3 PROBLEMS EVERY AQUARIST CAN AVOID
Overfeeding is the source of major problems in most tanks – it creates excess waste and puts stress on the delicate ecosystem within your tank.
The problem: It is so easy to do. Fish are fun to feed and those big eyes make them hard to say no to. But do you feed your dog every time he begs for food? Of course not. If you did you would be risking his health, which is also true for your fish. Additionally, fish will eat as much food as they can, and they will not be able to process all of it. This results in more poop. Many bottles of food say to feed as much as will be consumed in 2 minutes, some even recommend adding enough food to satiate the fish after 10 minutes of eating. These recommendations are developed by fish food companies that profit when you buy more food, not by experienced and concerned fishkeepers or scientists.
The solution: Follow the "eye rule." Most fish have a stomach that is a size similar to their eye, and this represents the maximum amount of food they can eat in one meal. To avoid overfeeding, just look at the eye of each of your tanks inhabitants and feed a little less than the total volume. If you do this you will not have extra food decaying on the bottom or excessive amounts of fish waste. The most healthy feeding strategy is to feed your fish two small meals a day and then fast them for one or two days of the week. This will reduce excess waste, lesson the time it takes to clean the tank and prevent constipation in your fish.
2. Adding chemicals.
There are numerous aquarium additives available for purchase, allowing you to alter your water chemistry and treat issues affecting your fish and water. But frequently these products do more harm than good.
The problem: People say it all the time. My water is cloudy…my nitrates are too high…my fish has something wrong with it…CAN’T I JUST ADD SOMETHING TO THE WATER? The best answer is usually “No”. Pet stores and online retailers make their buck by convincing consumers that whatever problem they are experiencing can easily be fixed by pouring in some sort of additive. This idea has allowed unscrupulous sellers to make a living for thousands of years…ever hear of snake oil?
The solution: In most circumstances proper aquarium maintenance (regular cleaning, monitoring of temperature, pH, nitrogen cycling) and caution when adding new fish (using a quarantine tank for new additions and buying healthy fish from reputable locations) are all you need in order to keep your fish happy and healthy. There are always unexpected problems that come up – an algae bloom, an injury, a sudden outbreak of ick – but none of these problems will be as severe if you are diligent about caring for your tank and many of them can actually be remedied by non-chemical solutions. If you have good water quality you will seldom have to add anything to your tank, other than a declorinator when performing a water change. If you feel that you still need to add antibiotics, antifungals or anything else to your water, make sure you read up on them first. Otherwise you will probably end up doing more harm than good. This is especially true if only a single fish in the tank appears to be ill. If you must treat him, remove that fish and administer treatment in a quarantine tank. Many aquarium additives can be dangerous to healthy fish or to the bacteria that keep your tank healthy. Remember, your aquarium is a delicate ecosystem, and changing even a small element through the used of an additive may throw the whole system out of balance.
3. Old Tank Syndrome.
This is the most insidious form of aquarium disaster. Old tank syndrome occurs when a normal, healthy system suddenly turns foul – typically in the form of rising nitrates (which often go unnoticed) and then a mysterious drop in pH.
The problem: A slow build up of waste and a lack of water changes. The eventual pH drop occurs because as ammonia is broken down into a less toxic form, hydrogen ions are released. These ions can be captured by buffers within the water, but only to a certain point. Once all of the buffer has been used up, the excess hydrogen ions will accumulate in the water causing the pH to drop. Usually hobbyists notice something is wrong when adding new fish. Because they are unaccustomed to the low pH, the new fish will die within a few days despite having no physical signs of illness. A quick test of the water conditions confirms this – the pH has slowly dropped from a comfortable, neutral 7 to something closer to vinegar. The worst part is that this is a difficult situation to remedy. Simply altering the pH by using chemical additives (I strongly caution against this – they frequently don’t work and end up wasting your money) or adding baking soda (a temporary solution) or crushed coral, won’t actually fix your problem, it will just mask it’s symptoms. If you alter your pH in an attempt to treat Old Tank Syndrome, you will not replace any off the buffers, so your tank may be subject to sudden swings in pH in the future (which is also very dangerous). Additionally, drastically altering the pH of a fish tank that contains living inhabitants is a sure fire way to kill all of your remaining fish. The survivors have acclimated to this more acidic pH and any sudden changes are much more likely to kill them than the status quo.
The solution: Perform several water changes over then next few days. Don’t panic and remove all of the water at once and risk shocking your fish – take out 20-30% along with any built up waste and repeat the process daily or every other day until the pH normalizes. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t see results right away, this problem developed over the course of months, and it can’t be remedied overnight. For a more detailed discussion of pH, please see the article Properly Maintaining the pH in a Freshwater Aquarium.
Avoiding these common mistakes does not guarantee long term health in your aquarium, however it will certainly make your life a lot easier. Although it seems like an oversimplification, the best thing you can do for your fish is to perform regular cleanings and water changes, check your levels, and keep feeding and tinkering to a minimum. These steps will help you avoid several of the most common and disastrous problems in your aquarium.
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