply define them in these two genuses.

In a fish tank, a fish’s primary waste is ammonia. Ammonia is produced by the breakdown of protein, the main staple of most fishes’ diets. Ammonia is excreted out through the urinary tract and gills. Ammonia is highly toxic to fish, causing death and increased secondary illness, so it is converted, through nitrogen-fixing bacteria, into nitrite. Now, nitrite can be just as bad as ammonia. Methemoglobinemia, or “Brown Blood Disease,” is caused by a build-up of nitrite. Nitrite can bind to hemoglobin in the blood and outcompete oxygen. This causes a brown coloration and the fish will asphyxiate from lack of oxygen. Thankfully, more nitrogen-fixing bacteria convert nitrite into the final nitrate. Nitrate is safe for fish at low levels, but at higher levels, and depending on the fish species’ tolerance, can cause the same issues as high ammonia. Nitrate is removed from the system by aquatic plants or water changes.

In established systems (over 2 months old with no new fish or equipment), your ammonia should be ZERO. Most low readings indicate your filtration capacity is inadequate or secondary to overfeeding. The highest reading acceptable on our test kit is 0.1 mg/L. The traditional API freshwater master test kit ranges between 0-0.25, so attaining a 0.1 reading will not occur. Due to the broad range of values, a 0.25 reading may be a false positive (reporting a higher value than what is actually present).

There are many commercial additives for removing ammonia from your tank prior to the nitrogen cycle. Some can cause ammonia test kits to read falsely high. These additives are short-term solutions that should only be used with significant health issues. They are not a long term maintenance solution. You MUST establish your biological filtration (good bacteria) for long-term fish health. If you have persistent ammonia in your tank, consider the following solutions:

  • Is your filtration adequate? Tanks with higher bioloads (size and number of fish) will require more than standard filtration. When in doubt, always filter more than you should.
  • Are you feeding appropriately? Remember, ammonia is produced from breakdown of protein in a fish’s diet. More food = more ammonia. Check your protein levels! For more information on fish diets, read this.
  • Are you doing lots of water changes? If you are constantly removing ammonia, your nitrogen-fixing bacteria will never become established.
  • Is there ammonia in your source water? Check the level coming out of your tap or well to make sure! You may need to consider another water source.

There are also commercial additives that will “quick start” your nitrogen cycle. Sorry folks, but these are a complete scam. With the exception of one product that slightly shortened the establishment of your nitrogen cycle, it will take 4-6 weeks MINIMUM to get your tank properly cycled. By “cycled,” we mean the establishment of a complete nitrogen cycle with ammonia being converted all the way to nitrate. We recommend starting with very few fish and monitor your ammonia, nitrite and nitrate levels carefully!

If you have any more questions about fish and nitrogen cycles, please comment below.