Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Best and Worst Beginner Fish

I see a lot of people ask “what fish should I start with?” I also see a lot of people starting with fish that they were lead to thinking were easy.  Most people want a tank full of beautifully colored fish. I understand this, but often the most beautiful fish are also much more delicate. However, there are some very pretty and hardy fish with which you can start your hobby. They may not look like much in the store tanks, but once you get them home and into a good setup, they will show their true colors for you.

Through personal experience and discussion with other aquarists, I have gathered a list of fish that are good for the budding fishkeeper. These fish were chosen for their hardiness (ability to survive a cycle and live in less than ideal conditions), adaptability (can live in a wide range of parameters), small size (ideal for the first aquarium), and peacefulness. I have also compiled a list of fish that beginners should avoid for various reasons such as size, aggressiveness, and sensitivity.

Before I go into the fish, let me take a minute to explain what a good first aquarium size is. While bigger is always better, the beginner might not want to start with a massive tank of 55 gallons (209 L) or larger. This is a big tank (and a big expense), and big tanks mean big water changes which a new aquarist might not want. Conversely a 10 gallon (40 L) isn’t a great beginner tank because it is so small, and small tanks can have fast and dangerous water parameter swings. Also you can only fit one or two species of fish in a tank of that size. I’ve come to believe that tanks from between 20 gallons (75 L) and 40 gallons (151 L) make great beginner tanks because they are large enough to be mostly stable but not too large as to be a pain to perform water changes and they enable the first time fishkeeper to keep more than two species. 

The Bad Choices

Many fish that the pet stores tout as easy and great for beginners are far from that for many reasons. Some grow too large, some are hard to keep alive, and some are aggressive. Since there is a multitude of fish that would make poor first choices, I’m going to group them into categories and give you examples of fish that fall into these categories.

The first category of poor beginner fish are chosen because they get so large. They are sold as cute, inch-long babies, but they will soon be busting the walls of a normal beginner aquarium. These fish include goldfish (Carassius auratus auratus), common pleco (Hypostomus plecostomus), oscar (Astronotus ocellatus), and kissing gourami (Helostoma temminkii). Many people are surprised to see goldfish on this list because all you see in the stores are cute little goldfish. Trust me: these little golden wonders will soon be around a foot long and all the while they grow, pooping like a fiend. They are a hardy fish, but they just get too large for most beginners to handle.

You also don’t want to start off with a fish that is too sensitive. Oto catfish (Otocinclus macrospilus), angel fish (Pterophyllum spp), cardinal tetra (Paracheirodon axelrodi), and many more fall into this category. They should never be introduced to a cycling tank (tank where colonies of beneficial bacteria are not established and harmful levels of ammonia and nitrite are present) because they can’t handle the stress of a cycle. Oto catfish specifically need a setup that has had time to grow algae because they primarily eat algae. They come to stores starving because they are captured from the wild where they only eat algae. By the time they get to the store they haven’t seen any in weeks; they will starve to death in a brand new setup because it lacks algae.

Another mistake that beginners often make is buying fish that are too aggressive to keep with much else; they end up with a moderately large tank and nothing in it but a single school of fish. Or they buy a “freshwater shark” because the name sounds cool, and then end up with a tank full of fish cowering in the corner trying to stay away from the shark’s bullying nature. If you just want to keep a school of these fish or a freshwater shark, then go right ahead, but you won’t be able to add anything else to the tank. Fish that fall into this category are tiger barbs (Puntius anchisporus), black skirt tetra/black widow tetra (Gymnocorymbus ternetzi), and the freshwater sharks like rainbow shark (Epalzeorhynchos frenatus), bala shark (Balantiocheilos melanopterus), and red-tailed shark (Epalzeorhynchos bicolor).

Guppies (Poecilia reticulata) are a great beginner fish, right? You’d be surprised to learn that they are not. They were many years ago, but commercial scale breeding and continuous inbreeding has made what was once an extremely hardy fish into a weak, disease-ridden fish terrible for beginners. If you can find guppies from a hobby breeder, then you have the chance to get some good fish, but pet store guppies are so weak, they can hardly be considered a good fish anymore. Sadly, neon tetra (Paracheirodon innesi) and dwarf gourami (Trichogaster lalius) have also gone down this same route. Commercial-scale breeding programs are now producing weak, inbreed, and disease ridden fish. In fact, both fish now have a disease named after them because these fish so commonly carry them: dwarf gourami iridovirus and neon tetra disease. These diseases have no cure and can spread to other species.

I know you want to start off with strange and unusual fish to wow your friends, but these fish are usually delicate, difficult to keep alive, and have specific needs. This brings me to my final category of fish that are bad for beginners: the oddballs. These are fish like the black ghost knifefish (Apteronotus albifrons), German blue ram (Mikrogeophagus ramirezi), and African butterfly fish (Pantodon buchholzi). A good rule of thumb is if it looks strange, it’s going to be hard to keep alive. 

The Good Choices 

Don’t despair. While those are fish you shouldn’t start with, you have plenty of attractive and interesting options that can be your first fish. Instead of grouping them like the bad beginner fish, I have listed them out with pictures and general care information. All of these fish are not picky eaters and will readily accept any flake or pellet food.

Blue Tetra (Catxx @ the Aquarium Wiki)

Blue Tetra, Cochu (Boehlkea fredcochui)
Tank size: 20 gallons, 24 inches long (75 L, 61 cm)
Temp: 72 - 79F (22 - 26C)
pH: 6.0 - 8.0
Water hardness: up to 15 dGH
Notes: Like most tetra species this is a schooling species and needs to be maintained in groups of 6 or more. When buying schooling fish like this it is best to buy about 9 so in case you have a death, these fish won’t start bullying other fish. Don’t keep them with fish with long fins like betta fish. This fish will be most colorful in an aquarium with lots of cover such as decorations and plants (live or fake).

Group of Flame Tetra (Catxx @ the Aquarium wiki)

Flame tetra, Fire tetra, Von Rio tetra (Hyphessobrycon flammeus)
Tank size: 20 gallons, 24 inches long (75 L, 61 cm)
Temp: 72 - 82F (22 - 28C)
pH: up to 7.8
Hardness: up to 25 dGH
Notes: This is another gorgeous and hardy tetra species. They should be kept in a minimum of 6, but keeping them in larger numbers will make them more attractive and reduce the nipping tendencies common with tetra. Don’t keep them with slow-moving fish. It will show its best colors in an aquarium with lots of decorations such as fake or live plants.

X-ray tetra (Debivort @ Wikipedia)
Pristella tetra, X-ray tetra, X-ray fish, Goldfinch tetra (Pristella maxillaris)
Tank size: 10 gal, 20 inches long (40 L, 50 cm)
Temp: 74 - 82F (24 - 28C)
pH: up to 8.0
Hardness: up to 30 dGH
Notes: In my opinion, this is one of the best beginner fish because it is so easy to keep. It will survive in all but the most hard of municipal water supplies. Like all tetra, it should be kept in groups of 6 or more at a minimum.

Bronze cory cats (public domain)

Bronze Cory Cat, Albino cory (Corydoras aeneus)
Tank size: 20 gal, 24 inches long (75 L, 61 cm)
Temp: 70 - 80F (21 - 27C)
pH: 6.0 - 8.0
Hardness: up to 20 dGH
Notes: Also found in an albino form, the bottom-swimming bronze cory is a great addition to a new fishkeeper’s aquarium. They will do best with a sand bottom but can manage with smooth gravel. It will be most active when kept in groups larger than 5. Three is the minimum that should be kept together as these fish are very social.

Two harlequin rasbora (Stee @ flickr)

Harlequin Rasbora, Red rasbora (Trigonostigma heteromorpha)
Tank size: 20 gal, 24 inches long (75 L, 61 cm)
Temp: 70 - 82F (21 - 28C)
pH: below 7.5
Hardness: up to 15 dGH
Notes: A common fish in pet stores, it is a great choice for a beginner. This is another social fish that needs to be maintained in groups of 6 or more, but it will fare best with groups of 10 or more.

Two Bandit cories (Stuart Halliday)

Bandit cory, Masked cory (Corydoras metae)
Tank size: 10 gallons, 20 inches long (40 L, 50 cm)
Temp: 70 - 77F (22 - 25C)
pH: up to 7.5
Hardness: up to 15 dGH
Notes: As they are more shy than bronze cories, they should be kept in groups of 6 or more. They will be much more active in larger groups. When kept singly or with 1 or 2 other bandit cories, they will not be seen much and may be too shy to feed. They like a sand bottom best as they enjoy rooting around in the sand for morsels of food.

Regular zebra fish (public domain)

Glofish, genetically modified zebra danio (www.glofish.com)

Zebra danio/glofish (Danio rerio)
Tank size: 20 gallons, 24 inches long (75 L, 61 cm)
Temp:  65 - 77F (18 - 25C)
pH: 6.0 - 8.0
Hardness: up to 20 dGH
Notes: Also sold as the brilliantly colored glofish, these peaceful little schoolers make a much better candidate for a smaller unheated aquarium than goldfish do. The zebra danio that are sold as glofish aren’t dyed. They are actually genetically engineered to be that way by having jellyfish and coral genes implanted in their own. They will pass this down to their children, too. Like all schooling fish, these active little swimmers need at least 6 of their own kind to feel safe (you can mix glofish and the regular zebra danio). As a precautionary, I feel like I need to mention that due to massive inbreeding, this fish are becoming less and less hardy; one day they might not be good beginner fish.

Glowlight tetra (gonzalovalenzuela @ flickr)

Glowlight tetra (Hemigrammus erythrozonus)
Tank size: 20 gal, 24 inches long (75 L, 61 cm)
Temp: 74 - 82F (24 - 28C)
pH: up to 7.5
Hardness: up to 15 dGH
Notes: Like all the other tetra, this little beauty is a schooling fish and should be kept in groups of at least 6, but if you have the room and biological capacity add as many as you can. They are most colorful in large groups. An albino form is also seen and is just as hardy as the normal form. The albinos will school with the regular glowlights.

School of bloodfin tetra (public domain)

Bloodfin tetra (Aphyocharax anisitsi)
Tank size: 20 gal, 24 inches long (75 L, 61 cm)
Temp: 64 - 82F (18 - 28C)
pH: 6.0 to 8.0
Hardness: up to 30 dGH
Notes: This fish gets my vote as the best beginner species. It can survive a wide range of water parameters and is commonly found at petstores. Kept in groups of 6 or more, its brilliant red fins will sparkle in the water.

Male cherry barb (Sannse @ wikipedia)

Cherry Barb (Puntius titteya)
Tank size: 20 gallons, 24 inches long (75 L, 61 cm)
Temp: 74 - 81F (23 - 27C)
pH: 6.0 to 8.0
Hardness: up to 20 dGH
Notes: Barbs, like tetra, need groups of 6 or more to feel safe. They will be more colorful and be out in the open more if they have large groups. Unlike the tetra, the males are more colorful than females. The males have a much more red color while the females take on a yellow-brown hue.

Male swordtail on left; female on right (MacAnthony @ flickr)

Swordtail (Xiphophorus hellerii)
Tank size: 29 gallons, 30 inches long (109 L, 76 cm)
Temp: 68 - 82F (20 - 28C)
pH: 7 to 8
Hardness: 9 - 30 dGH
Notes: As this fish is a livebearer it is the best choice for a new aquarist with hard water. The catch is, if you put males and females in a tank together, you will get more swordtails. If you don’t want baby fish, get only males. If you want baby fish, make sure there are 3 females to every male. Males are also the more attractive of the sexes, so an all-male tank would be ideal for a beginner. Pretty and you don’t have to worry about babies.

These next two fish are good beginner choices, but they come with a catch which I will highlight in italics.

Male betta (copperarabian @ deviantart)

Betta fish/Siamese Fighting Fish (Betta splendens)
Tank size: 5 gallons (18 L)
Temp: 76F - 84F
pH: 6.0 - 8.0
Hardness: up to 20dGH
Notes: Betta fish are a great first fish if they are the only fish in the tank. They are very hardy, easy to care for, and will generally take any beginner mistakes in a stride. Their small tank requirement also makes them great as a dorm pet. Due to their aggressive nature, keeping betta with other fish makes the difficulty go up and can be a bit much for a new fishkeeper. Keep him in his own 5 gal tank and you will have an easy setup with a very interactive fish.

Male honey gourami (Kooshking @ flickr)

Honey gourami (Trichogaster chuna)
Tank size: 20 gal, 24 inches long (75 L, 61 cm)
Temp: 72 - 82F (22 - 27C)
pH: 6 - 7.5
Hardness: up to 20 dGH
Notes: This little jewel is the smallest and most peaceful of the gourami. It will make a great centerpiece fish in a small tank provided it is the only gourami in the tank. This also includes bettas as they are gourami, too. Male gourami are territorial and will fight when placed in the same tank. The males are the most colorful, so just one would be the perfect addition to a beginner’s tank.

Don’t feel limited by what the pet stores tell you are good beginner fish (because they are often wrong). The beginner has many attractive options for their first fish tank. As I discuss in my How to Stock a Fish Tank article, combining a species of cory cats and a school of tetra in a 20 gal tank could make a very nice display for the first-time aquarist. While not all of these fish may be available at your local pet store, I’m sure you will be able to find some of them to help you get started in your fishkeeping hobby.

Works Referenced

Monks, Neale. 2008. “Fish Viral Disease.” www.fishchannel.com. Retrieved 28 May 2012.

Monks, Neale. 2011. “Neon Tetra Disease.” www.fishchannel.com. Retrieved 28 May 2012.

Ramsey, Graham. 3 March 2010. “Top Ten – worst beginner fish.” fcas.wordpress.com. Retrieved 27 May 2012. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Fish tanks and vacations

What to do with your aquariums when you are away

It’s that time of year again. Everyone is gearing up for summer vacations. Since I am at the beach this week, I figured I would share some tips on how to care for your aquariums while you are away.  

General Tips

Timers for your lights are a great idea especially if you have live plants. I even use them when I am home to make sure I don’t forget to turn off the tank light when it should be turned off. They create a schedule for the fish which is great because fish, like most pets, thrive on routine.

Most people don’t understand how to properly feed fish, so be sure to leave very specific written instructions for those taking care of your tanks. I have heard horror stories of pet-sitters overfeeding tanks and the owner returning to find a tank full of rotting food and sick fish. If your fish aren’t on a strict diet, sometimes it’s best to let them go without food for a week. A healthy fish will easily survive it just fine. You would be surprised at just how much food they can find in an aquarium by themselves.

The weekend feeders that people leave for their fish are another major no-no. Because of the biology of fish, they are always appear hungry and will eat as much food as is presented to them. This causes bloating and constipation. Also anything the fish don’t eat sits in the tank decomposing and causing a deadly ammonia spike. It’s best just to leave these in the store; they are just another gimmick by aquarium supplies companies to make you spend more money.

I find it is also very helpful to put sticky notes on my tanks with care reminders such as feeding regime or anything special about the tank that a caretaker would need to know. I also try to leave the food for that tank atop the aquarium. Make taking care of your tanks as simple and easy as possible for whoever will be doing it. It’s harder to make mistakes with simple instructions.

What you need to do before you leave and the instructions you should leave depend on how long you will be gone and what day (or days) you set aside as water change day. I have broken my recommendations into three categories: weekends, 7 days, and 8 days or longer days.

Weekend (Friday to Sunday or 3-day week trip)

This is the easiest because you literally have nothing to worry about. Healthy fish can easily go a week without eating, and a weekend without food is nothing. For this little bit of time, it’s best to not feed your fish rather than entrust them in the hands of another. If you have a water change that is due during this time, it is best to do it early rather than later.

Week (4 – 7 days)

This is where things get a little more tricky. You should do at least one water change per 7 days. It really helps if you leave and return within 1 day of a water change. For example, if your water change day is Sunday, then leaving on Saturday and returning the following Sunday is perfectly fine. You have nothing to worry about with this type of schedule. Just do a water change before you leave and the same day you come back. I’ve done this many times and never had trouble. If your fish are your only pets and you don’t want to have someone come to your house to feed them, it’s perfectly fine to leave your fish without food for the week. It will also have the added benefit of reducing waste in the aquarium.

Longer than a week (8+ days)

This presents a problem because weekly water changes are a must for a healthy fish tank. You can sometimes stretch it out to 10 days without a water change. I did this a few times and had problems with some tanks but not with others. This is where plants will come in handy as they are great waste absorbers; my tanks that fared best had lots of live plants. If you will be gone for more than 14 days, you will need to have someone you trust do a water change. You should also have someone feed your fish as they will be rather weakened after two weeks without food.

Leaving when you have sick fish

I know this is sometimes unavoidable, but it’s not a good situation. You have been the person monitoring and medicating the fish, and to entrust this task to someone who has never observed your fish before is not wise. If the tank needs to be dosed with medication while you are away this is even worse. If at all possible always try to avoid this situation. If you know you are going to be leaving for a vacation in the next month, don’t buy any new fish, add any new plants, or do a major change to the decor in the tank. New fish often bring in disease, and changes in the tank can cause stress which leads to disease.

I hope I have been able to give you a little peace of mind for when you are on vacation. During your typical week-long summer vacation, your fish will be just fine if the tank is healthy. A weekend getaway is nothing to worry about either, so don’t let your hobby chain you to your house. Vacations and healthy fish tanks can easily be managed. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Be careful of that label!

Why research is always needed before a fish purchase

When the average first time aquarium keeper walks into a pet store, they completely trust the employees there. Sometimes that trust is well placed, and the budding aquarist walks out with a 29 gallon (109 L) tank, some lovely X-ray tetra (Pristella maxillaris), and a water parameter testing kit. Other times, the new (and soon to be disappointed) aquarist walks out with a 20 gallon (75 L) tank, a pleco, an oscar, and—worst of all—a black ghost knife fish. (If you didn’t cringe at that, don’t worry, you soon will.)

In this particular article I’m going to be using Petsmart and Petco as examples simply because I know these stores best. They are the large chain pet retailers that I have closest to me. This is in no way intended as a stab at these stores because while there is a lot of bad information, they also have some proper information on the labels of the fish they sell. I am highlighting particular instances where the label is grossly wrong as an example of why research is needed or you may end up with more than you bargained for.

Clown Loach (Chromobotia macracanthus)

As adults, the vibrant colors of clown loach fade (Public Domain)

I’m going to start with my favorite fish of ones I’m highlighting today: the clown loach. Entertaining and active, these guys would make a great addition to your home aquarium, right? Wrong. Like so many of these tankbuster species, the little clown loaches you see at the store are babies. Probably less than a few months old. Now let’s compare Petsmart’s and Petco’s care advice for these species versus the advice from the loach experts over at Loaches Online.

Loaches Online
Min tank size
180 gal (680 L)
40 gal (150 L)
50 gal (190 L)
Adult Size
12 inches
(30 cm)
12 inches
(30 cm)
12 inches
(30 cm)
1-12 dGH
6.5 - 7.0
6.0 - 7.5

As you can see there are some major discrepancies. Loaches Online’s veteran clown loach keepers recommend the smallest tank juveniles (which are what is sold in stores) be housed in is a 55 gallon (208 L) tank with biweekly water changes because these fish are active swimmers and any less will cause stress and stunting, but this should only be temporary housing. And the fact that some of the parameters such as pH and hardness aren’t even given in the Petsmart and Petco labels is also unsettling as the wrong pH and hardness can stress a fish to death. Sadly, I found this to be a constant with the Petco and Petsmart labels. Another surprising constant I found through the Petsmart and Petco care sheets was proper temperature for these fish, but this is only part of what is needed to keep a fish healthy. You can’t complete a puzzle without all the pieces.  

Fortunately, if you like the look of this fish there are some loaches that stay small enough to fit in the average home aquarium. The yoyo loach (Botia almorhae), angelicus loach (Botia kubotai), zebra loach (Botia striata), and Burmese loach (Botia histrionica) all have a similar shape and personality to the clown loach. If you search by the scientific name, you can find pictures of these cute, colorful fish. The only difference between these guys and the massive clown loach is that these guys can safely live their complete lives in a 50 gallon (190 L) tank which is a much more common and manageable size home aquarium.

Pleco, Plecothemus (Hypostomus plecostomus)

Mature pleco (Derek Ramsey @ Wikipedia)

The main reason people buy this fish is for its algae-eating abilities (I will go into why this is bad in a later article). Yes it does eat algae when small, but as it grows it begins to also eat lots of protein. This can easily mean small fish; it has also been known to attach to larger slow-moving fish like goldfish (Carassius auratus auratus).  Let’s compare what the expert fish keepers over at Tropical Fish Keeping.com have to say about plecos versus the Petsmart and Petco labels.

Tropical Fish Keeping
Min tank size
55 gal (208 L)
55 gal (208 L)
10 gal (38 L)
Adult size
20 inches ( 50 cm)
24 inches (61 cm)
24 inches (61 cm)
Less than 28 dGH
6.0 – 8.0

While Petsmart did get the sizing right, I still see the associates selling these fish to anyone who asks for an “algae eater.” On the other hand, Petco falls very short here. Pleco need large tanks not only because of their size but also because they produce a lot of ammonia relative to body mass. They are comparable to goldfish in the amount of fecal matter and ammonia they produce. Again, neither of the chain stores mentions hardness or pH, two essential elements for keeping fish healthy.

Fortunately if you like the look of plecothemus, it has some relatives that can easily fit in your aquariums. The bristlenose pleco (Ancistrus sp) is similar in appearance and behaviour but only grows around 4 inches (10 cm) long. A single individual can be housed in a 10 gallon (38 L) tank or a pair in a 20 gallon (75 L). Groups need a 50 gallon (190 L) or larger tank as males can be territorial.

Black Ghost Knifefish (Apteronotus albifrons)

Juvenile black ghost knife fish
(Derek Ramsey @ Wikipedia)

While this is an interesting and unusual fish, this is a fish best left to be admired in public aquaria. Due to its large size, timid nature, and unique biology, this is not a good home aquarium fish, but it is still sold as such. Let’s compare Petsmart’s suggested care to a knowledgeable fishkeeping site’s care.

Tropical Fish Keeping
Min tank size
180 gal (680 L)
75 gal (284 L)
Adult size
20 inches (51 cm)
20 inches (51 cm)
5- 15 dGH
6 – 8

Due to the manner in which these fish use electricity, their spines are inflexible. They must have an aquarium that is at least three times its length and twice as wide as the fish is long.  A regular 20 inch (51 cm) fish could hardly fit in a 75 gallon (284 L) aquarium let alone a fish with an inflexible spine. As with so many other species, Petsmart is falling very short on its care. At least Petco doesn’t carry this species.

For those looking for an alternative fish that still maintains the strange look of a knife fish, the African knifefish (Xenomystus nigri) is a good alternative that can be housed in a 55 gallon (208  L) tank. As all knifefish are rather delicate, this fish is not for the beginner aquarist and should be housed in a specialized setup. It is not for your typical community tank. Extensive research is suggested before buying this fish.

Pangasius catfish (Pangasius sanitwongsei)

Adult captured in Thailand (Matt Leete @ Fishbase.org)

Sometimes sold as an iridescent shark or paroon shark, they may look cute as babies at the store, but this is a species that is wholly unsuited for even public aquaria. A close relative of the massive Mekong giant catfish (Pangasianodon gigas), one of the largest freshwater fish in the world, any store that sells this fish and claims it can live comfortably in a home fish tank should be ashamed. This is a massive migratory and skittish species known for slamming into the tank walls when frightened. With specimens tipping the scales at 660 lbs (300 kg), a single fish could easily crack or break a tank wall.

Seriously Fish
Min tank size
500 gal (1892 L)
75 gallons (283 L)
Adult size
48 inches (1.2 m)
25 inches (61 cm)
2 – 30 dGH
6.5 – 7.5

As you can see in this case, Petsmart falls very short of the care requirements of this species. Practical Fishkeeping is part of a movement called The Big Fish Campaign to spread awareness about this species and the other tankbusters like the tiger shovelnose catfish (Pseudoplatystoma spp), red tailed catfish (Phractocephalus hemioliopterus), and giant gourami (Osphronemus goramy). If you buy this fish and think you will just get a larger tank as it grows, think again. This species is known to live for 20 or more years and will need a tank as large as a medium moving van. And most public aquaria won’t take them when they outgrow your tank. This species is beyond their capacity to house long-term.

As you have seen, these two major pet retailers fall very short on their care sheets for these species. Many of these care sheets also cite the “gallon per inch of fish” rule which aquarists have known to be a poor stocking tool for a long time. Think about it this way, 10 inches of neon tetra aren’t the same as 10 inches of oscar. The 10 inches of neon tetra could easily be kept in a 10 gallon tank, but a 10 inch oscar would hardly be able to turn around. This rule doesn’t hold water when looking at fish larger than an inch or two because it doesn’t take into account the fish’s depth as fish grow in three dimensions, not just one. To be safe, I wouldn’t stock any tank based on this “rule.”

The only rule you can use to stock a fish tank is research, research, research. I hope these comparisons have opened your eyes to the need for it. I know there are many people who instinctively trust retailers, but as you have seen they cannot always be trusted to give you the correct information on your fish and in many cases are just trying to make a sale. In fact, telling you a fish needs a smaller tank that it should be housed in will cause the fish stress; stress leads to disease; and diseases are cured by medication bought from the store. See a pattern here? Always research before you buy!

Works referenced

Craig, Nicolette. 24 March 2011. “Who’s to blame for the big fish problem?”  www.practicalfishkeeping.co.uk. Retrieved 11 May 2012.  

Gay, Jeremy. 27 January 2012. “Will you support the Big Fish Campaign?” www.practicalfishkeeping.co.uk. Retrieved 11 May 2012. 

Hill, Nathan. 8 March 2012. “Where do all the big fish keep going?” www.practicalfishkeeping.co.uk. Retrieved 12 May 2012.

Monks, Neale. 2009. "Knifefish in the Aquarium." Tropical Fish Hobbyist (June): 86-90.

Fish Profiles referenced on 14 May 2012:

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Betta fish rescue and care awareness

So I'm finding that I'm writing a lot about betta fish. That's okay. They are some of my favorite fish with their personalities and color varieties. I am also part of a very active betta fish forum, so I'm constantly finding out about new betta groups. Today I will be showcasing two videos made by members there. These videos do show images of fish in distress, so do not watch if you are feint of heart.

A sad but true video. I have personally seen conditions in pet stores as bad as these. They aren't just isolated incidents. Needless to say, I don't buy anything from stores like this. Your strongest voice is with your dollar. If you don't support these places, they won't be able to stay open. 

The author of the second video now runs a betta fish rescue program called the Spartan Betta Rescue Program where she takes unwanted betta from pet stores and owners. She treats their injuries and illnesses and then adopts them out to caring homes. Her website also has tips for good betta care and a great fact or fiction section.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

My Tanks: an introduction

 I’ve been talking a lot about what you should do with your tanks, so I figured I should show you mine. Now I’m really not the greatest aquatic photographer, so please bear with me. I have very few clear pictures of my fish. I’ll start with my oldest tank.

55 gallon (208 L) goldfish tank

This tank has been set up for going on 6 years now. It originally housed my koi that I overwintered inside. Since I already had the filtration for them I replaced the koi with goldfish once the koi went to the pond. It currently houses my two goldfish Goldeen the red ryukin and Seaking the calico veiltail. Both are male fish, so the next goldfish I add should also be male. If I added a female she would get harassed too much during breeding activities. I would love to find a calico ryukin or black maruko (egg fish)/ranchu.

Right now I have no plants in it as I am finishing up a salt treatment for a mysterious ailment that has plagued my calico goldfish for years. Seaking has had tattered fins his whole life as well as been plagued by these mysterious white spots. They are larger than ich and appear to be some kind of warty growth possibly caused by a virus. They appear and disappear on a whim and never seem to bother him. Occasionally these were accompanied by a bit of fungus and bacterial fin rot. That is why the salt is in there. When the salt is removed I’m going to try keeping hornwort and vallisneria in pots. I have also removed the heater for the summer as my tank gets about 80F (26C).

For the more technical aspects I run two HOB filters, one Aquaclear 70 and a Marineland Penguin 200. Both have been running since the tank was established and both have the flow baffled to prevent them from blowing around my fancy goldfish. I have an air pump connected to a bubble wand that runs during the summer to ensure good oxygenation. The substrate is large river rock, and the lighting is 6500k 15w 12 inch T8 bulbs (x2). I have a bag of CaribSea crushed coral in the Aquaclear to raise the GH and KH to more acceptable levels for goldfish. Weekly water changes are 40% of the tank volume.

4000 gal (15,141 L) koi pond

It was completed in spring of 2007 and has been stocked with koi ever since. I initially added 4 koi and added another 2 the following year to bring me to a total of 6 koi. Everyone is about 16 inches (40 cm) long and has a very healthy appetite. The pond is understocked, but I don’t plan to add any more koi. I believe one of the reasons it has succeeded (despite a pump failure one winter) is due to the light stocking. I also have a breeding colony of mosquitofish (Gambusia holbrooki) in there.

The pond runs on a bog and snorkel system. Water from the pond drains into a bog (a large reservoir designed to always keep the pump underwater), and from there the pump moves it up to the top of the waterfall. Because the surface area is so large, I have an autofill system in the snorkel. This prevents the water levels from dropping too low in case of a dry spell.

I have done very little with planting the pond aside from some iris that were given to me the summer my pond was completed. The iris also came with some bog plants that are now found around the edges of my pond. Due to the high surface movement I have trouble keeping floating plants like water lettuce and water hyacinth. My pond is almost completely shaded in the summer which helps keep the temperature at a more manageable level, but that means I can’t grow lilies.

10 gal (37 L) divided betta tank

While this tank now has betta, it didn’t start off that way. On one trip home to take care of my goldfish tank, I noticed these odd looking fish at walmart. I researched them and found them to be brown kuhli loaches (Pangio oblonga). I was immediately smitten with them and had to have them. I picked up a 10 gal (37 L) setup from Walmart and whisked away with 5 of them. There they stayed throughout my college years. I added some live plants and bogwood as I read they liked. Through the years, I lost two. One was a different species, and I can’t remember what happened to the other. When I returned from college I play musical tanks and moved these guys to a larger setup to prepare this tank for two betta fish.

Right now it houses Knucker and Lumi. Knucker is a blue halfmoon rosetail. Lumi is a white halfmoon plakat. The tank has 4 species of plants: java fern, anarcharis, anubias, and duckweed. I use a Aqueon Pro 50w heater and run a home-made bubble filter as I don’t like power filters with long-finned bettas. The light is a 6500k 15w 18 inch T8 bulb. I currently don’t fertilize the tank but plan to in the future. The substrate is plain, natural colored gravel that is aerated by a colony of Malaysian trumpet snails. I change 30% of the water weekly.

29 gal (109 L) softwater community

I know. This isn’t much to look at now, but I’ve got big plans for it. I just need to get a steady source of income first. This tank started out as emergency housing for a pair of dojo loaches I bought to live with my goldfish. Well it turns out the dojos loaches took a liking to the goldfish’s slime coat, so the dojos had to go. They lived in the 29 gal for a few months before I found another aquarist to take them from me. I was sad to see them go, but I knew it was for the best.

The tank currently houses my remaining brown kuhli loaches, a huge colony of malaysian trumpet snails, java fern, anubias, and water sprite (Ceratopteris cornuta). My future plans for it are to heavily plant it and add a school of cardinal tetra (Paracheirodon axelrodi) as well as a thicklips gourami (Trichogaster labiosa). I would also like to switch out the gravel for black sand. This will be the first change I make. The tank currently has a Penguin Biowheel 150, Aqueon Pro 150w heater, and 6500k 17w 24 inch T8 bulb. Water changes are 25% weekly due to the very light stocking levels. The breeder box is in there to keep the plants where I want them.

Another 10 gal (37 L) divided betta tank

This tank is almost a mirror of my other tank. It has all the same plants (but these are in worse condition) and the same setup, but the hood is different which means my lighting is different. It’s stronger in this tank, so I’m having an algae problem. The two betta that are in here are Orchid the red copper dragon halfmoon and Moonie the pastel butterfly superdelta. Due to my algae problem which is partially attributed to the lights and the hornwort that shed all of its needles in my tank, weekly water changes are 50%.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Good fishkeeping resources

So you are thinking about getting a fish tank and believe that the people at the pet store will be able to help you with every single problem? Think again. Many of the large, chain pet retailers will hire anyone with little regard to their fishkeeping skills or knowledge. Small, local stores will often have someone on staff with knowledge about fish, but sometimes this person is old-school and isn’t up to date on current fishkeeping practices like cycling and regular water changes or they just specialize in a few fish like cichlids or livebearers.

For the most part, you are on your own. Or are you? There are a great many fishkeeping resources available on the internet for those willing to look. A simple search on google will bring up hundreds of sites if you type in something as simple as “betta fish.” Here I am going to guide you through a few types of common fishkeeping resources. 

Male dwarf gourami Trichogaster lalius (Public domain)

Fish profiles and biographies

One of the easiest ways to start researching for a fish is to simply type the fish’s name into a search engine. You will get hundreds of results and much more information than you could ever need. Since very little scientific research has been done on fishkeeping, most of it will be opinion. So how do you figure out whose opinion is best? This is the tricky part. You’ll want to look for pieces of information that overlap many sites. For example, if you consistently see that the ruby-throated dace had a temperature range of between 65F (18C) and 72F (22C) then you can feel pretty safe keeping your ruby-throated dace between those temps. For a beginner, this can be a bit overwhelming. Which brings me to my next point.


In my experience, forums are the single most-helpful fishkeeping resource. Here aquarists from all over the world can exchange ideas about everything from good plant lighting to breeding a fish that has never been breed in captivity before. My fishkeeping hobby really took off when I joined a forum. I could get answers to my questions fast instead of constantly googling all of my question. If I needed a very specific question answered, the fishkeeping gurus could give me an answer tailored to my situation.

Now how do you choose a forum? The first thing you want to think about is whether you want a general aquarium forum or if you want something for a specific type of fish. More often than not, the forums for specific species or types of fish will contain very advanced fishkeepers who have been focusing on this species for years. This is where you will usually find breeders. You will get a lot of great information from these people, but they will probably only be able to help you with that one species of fish.

What happens if you want to keep many different species or a community tank? Then you want to look at general fishkeeping forums. The way I found my current one was simply typing in “fishkeeping forum” into google. Now you want to look at how active the forum is because the more activity, the faster your questions will get answered which is very important when you run into a major problem. You can check the activity by looking at the number of users online in the past 24 hours, when the last post in a section was made, and the number of currently active users. Many forums have this information posted somewhere on the front page. Generally, the more users a forum has the more active it will be.
Now you want to look at the threads and posts. Are the signatures large and obnoxious? Do the posts look like thought out commentaries or short responses that don’t say anything of substance? Do the users appear to jump down each other’s throats at the slightest hint of a disagreement? You have to ask yourself, are these users the kind of people I want to talk with and get advice from for what could be years?

Another good tool (if it is available) is to look at the user’s tanks and posted pictures. While this isn’t always an accurate read of how reliable a forum is, you’ll get a good idea of what the users can do with their own tanks and how they could help you.

Guppy Poecilia reticulata (Prattflora @ wikipedia)


There are a few renowned fishkeeping magazines available today, and the best part about them is that you don’t need a subscription to get a lot of articles. Practical Fishkeeping (a UK magazine) and Tropical Fish Hobbyist (a US magazine) are two of the best in the world. Aquarium Fish International is another good US magazine. Often times these will feature more advanced fishkeeping articles, but there is still a lot of information there that the beginner aquarist can use such as good and bad community fish and proper care articles for a lot of species. 

Aquatic Clubs

If you live in a populous area, you have another option: aquarium clubs. If you want to keep a specific fish like guppies or koi or cichlids, you can often find clubs devoted to these fish. The best way to find aquarium clubs is simply using a search engine because they don’t usually advertise much. Once a month most clubs will hold a meeting where members can bring in excess fish or plants and either trade or sell them to other members. Like the magazines, clubs tend to be for the more serious fishkeeper.

My favorite sources

Since this is a lot to digest, I’ll give you examples of my favorite resources to get you started. By no means are these the only good fishkeeping resources.

Practical Fishkeeping (website, magazine, forum) http://www.practicalfishkeeping.co.uk

I have a subscription to the magazine, and I am constantly browsing the website. I reference articles here all the time. The website has information about keeping the common species as well as more advanced information about setting up biotypes and breeding. Many of the articles and blogs take a light-hearted approach such as the “Which type of fishkeeper are you?” and “It’s me or the fish.” There was even an “advent calendar” of colorful and common fish last Christmas. It’s not worth subscribing if you aren’t a serious fishkeeper as it is expensive, but the website and forum are certainly good resources for the beginner.

Tropical Fish Hobbyist (magazine, website, forum) http://www.tfhmagazine.com/

Another excellent (and a little cheaper for those of us on this side of the pond) fishkeeping magazine is Tropical Fish Hobbyist.  I find the website a little hard to navigate, but the magazine is great (I also subscribe to this periodical). Like PFK it also has a forum that is stocked with wise fishkeeping minds, and the writers from the magazine will periodically post there, too.

Seriously Fish (website and forum) http://www.seriouslyfish.com/

I visit this site for the fish profiles. The authors have added thousands of them and have gone out of their way to provide the best information. If I can’t find a fish here, I can’t find it anywhere. The profiles have everything from water parameters to breeding information (if any is available for that species). They also have a wealth of articles ranging from aquascaping (the art of making your plant arrangement look gorgeous) to conservation to ichthyology. And this website is constantly growing, so every day more and more information is added. This website also has a forum, but it is geared more towards European users. Don’t let this discourage North American readers from joining. But you might have to get used to a few phrases you aren’t familiar with. ;)

Tropical Fish Keeping (website and forum) http://www.tropicalfishkeeping.com/

I came to this forum after my old one went inactive. The wide range of users here can help you with everything from the basic problems of cycling an aquarium to setting up and maintaining beautifully aquascaped tanks. Not only does this site have a forum, but there is a large section for freshwater and saltwater (but I never look there) fish profiles. Unlike Seriously Fish, they also have some invertebrate and plant profiles.

Up until now, all the resources I have posted are general fishkeeping sites. In the forums there are subforms devoted to specific species if you are interested, but the majority of the forum encompasses a broad spectrum of fishkeeping. Now on to the specialist sites.

TheGAB  (website and forum) http://thegab.org/

This is a goldfish specialist forum. I am also part of this community. Great people here. It is much smaller than the TFK community, but still as active. There are a few breeders here and people who have been keeping goldfish for as long as I have been alive. Very smart people. The forum is rather international with many users from places such as Canada, the UK, Australia, and Italy. On top of the forum, the users there have written many articles through the years on goldfish-specific care including quarantine procedures and how to make medicated food.

Bettafish.com (forum) http://www.bettafish.com

This is just a forum that is devoted to betta fish (Betta splendens). I am also part of this forum. They have many dedicated and knowledgeable betta keepers and breeders. With forums devoted to betta care, compatibility with other species, and breeding, it is a great resource for the budding betta keeper or a good community for the experienced keeper looking to expand the hobby.

Loaches Online (website and forum) http://www.loaches.com/

Unlike the previous two websites, this is not just devoted to a single species. Loaches encompass two families of fish: Cobitidae and Balitoridae. This website has care requirements and a profile on almost every single loach species found in the hobby today. This is the first site I go to if I have a question about loaches (some of my favorite fish). 

Planet Catfish (website and forum) http://www.planetcatfish.com/

Just like Loaches Online, Planet Catfish is devoted to a class of fish (Siluriformes) instead of just a single species. It is a must-read for anyone who wants to keep a catfish. From the cute cories (Corydoras spp) and the common pleco (Hypostomus plecostomus) to the twig catfish (Farlowella vittata) and bumblebee catfish (Pseudomystus siamensis), this website has them all. 

Bronze cory Corydoras aeneus (Ude @ wikipedia)