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Keep your fish alive. March 15, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, pets, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Tropical fish are notoriously short-lived, seldom lasting more than a few months in an aquarium environment. And if you love and have an aquarium, or would love to have one, this is very sad news.

But folks, it ain’t necessarily so. Without all the fancy, exorbitantly expensive equipment—the CO2 injectors, the undergravel filters, the halogen lights, the aerators—you can enjoy your tropicals for a decade or so, and revel in the tranquillity and beauty of your tank.

I know whereof I speak. I had aquariums at home and in my office for many years, and our friend Ben and I have one now at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home we share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. The secret to beauty and longevity is balance. Let’s take a look at what you need to have the perfect aquarium:

* Don’t forget the plants. Live plants are the secret to a healthy, beautiful, algae-free, balanced tank. Plenty of pants give the fish places to hide, so they feel safe, and oxygenate the tank so the fish can breathe. They also use fish excrement as fertilizer, which makes them healthy and removes potential toxins from the aquarium. When choosing plants, make sure they’re actual aquatics rather than land plants like “lucky bamboo” and the like that can live underwater for a short time before dying.

* Add a rock or two. Rocks provide additional hiding places for fish, as well as adding height and beauty to an aquarium landscape. And they’re far more attractive and natural than Disney-style castles and sunken ships!

* Don’t heat your tank. Shocking! This goes against conventional wisdom, but keeping the tank cool is what’s kept my fish alive long past their sell-by date. Tropicals don’t need a heated tank, but they (and their plants) do need light during the day. Make sure your aquarium hood is fitted with the appropriate lights for both fish and plants.

* Choose compatible tank companions. I like to think of an aquarium as a multistoried structure. Freshwater clams flourish buried in the gravel at the bottom, taking in nutrients and filtering out pollutants. Corydoras catfish, those comical, lovable characters, perform garbage-collecting duties on the floor of the tank, helping it stay sparkling clean. Ghost shrimp and other algae-eating shrimp patrol the gravel and the plants, removing algae from the plants, gravel, and even the sides of the aquarium before it becomes a problem. So do a number of snails, including the beautiful golden snails that add such cachet to a tank. For the upper levels, I enjoy tetras, with their numerous colorful variations: Neon and cardinal tetras, bloodfin tetras, golden white clouds. But whatever you choose, make sure they’ll be compatible and won’t attack one another. Even some tetras will attack other tetras, as I’ve learned to my sorrow, and you never want to mix cichlids in with any other fish.

* Landscape your tank. Having plants in your tank fights algae buildup, too, since plants use up the nutrients that algae would otherwise feed on. And a landscaped tank, like a landscaped yard, can be beautiful, as long as you follow standard landscaping rules: Put the tallest plants in the back and progress to the shortest in the front. You can vary this by having “runs” of midsize or tall plants coming into the shorter ones, but never put a taller plant in front of a shorter one. Do the same with rocks and driftwood: Tall in the back, shorter in front. Use neutral-colored gravel rather than bizarre, brilliantly dyed choices. Eeeewwww!!!! And vary your plantings between grass-leaved specimens, those with spear-shaped leaves, moss balls, and floating plants like anacharis (which are perfect for fish and shrimp to hide in). And make sure you follow the ultimate landscaping rule: Plant in groups and in odd numbers. Plant three of this, five of that: never one of everything or in twos or fours.

* Put your fish on a diet. Overfeeding is a good way to kill fish fast. I feed very moderately during the week, and skip feeding altogether on Saturday, then feed a frozen spirulina block on Sunday before beginning regular daily feedings again dring the week. This weekend fasting routine has kept my fish strong and vibrant for years and years. Overfeeding pollutes the tank and kills fish prematurely, much as gorging on McDonald’s burgers and fries kills us. Undereating, however unnatural it seems to us, has repeatedly been shown to be the way to long life.

So give my techniques a try and let me know how they work for you. It’s a lovely thing to have a vibrant, colorful, diverse tank and to reduce tank maintenance and expense at the same time!

‘Til next time,




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