Fishing through information to start an aquarium

January 04, 2004|by ANDREA ROWLAND

When Steve Howard decided to start a saltwater aquarium, he did what most people do - went to his local pet store for advice and supplies.

He got too much of one and not enough of the other.

Howard left the store that day with a 90-gallon tank, stand, hood, wet-dry filter and his salesman's recommendation to come back in a few weeks to buy the "pretty blue fish" in the store's display tank. Had he done his homework before diving into the hobby, Howard said, he would have known that he didn't need the huge tank or the expensive stand and filter. And the then-novice aquarist would have avoided those pretty fish, Blue Damsels, which ended up terrorizing his tank.

"In the industry, we call them 'Blue Devils,'" said Howard, public relations director for the Washington (D.C.) Area Marine Aquarist Society (WAMAS).


Taking the time to learn the basics of aquarium start-up and maintenance can help beginners avoid problems that may be tough to fix once fish and other marine animals are in the tank. Patience, dedication and the right information can turn even the biggest landlubber into a successful aquarium owner.

"Many people simply go out to the aquarium store and buy an aquarium, a few pieces of equipment and a bunch of fish. Then they go home, throw it all together, and wonder why it didn't work after a couple of weeks," said Andrew Blumhagen, president of the Virginia-based Potomac Valley Aquarium Society.

He called aquaria a "magic combination of art and science" - a living system that takes time and knowledge to develop. Ignorance causes countless fish funerals.

"Our challenge is to make sure those who see (Disney's) 'Finding Nemo' don't kill fish," Howard said.

Most fish deaths for first-time tank owners are a direct result of not understanding the nitrogen cycle, experienced fish-keepers said. In a nutshell, fish produce toxic wastes (ammonia) that must be broken down by bacteria through biological filtration.

In nature, the volume of water per fish is extremely high, and waste products become diluted to low concentrations. In aquariums, however, it can take as little as a few hours for ammonia concentrations to reach toxic levels if filters aren't properly maintained.

Regular partial water changes, giving fish enough room to live, keeping them with compatible tank mates, and avoiding overfeeding them also are key to avoiding fish stress, veteran aquarists said. Saltwater aquaria also must be closely monitored for water evaporation, circulation and quality, Howard said.

Networking with experienced fishkeepers - now easy to do using the Internet - also is a smart move, he said. Aquarists' Web sites offer helpful hints and useful fish tales. They include WAMAS at, Potomac Valley Aquarium Society at, LiveAquaria Web site at and Aquaria FAQ pages on The Krib Web site at Many Web sites boast forums for sharing information about starting and keeping freshwater, saltwater and reef aquariums, including the best types of food for specific fish, advice for choosing fish and setting up an aquarium, and tips about tank maintenance, filtration, water quality, lighting and keeping aquatic plants.

Blumhagen also suggested that first-time freshwater aquarists read David E. Boruchowitz's "The Simple Guide to Fresh Water Aquariums," and that novice saltwater aquarists read Michael S. Paletta's "The New Marine Aquarium" and "The Conscientious Marine Aquarist" by Robert M. Fenner.

It's generally easier and less expensive to start and keep a freshwater aquarium, he said. Saltwater fish and equipment usually cost more than freshwater fish; and, while many of the concepts used for keeping fresh- and saltwater life alive and well are the same, "freshwater is generally more forgiving to missteps along the way," Blumhagen said.

Those seeking immediate gratification also should avoid saltwater aquarium-keeping. Unlike freshwater aquaria, it takes weeks to set up a saltwater aquarium.

Helpful tips for both fresh- and saltwater aquarists include:

  • Always inspect fish for sunken bellies, sunken eyes, clamped fins, labored breathing and any sort of external blemishes that might indicate parasites or disease.

  • Once you get fresh- or saltwater fish home, set the fish bag in the tank to allow the temperature to equalize. After about a half-hour, add a 1/4 cup of tank water to the bag; repeat this process once every 15 minutes for one hour, removing any water if the bag gets too full. Dispose of any water you remove from the bag to avoid parasite and disease contamination. And never add store water to your tank because it might contain diseases.

  • If possible, quarantine new fish for two to three weeks before adding them to the tank to monitor the new arrivals for signs of stress and disease.

To keep a healthy tank of fish, you also need to feed them properly - the aspect of fish-keeping that Blumhagen considers the most challenging because it requires a knowledge of the right kinds and amounts of food for each kind of fish in the tank.

"Fish will almost certainly thrive on less food than you think they need. Any food that is not eaten almost immediately will start to rot very soon, and rotting food will poison the water. It's important to watch the fish and other animals to make sure that they eat everything that is offered," he said. If not, reduce the amount of food offered.

And always avoid using live fish as food because they might carry diseases, Blumhagen said.

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