Monday, September 17, 2012

Emergency Preparedness and Aquariums

It’s hurricane season in the south eastern US again. For some that means potential evacuations. For others it just brings the possibility of a few days without power. Either way, we want to consider our pets. Animals like dogs are easy to move in case of an evacuation. Fish are not. You need to have a plan with them.

I’m going to divide emergencies into two types to simplify this a bit: sudden emergencies and predicted emergencies. Sudden emergencies would be things that you don’t have a day or even a few hours’ warning. Predicted emergencies could potentially give you up to a week to prepare. But first let’s go over a fishkeeper’s emergency kit.

Hurricane Irene that hit the eastern US in August 2011 (kakela @ flickr)

Things to have around

Battery-powered air pump and sponge filter: these can be rigged up when the power goes out to provide both mechanical and biological (if the sponge filter was already in the tank) filtration for your tank. Pumps can also be used to provide aeration if fish suddenly need to be moved. Always make sure you have an extra set of batteries or two.

Blankets or extra towels: in case of a winter power outage, these can be used to maintain a warmer temperature in your tanks. The air temperature may fall but an insulating layer around your tank will help keep the water from getting too cold. If you live in an area that can get very cold in the winter, having an extra space blanket and duck tap to secure it to your tank is a great idea.

Flash lights: let’s face it, emergencies can happen in the dark, too. It’s no fun to fumble with cords and batteries when you can't see. A head light comes in handy here, too. Always make sure you have an extra set of batteries.

Medicines: while I don’t recommend stuffing your cabinet more thoroughly than your local vet clinic, having things like aquarium salt, General Cure, and Maracyn I & II around is a great idea. After a disaster there is a chance your fish could get sick. Depending on the severity of the disaster, you might not be able to get to the store for a while. These medications or a combination of them can treat most common tropical illnesses.

Sudden Emergencies

These would be things like tornadoes, earthquakes, mudslides, house fires, and some volcanic eruptions. Disasters that you didn’t get warning of. Often times in these situations, we simply don’t have time to think about our fish or other pets before our safety comes into question. First rule of thumb is save yourself. If you aren’t alive when it’s over who will take care of your fish if you protected them first?

Certain areas of the world are more prone to some of these immediate disasters, and there are things you can do to help lessen damages when they happen. If you live in an earthquake zone, consider stabilizing your stands to the wall (the studs not the drywall) or nailing stands to the ground. If you are in an area where tornadoes are prevalent, consider putting most of your tanks in the basement or other central area of the house. The best thing you can do for these types of emergencies is preventative preparedness.

Predicted Emergencies

These are situations like hurricanes, blizzards, most tsunamis, some severe thunderstorms, and some wildfires. In some case you might just have a few hours warning, but in others you could potentially have days to prepare. When you have a warning, your fish have the best chance of survival if you make the necessary preparations.

You typically have some warning with a thunderstorm (rejected reality @ flickr)

First: Stop feeding

Healthy fish can go up to a week without eating. Depending on the fish, they can be pushed to two weeks with no food without suffering major ill effects. This is actually rather natural to the fish. Often times they will go weeks without a meal especially in the dry season. Not feeding your fish will reduce the amount of physical waste and ammonia that is in the tank. It will also reduce the need for water changes. If you are unable to attend to water changes for an extended period of time, this will help keep your tank from becoming too polluted.

Second: Perform a large water change

Depending on the severity of the approaching disaster, you may not get to do another water change for a while. Doing a large water change before it strikes will ensure that your fish are in cleaner water when they go through other stressors like falling water temperature and rising ammonia. Fill up some extra jugs and barrels with water especially if you are on a well system and are expecting a few weeks without power. If you are in a city where the water pressure and quality will remain intact, this is not as important.  

Third: Clean your filters (with tank water not tap water)

This is especially important if you don’t clean your filters often. Once the power goes out and water stops running through the filters, the organic waste that is trapped in there will quickly decay, and the water will become toxic. You won’t want this in the tank with the fish when the power returns. Leave the filter media in the filters until the power goes out.

If you have to evacuate and leave your fish behind, unplug the filters and put the filter media in the main tank. Running a battery-powered air stone through the filter media will help give the beneficial bacteria enough oxygen to survive the power outage.

Fourth: Double check your emergency equipment

Because these types of emergencies don’t come along very often, locate your emergency equipment and make sure it is in good working order. Turn on the battery-powered pumps and flashlights. Double check your batteries. Make sure the medicines haven’t expired. Put your equipment in an easily accessible place, so you won’t be scrambling for it when the electricity does turn off.

Natural disasters are hard enough on families without having to worry about pets. Please remember, your safety is of the utmost importance. You are the only person who will take care of your fish as you want. In case your family doesn’t have an emergency plan for themselves, you can take a look at the US Federal Emergency Management Agency’s guide for family preparedness called Are you ready? An in-depth guide to citizen preparedness. Be safe and happy fishkeeping!

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