Keeping a marine aquarium healthy is no easy task. After all, you’re trying to recreate an entire ecosystem within the confines of a box often no bigger than your average piece of furniture. And it’s often not an exact science either. Even with all the knowledge available on the subject today there’s still no substitute for experience and a keen eye. Problem is experience and knowledge often only come after trying and failing a couple times first. To give you a leg up, here are some common miss steps beginning saltwater aquarists often make.
When it comes to aquariums nothing good ever happens fast. Well, with the exception of fixing major problems that should have been avoided in the first place. A saltwater aquarium is no small undertaking and requires a well thought out plan long before even the first drop of water enters the tank. You need to know what you wish to keep and how to keep it. Then you need to select the right equipment to do so. All of this takes time and lots of research, covering not only your desired livestock but also things like comparing filtration or lighting options to find the perfect match for your needs. And once the tank is set up and running, patients is still key. Adding livestock too quickly can be disastrous as well. Every animal that enters the tank needs time to adjust and in turn the tank needs time to adjust to the new addition. Aquarium keeping isn’t a race so take your time.
Much like rushing, trying to shove too much into your tank will lead to problems. The inhabitants will be stressed, fights are more likely, and the system as a whole may not be able to support the bioload. In general, marine tanks don’t hold anywhere near as many fish per gallon as their freshwater counterparts. And remember, it doesn’t matter what size it is when you get it- fish, corals and everything else living grows up eventually.
Topping Off Evaporation with Saltwater
Saltwater tanks tend to lose quite a bit of water to evaporation. Problem is, some people notice the missing water and either misread it as a leak somewhere in the system or simply don’t realize that the water is the only thing evaporating. And so they top off the tank with more saltwater which has the net effect of raising the salinity slightly. And after a couple weeks of this the salinity has climbed so high that it’s beyond what its residents can handle. Long story short: top off evaporation with fresh water only.
No Knowledge of Species
Far too often new (and even not so new) aquarists will let their impulses get the better of them and purchase some creature for their tank with little or no knowledge of what its needs are or how to keep it. As I’ve mentioned before, there are tons and tons of different creatures in the ocean with a widely varied set of care requirements. Not knowing how to properly care for every animal you add to your aquarium is a set up for disaster.
Buying Sick Animals
Right along with not knowing enough about a species before purchase, buying an animal that’s in poor health often leads to the same conclusion. Before buying anything for your tank give it a long hard look at the store first. Fish should be alert and have full coloration with no obvious signs of injury or disease (torn fins, red splotches/lesions, faded color, etc). If you can get someone at the store to feed the fish. A fish that doesn’t eat is a fish to avoid. As for corals and other sessile invertebrates, look for good color and fully extended polyps. Look especially closely at the base where the tissue meets the rock or skeleton to make sure it’s not receding or torn as well as anywhere else on the colony. While it’s true that corals have remarkable regenerative properties and under healthy conditions can repair even severe damage the stress of moving an injured colony to a new tank is often too much for them to handle.
The interactions between the fish and invertebrates living on the typical reef are complex to say the least. Furthermore, marine fish tend to be quite a bit more aggressive than their average freshwater counterpart. There are loads of different reasons one fish may not like another and it’s important to get a thorough understanding of these when selecting your stock. With these points in mind it’s easy to understand why researching the species you wish to keep BEFORE purchase is so critical.
The water in your tank is extremely unlikely to exactly match the water that any new additions you acquire are living in. To successfully transfer new fish or invertebrates to your tank they have to be acclimated properly. Most people know to float the bag their new specimen is in long enough for the temperature to adjust, but that’s only half of the equation. The salinity and pH must also match. Furthermore, they must be adjusted slow enough to not shock the animal. Some species are especially susceptible to this and are frequently lost by unaware aquarists. Remember, as far as acclimation goes when in doubt go slow.
Poor Source Water
Keeping a marine tank healthy is all about keeping the water quality high. But that can be next to impossible if the water you start with is already polluted. Even the best tap water still often contains traces of nitrates, phosphates, heavy metals, and/or various other dissolved minerals that can make a mess of your tank’s chemistry. That’s why investing in a reverse osmosis water purifier is so often recommended- so you know you’re starting with pure clean water.
Lack of Circulation
The ocean is s turbulent place. When you see massive waves crashing ashore you have to remember that there’s just as much movement below the surface. Strong circulation is vital to keeping a marine tank healthy. It carries away waste and brings fresh oxygen and nutrients to the plants and animals living there. Along with keeping the water clean, keeping it moving goes a long way towards avoiding many common problems.
By and large people overfeed their fish- marine or otherwise. They see them dancing around in front of the glass every time they approach the tank and think it means they’re hungry. But don’t be fooled, they’d gladly eat until they exploded if you let them. It’s only natural- in the wild when you never know how far away your next meal is you take whatever you can get whenever you can get it. And so all that excess food has to go somewhere whether it passes through the fish first or not. Soon enough there’s algae everywhere and the water quality is subpar at best.
Feeding just the right amount is tricky. The common rule you hear so often is something along the lines of only feed as much as the fish can completely consume within a few minutes. That’s a good starting point, but really it’s best to understand your fishes’ individual needs and try to meet them. Marine fish are often more specialized feeders preferring a certain type of food or a certain way of feeding. Some fish are very slow methodical feeders, for example, so it may take them a long time to eat their fill. And some may even get a large portion of their meals just from the live rock in your tank. Finally, skipping feeding completely roughly one day a week is highly recommended. It allows your fish to completely purge the digestive system and gives your filtration system time to catch up. Most fish can go several days or more between meals and a little fast every now and then is perfectly fine and even believed to have some health benefits.
Starting with a Small Tank
Many people, when they’re first starting out, want to start with a fairly small tank. The way they see it a smaller tank will be easier to manage and therefore better for a beginner. Unfortunately this is the opposite of the truth. Some tasks may be easier to manage, but a small tank is fraught with problems. Besides being extremely limited in what it can hold, the largest issue is stability. Small tanks just aren’t that stable. When you have so little water small issues become big problems all the more quickly. Remember, stability is key to success with any aquarium and a small tank just isn’t stable. They can be maintained successfully, but it takes an experienced keeper to do so.
Old Tank Syndrome
The chemistry of a marine aquarium’s water is complex to say the least. Aside from the known list of compounds that comprise natural sea water, your tank is awash in a bevy of various organic compounds either produced by the plants and animals living there or introduced through food or other additives. Over time, the levels of all of these various compounds can become out of balance. Couple this with a tendency of the successful aquarist to become complacent with their tank and begin slacking on maintenance and it’s easy to see how problems can arise. The only reliable way to keep the water’s parameters correct is through water changes, and the amount changed must be enough to outpace everything that’s attempting to change them.
A big part of successfully keeping a marine aquarium is perseverance. Knowledge is good and can help you avoid a lot of common errors. But even with our best efforts things are going to go wrong from time to time. Sometimes it will be something you could have prevented while other times it will just be bad luck. In either event, learning from the experience and using that knowledge to better your tank is the goal.