I run a small basic project, and receive a great deal of mail each month from people with fish problems, and many are at the stage of packing the whole thing in due to their constant fish losses, or because everything they do just seems to add more problems to their ones they already have. Often the information they give is scant, to say the least, with few details of what they have ‘actually’ done over the previous period since having problems. No matter how big or small the problem is, I try to answer in the best way I can by explaining, in simple terms where possible, what might have happened.
A great percentage of these problems involve setups that have only been running for a short time, sometimes less than a week, while at other times many months, but the writer at this stage feels they have ‘followed the right steps’ and done the best they could for their fish. The problems range from cloudy water to fish dying overnight, but most as above, seem to centre around what is known as the ‘new tank syndrome’, where the tank filtration system is not established enough to cope with the fish load that the owner has added, or by the ‘over enthusiastic’ owner trying to cover ‘all bases’ and has changed the conditions of the tank so often and to such a degree, that any form of stability in the tank becoming cycled has been lost, several times over.
What Went Wrong..?
Such a simple question, with so many answers answers that are not able to be given unless all the facts are known from the very beginning to the present time, so it is important to have all these facts before you can get the answers. The tropical fish forums and various fish related sites hold more information today than any other time in history, and if we could gather every possible publication ever printed on tropical fish, the information they hold would be just a fraction of what is available with today’s technology, which applies to many subjects. This is a wonderful period in time to be a fish keeper, as many times the answers are just a keystroke away. but having the correct information when asking for help is the quickest way to get your problem solved, so the more you know about your tank conditions and setup and what you have already done the better.
Take this as an example I am experiencing some problems with my new tank. I moved from a 15 to a 25 gallon tank. When I had the fifteen gallon tank I had no problems at all. Then, I moved to the 25 gallon tank and am now experiencing milkiness of the water. I imagine that is because it has not yet fully cycled. I’m not sure though.
This is just a simple case, but gives a typical example of the ‘new tank syndrome’ as mentioned above. Very few details are given apart from the tank size, so there is little to work from.
Knowing more details would save both the writer, and the person trying to help, a great deal of time, and giving simple details of things like the temperature, present readings of ammonia, nitrites, nitrates, hardness, pH, number of fish and types, amount of water changes and how often, amount of time the tank has been set up, tank dimensions, filtration details, any medications used, what fish or items have been added recently, details of appearance of dead fish, and other obvious signs of problems,.. gasping, inflamed gills, scratching, not feeding, loss of colour, spots or blisters. or any other relevant details, would all get quicker results. Often the newcomer is not familiar with some of these things, but should give all the details they can where possible.
When changing or adding tanks you should (if possible) use as much of the old water as possible, along with an established filter, and possibly some gravel. The above are typical symptoms of a new tank setup, where in simple terms, the bad bacteria being produced are not being consumed by the good bacteria in the filter system fast enough, and the only way it can achieve this is by the filter being “established” and having an active colony of bacteria in it in sufficient numbers to consume the wastes from the fish, or by very regular water changes. The fish pass wastes in the form of ammonia through the anus and the gills This ammonia is then broken down into nitrites by the beneficial bacteria, which in turn help to create nitrates. The indication of “SOME” nitrates in your tank is a good sign, as it means that the biological filtration system is working and doing its job, by converting the bad nitrites into less harmful nitrates. This won’t happen overnight, and may take three months to really start to work, but as above, the inclusion of a “well established” dirty old filter, plus some water and gravel from a “well established ” healthy tank, will speed things along. You must also ‘never’ wash your filter out completely, and never in tap water or hot water. Just rinse it out in a bucket of tank water, as this will preserve the colony of bacteria that it holds.
The other thing we have here is the milky tank, which is more than likely an explosion of “bad” bacteria, which only regular water changes will get rid of until such times as the bio filter system is established enough to cope with the fish load. Most ‘newly’ set up tanks will show this cloudiness, but it should clear in a day or so, but on a tank that has been set up for a while, it is a sure sign of trouble.
The secret to setting up “any” tank, is patience… and plopping heaps of fish into a new setup is just suicide for the fish. Six small fish in a ten gallon is more than enough to get the bio system started… any more, and you will have problems unless your filter system is capable and established enough to cope with the load. There are countless articles about setting up and the Nitrogen Cycle, both here and on the net, so read all you can on the subject.
Keeping constant records is one way of finding the clues to ‘what went wrong’, for with decent records you can go back over the things that you did before the problems started and possibly isolate the cause of the problem. It must be remembered, that ‘anything’ you add to your tank will change the conditions, be it fish, plants, gravel, ornaments, rocks or driftwood, or even medications that you might add, so everything must be considered before you decide to add it to your precious tank water. You can add something to your water in seconds, but the consequences of an incorrect action could take weeks, or even months to rectify, during which time you may lose much of your fish stocks. The other thing that will rapidly change your water conditions is overfeeding, as uneaten food will quickly break down and cause pollution, which again will lead to cloudiness and overpopulations of bad bacteria.
Another example is. I had some guppies die after only a day or so and brought them back to the store to get new ones. Unfortunately I had no luck with those either, so I went back to the store and they demanded a water sample. After extensive testing, they came up with nothing. The water was fine. I’m at a loss. I have no idea what I’m doing wrong.
It is ‘so’ easy to blame the local supplier, but invariably if the fish were fine in the shop, and possibly still are, then the chances are that the fish died from some other reason, which again could be your own problem.
Impulse buying is one of the big sins in fishkeeping, and another is not researching the fish ‘before’ you purchase. Not knowing about the fish you buy, it’s habits, it’s compatibility and what it lives with,.. where it originates from,.. it’s water requirements,.. and what it eats, are just a few of the things you should know, because invariably by the time you find out these things, the fish are either dying, or already dead. Most suppliers will gladly give you this information, but this is not the time to be asking questions, as ideally you should have all these details before you decide to buy the fish you seek.
So it’s Saturday morning and you are all excited and have arrived at the LFS and stand in awe at all the beautiful fish swimming happily in the tanks, and just can’t wait to get some home to see how they look in your new setup. You possibly know a ‘little’ about the hobby, but you don’t want to miss your turn, as the shop is pretty busy, so you eagerly get the attention of the assistant, and soon you have your purchases in the bag and away you go. The assistant possibly asked how many fish you had, or perhaps asked your tank size, but not wanting to feel like a complete novice you just changed the subject, without asking the things you needed to know, or possibly just said ‘it’s alright, I’ve kept fish for ages’, so the assistant was no wiser.
The trip from the shop was pretty exciting as you possibly sat in the back watching your fish in the bag as they dashed about madly when you held them up to the light for a better view, but now the house is in sight, so you quickly grab the bag and rush into the house. Your tank has only been set up a short time, and already you have a feeling that you have too many fish but you think ‘just an odd few more won’t harm’, so in go the fish with little thought. They seem alright, even though they do look a bit pale, but they head straight for the nearest hiding place, or just sink to the bottom almost motionless, but by now your excitement is at it’s highest level. You think they may be hungry, so with the extra fish you give them an extra feed just in case. By now it is late, so off go the lights and you go to bed hoping morning will arrive soon so you can see your new arrivals, but on waking up you find half your fish dead not only some of the new ones, but perhaps some that you have had for some time.
So what happened..? Stress is possibly the biggest killer of tropical fish, and can be caused by so many things, from a simple trip home, to adverse conditions in the new environment, to a slamming door or heavy foot traffic. Once a fish is stressed it relays that stress to other fish and it can quickly become ill, which will often rapidly affect the other inhabitants, and soon you have a problem.
The selection of the fish, the trip home, the adding the fish to your tank, the water conditions, plus the feeding can all lead to stress, which can also quickly start an outbreak of white spot. All these actions could give the answers to why your fish are dying.
Select only the fish that will live compatibly with the ones you have, and have the same water requirements, such as temperature, pH, and hardness of the water, but just as important is whether your system can stand having more fish added. Fish should be transported in a darkened container, with as least disturbance as possible, and every effort should be made to keep the container from either overheating, or becoming too cold due to either sunlight or drafty cold conditions. The less you disturb them on the trip home the better.
Opinions vary, but ideally the fish should be floated for a while in your tank to stabilize the temperature of the water in the bag they are in. Plunging fish from a darkened container into a brightly lit tank will also cause stress. The water holding the fish in the bag is possibly now high in ammonia, so if possible don’t add it to your tank. If at all possible, quarantine the new arrivals for ten days minimum, and watch them carefully. Never feed new arrivals until they have settled in, and never just before lights out. Buying a single species of a ‘schooling’ fish can also cause stress, as the solitary fish was dependant on the rest of the school for some form of security, but now being alone, that security has gone, so stress levels will rise. Placing a larger or boisterous fish in with smaller species will cause immediate high stress levels in the fish, which may not be apparent at first, but could perhaps happen once the new fish has settled in and starts to form a territory of its own.
It must be remembered that anything that can hold a living organism that is added to your tank has the potential to change the conditions, and is virtually changing your ‘established’ tank into a ‘quarantine’ tank. Even a wet hand, implement or net that has been in another tank could transmit enough organisms to start problems, or even the drips from the tank above if you use a rack system, so everything should be considered.