Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Adventures in Fish Keeping, Part One

When I moved into our new apartment I had to leave my cat behind because Lana's allergies.  I missed her and Boyfriend had a spare, small aquarium, so I got some goldfish.   I figured, I had them as a kid, should be easy enough.  And boy was I wrong.

Initially I had two goldfish in what I thought was a 10 gallon tank.  It turns out I have no sense of volume when it comes to containers, because it was a three gallon tank, so ultimately for about a week I ended up keeping three goldfish in a three gallon tank, which is actually bordering on inhumane.  I went and got a 20 gallon tank and filled it up (including the old tank water), acclimated the fish, and put them in.  Within three days all three goldfish had died.  Within a week more the single goldfish I had gotten as a replacement had also died (although this time I am convinced it was of a disease he got from the pet store he came from).

So...I stopped and actually thought about what I was doing and did a lot of research.  It turns out fish keeping is hard.  A damn bit harder than keeping a dog or a cat I'd argue (and I've done both).  With dogs, cats, ferrets, rats, guinea pigs, you name it, you aren't creating the environment.  You aren't creating the correct air mixture that they need to breath.  With fish, that's exactly what you're doing.

It turns out, when you start a new tank, you need to give it time for it to go through the nitrogen cycle.  What that means is that you start with ammonia and slowly (1-3 weeks slowly) ammonia eating bacteria begins to form and it turns the ammonia into nitrite.  Well, nitrite is even more deadly to the fish than ammonia is, so you need to wait another 2-4 weeks for the nitrite eating bacteria to form, so it can break down the nitrite down into less harmful nitrate.  At that point you do a water change and your water parameters (as I learned they're called) are finally safe for fish.

Now, how do you get ammonia?  There are two ways.  The first way is you go out and buy a bunch of cheap fish, ones you don't care about at all, and then you let them produce waste (ammonia).  I inadvertently did this when I bought the goldfish.  What happened is in the three gallon tank I actually went through almost a full cycle (though I still had high ammonia because the tank was so small), but then I started a much much bigger tank and then the fish had to live through cycling the tank all over again and they just couldn't do it.  Cycling tanks with fish in them is much less common these days and it's not particularly humane.

Now, the second way to cycle a tank is buy ammonia from the hardware store, introduce about 4ppms worth and wait till the bacteria develop.  This is what I did after all my goldfish died.  It took about 4 weeks to finish it's cycle (remember I was already part way started) and eventually I did get impatient and bought a product called Quick Start.  What it did was essentially introduce ammonia eating bacteria immediately and surprisingly that actually finished cycling my tank within a day, I was really surprised.

So I introduced one dwarf gourami and two julii corydoras (catfish essentially).  I had done a lot of research at that point and loved the look of the gourami.  The person at my local petco suggested I get a small school of corydoras, so I started with them.  I bought two more corydoras from my local fish store (LFS), bringing my total up to four, almost immediately, because the petco I had bought the first one from had only had two total.  My ammonia spiked, but went down a few days later.

Now, only male dwarf gourami are normally sold in pet stores (including LSFs).  The reason for this is that the males are the ones with the flashy, gorgeous colors.  If you get a true dwarf gourami (Colisa lalia, not a honey gourami, etc which is slightly different) then the females are white (if you happen to get a pretty one) or a grey/silver color.  However, when I went to get my male gourami I was extremely surprised that a petco (not exactly known for being the best place to buy fish) had two female dwarf gourami in with the male.  I almost bought a female gourami at that point, but I wanted to let my water settle.  After about five days I decided that I had to get a female, because they are so rarely sold.

When I bought her, I was initially worried because the male bullied her, which I've read is common, so you frequently buy two females for each male.  I'll admit I was a bit surprised because my male gourami had been very social (even schooling to some extent) with my corys. I considered going back for the second female, but waited a day and suddenly the two fish were best of friends.

I waited another week and my water finally settled down completely.  I had done a lot of research and whenever I passed near a pet store (and with four jobs in four different cities this was quite often) I would stop in and look at the fish.  I decided that I wanted zebra danios.  They weren't the prettiest fish ever or the most exotic but they are active, playful, hardy fish which was pretty much what I was looking for.  Unfortunately they aren't known well for being paired with gourami, because they are particularly energetic and gourami are slower moving fish.  But I got a fairly lively, sociable pair, so I hoped for the best.

I went to the petco I bought the gourami from and picked up five zebra danio.  I originally had intended to get four regular zebra danio, but they had only had five and I felt really bad about leaving a single, very heavily school dependent fish alone at the store.  I then went to another petco I had visited earlier in the week, which had a very pretty color variant on the zebra danios: the golden long finned variant.  I got three initially (bringing my total to the eight that I had intended), but again there was a single lone danio left in the tank, so I bought the last one of the goldens and one more normal zebra, to bring my total to an even ten (I felt so strange having nine).

Then I introduced all ten to my tank at once, which I knew I shouldn't have done.  Generally you want to add 5-6 fish at most to a tank at a time so that the spike of ammonia won't be horrible.  But I had been impulsive, so I added the fish, treated the water both with Quick Start and with Prime (which detoxifies ammonia into ammonium) and hoped for the best.

That was two weeks ago and I haven't lost a fish yet (I actually got 10 danios ultimately expecting to lose one or two, because that is quite common, even when you do everything right).  Initially I saw a huge spike in ammonia and I was changing my water every day, but it mellowed out for a week.  The last two days I've actually had an obscene ammonia spike and an algae outbreak, and I'm not sure why, so I did a 50% water change, cleaned the tank very thoroughly, and introduced another filter (rated for 20 gallons (Tetra 20i in-tank filter)) in addition to my Aqua Clear 20.  The water looks great now actually and the fish are much livelier, so it seems to have helped.

Probably I will end up talking about fish keeping a bit more, so hopefully it's not that boring for you.  I've actually learned a ton and it's very rewarding as a hobby.  I would love to start a forty or fifty-five gallon reef tank and have both the aforementioned tanks, but I'm saving up to buy supplies, plus an apartment only has so much space.  This time I'm doing a ton of research before I just throw fish in, because a reef tank is very, very different then a freshwater tank, not to mention more expensive in general.

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