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Isolation/Quarantine, Acclimation & Transport of New Specimens for Small Marine Systems


By Bob Fenner

Small Marine Aquariums
Book 1:
Invertebrates, Algae
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by Robert (Bob) Fenner
Small Marine Aquariums
ook 2:

New Print and eBook on Amazon: by Robert (Bob) Fenner
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Likely the most damnable fact/oid re keeping aquariums period is that near one hundred percent of folks drop out, leave the hobby every year. Why is this; what reason/s are their for such huge turnover of aquarists? Is it boredom? Far from it; though perhaps other easier pastimes like video games are more attractive to many. Years back, some industry notables declared that the principal challenge to the trade (the business of aquariums), was the publics’ perception that keeping tanks was drudge-ridden, that they were too stinky, likely to have water spills…

            I assure you they were and are wrong. The number one reason people leave the ornamental aquatic interest is simply “lack of success”… they find it too difficult to set up, stock, and maintain their systems; mainly as measured by the loss (most often for unknown reasons) of their livestock.

            The purpose of isolation/quarantine is twofold: to lessen morbidity and mortality of livestock by giving the newly acquired life a period of time to rest, and you the opportunity to observe this livestock to assess its health and avoid introduction of pathogenic disease and often, undesirable hitchhikers.


First and Foremost: A Written Plan!

            Pre-acclimation; indeed pre-buying you need to KNOW the livestock you are buying; what are its needs, its compatibilities, range of tolerances? What sort of system does it need? How much/little water movement? Light strength/intensity? If studying from other than site inspections (at fish stores, on site e-tailers) is what you have in mind even available? How will you discern the better, best specimens; i.e. what criteria to apply? Is there a knowledgeable friend who can help you, assist you in choosing?       



An example of the importance of livestock planning; species, specimen selection; Coris gaimard, a burrowing Wrasse; needs a large volume as an adult

Need a deep fine-sand bed

Grows to more than a foot in length




Another important matter twixt planning and acclimation is transport: getting your newly acquired stock from sources to your system. Mostly we’re talking a concern for thermal and light insulation here; though bumps, physical jarring of bags, containers should be kept to a minimum.

For commercial and long-range shipping Styrofoam boxes with cardboard liners are standard containers. Two to four mil (thousandths of an inch thick) poly(ethylene) bags, perhaps doubled, maybe with a paper et al. liner separating them (for light dampening and water absorption/protection of the outer bag should the inner one be punctured), oxygen and clipped or banded closed. Additionally, depending on the weather, ice bags or heat packs may also be taped inside the boxes.

For hobbyists a simple picnic cooler is fine. Pure oxygen should be used if available, even if transiting for only a few tens of minutes; as a higher concentration here acts as a mild anesthetic, lessening overall stress and metabolite production.



Acclimation: Moderating tween shipping conditions and your system

            There are few more contentious issues in our interest than “schools” (and their adherents) to given Standard Operating Protocols (SOPs) of acclimation. Some (learned and not) folks do very little; opening bags, and even pouring shipping water into their established system. Don’t do this! Here I’m presenting a synthesis of what institutions like public aquariums and culture facilities and the largest/best livestock wholesale facilities employ. What is important:

Temperature is not so much an issue. Marine (and freshwater) organisms are often exposed to differing thermal regimes; thermoclines, influxes f water of different temperature. Most Fisheries staff ignore any change/difference of less than 8 degrees F.


Chemical/Physical conditions can be important; particularly biochemical… hence the rationale for isolation of new stocks, mixing of water over time. “pH shock” is mainly an issue with ammonia presence in and outside the livestock itself. This phenomenon is a crucial understanding for all who deal with aquatic life.


Bio-chemical acclimation IS the real deal. Animals and their cells secrete and excrete ammonia as wastes… in urine and through respiration. Amino acids (that make up proteins in food) catabolism results in ammonia… And ammonia presence is debilitating in any concentration. Let me repeat that for emphasis: ANY ammonia present/detectable is harmful to your livestock.


The great circle (well, one of them) of pet fish life! The principal waste product of fishes (and invertebrates) ammonia being converted (by microbes) into nitrites (NO2) then nitrates (NO3); taken up and diluted by chemoautotrophs and plants, algae… and water changes, filtrants..

Note: during transport, ammonia is NOT cycled; continuously produced, it builds in concentration.


Ammonium and Ammonia: A Tale of Two Very Different Molecules


            Depending on what pH and temperature it occurs “ammonia” occurs more as either NH4+ or NH3; lower to higher temperature and lower to higher pH results in: ionized (charged) vs. unionized; less toxic to very toxic, and germinal to our discussion here; during transport… in a bag w/ a small volume of water two things happen: through respiration oxygen gets used up and carbon dioxide (as carbonic acid) accumulates; dropping pH… AND ammonia concentration increases… Critically important damage can occur in moving the transported livestock too-abruptly into “too high” pH water, due to the sudden shift (inside the animals) of ammonium to ammonia.





A Nomograph: Depicting the toxicity (LD-50) of a fish species (derived experimentally) exposed to ammonia/ammonium at varying pH’s and temperatures




Four intersecting points to drive home the point:



Terrestrial vs. Aquatic Life: Oxygen and respiration issues

            A bit of pertinent science to aid your appreciation here: Recall that the “sea of air” we live in is about 21 percent oxygen , 79 % Nitrogen, a smidgen of CO2 and other gasses. That’s 210,000 parts per million of O2.

            Underwater dissolved oxygen runs about 7-8 parts per million at saturation; small wonder that hematocrits (packed cell volumes of blood) are so high. There are dire consequences if there is loos of Red Blood Cells (RBC) concentration in terms of oxygen carrying capacity.

            Overall stress; particularly exposure to non-ionized ammonia causes (among other bad things) hemolysis, rupture of RBCs… This should be an “Ah Ha” moment for you; and give you pause to realize how important acclimation can be; as well as isolation/quarantine for allowing newly moved livestock opportunity to rest, recuperate ahead of being placed in established systems.


Two Basic Shipping Scenarios: Short term (minutes) or hours

            IF new acquisitions are being locally transported under an hour or so vs. life being long-hauled in bags, from e-tailers…



Short term hauls; acclimation

            Here’s a detailing of a classical approach to acclimating livestock that has been “in the bag” just for minutes:



Long term hauls: hours in the bag



Acclimation Tools: Hobbyist




Acclimation Tools: Commercial



Invertebrates: More sensitive at times; require special/more care in acclimating




Quarantine: Easy and oh so beneficial



Quarantine Systems: Should not be expensive nor extravagant




Quarantine Maintenance: Keep it simple as well









Lastly: A few notes re how to place new livestock in an existing system.






Many folks have argued that they’ve done just fine sans elaborate acclimation, and always foregone quarantine… and never had problems. Am sure you’ve heard of Russian Roulette… As stated above, ALL “real” facilities employ these procedures as SOPs… to avoid what can be tremendous heart ache and expense.
            About the only exception to quarantine for small systems I can accept is the situation in which you’re placing all livestock at once… and don’t mind taking the risk of introducing pests, parasites that might cross-infest species. Even I would quarantine here. Take the time, and investment in a simple quarantine set up. It will grant you so much more flexibility… to be able to isolate fighting animals, treat for something you perceive (NEVER to be done in main/display systems), and possibly lead to many other adventures. Well worth the peace of mind.



Bibliography/Further Reading:


WetWebMedia(.com): Articles and FAQs files on Acclimation, Techniques/Tools, Quarantine, Dips/Baths

Fatherree, James. Quarantine or else! The Reefer, TFH 11/11.

Hemdal, Jay. 2012 Acclimating animals to aquariums, Part 1: Introduction to techniques. TFH 3/12, Part 2: Advanced acclimation techniques, TFH 4/12


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