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Quarantine of Marine Fishes


By: Scott Fellman  algaeguy01@hotmail.com


As conscientious marine aquarists, we spend considerable time, effort, and money creating the best-possible environment for the animals that we keep. Yet, sadly, one of the biggest single things we can do to assure the continued health and prosperity of our fishes and invertebrates is simply overlooked by the majority of us-the proper quarantine of newly-received fishes.

In my discussion with literally dozens and dozens of my fish-keeping friends, I am frequently astonished to hear that virtually none of them execute any quarantine procedures whatsoever with their new animals. Many of them are not beginners; some of them are very advanced hobbyists with extremely complex marine aquarium systems. Many have thousands of dollars invested in equipment and livestock, yet they continually play "Russian roulette" with their animals' lives by simply adding newly received animals directly to their tanks. I have seen numerous postings on Internet discussion boards from hobbyists describing "anomalous" fish losses after introducing newly acquired animals without quarantine.

Excuses, Excuses!

Why do we, as a group, tend to neglect the quarantine process? The excuses are many: Too time consuming, too difficult, "My dealer has had this fish for 2 weeks," etc. While I won't attempt to "debunk" all of the excuses that hobbyists give for not quarantining animals, I will address some of the more common ones, and outline the very simple process of quarantine and how it can ensure your greater success as a hobbyist.

One of the most common excuses that I hear for not quarantining newly-received fishes is that the animal was at the dealer for a period of time before it was purchased and looked healthy. Since the fish was at the store, for say, two weeks and shows no outward signs of disease, many hobbyists assume that the fish is "quarantined" and healthy. This is definitely not the case! Think about it: Do you really believe that no other fish could have come in contact with the fish that you are purchasing? Is it truly possible that no one at the dealer's shop put his or her hands into another tank before working in the tank containing your potential purchase? Do you really believe that there have been no introductions of new fish, or potential cross-contamination of this tank by other, possibly sick fish? And, there is the fact that some diseases do not manifest themselves with visible symptoms until it's too late, giving the customer the false impression that the fish is healthy. Despite the best intentions of well-meaning dealers, the potential for infection in their tanks is quite high. However, by executing prophylactic acclimation and quarantine, it is possible to virtually eliminate the possibility of disease entering your system.

Many other hobbyists who don't routinely quarantine their newly-received fishes state that the fish was wild caught, and therefore was not exposed to pathogens present in a dealer's system. This assumption overlooks an important fact. Virtually all-marine organisms for aquariums are wild-caught, and they are all potential and real carriers of infectious and parasitic diseases. There are numerous opportunities for a fish to become stressed, exposed to disease, or infected during the long journey from the reef to your tank.

Another common excuse for not quarantining new arrivals is that the equipment involved is too complex or expensive, the process too tedious and the stress to the animals is too great. Once again, this is not the case. The tools for quarantine are nothing more complex than a small aquarium, simple filter, and heater. The process of quarantine is simple and often stress free for the fish.

Acclimation and quarantine procedures involve the dipping of fish in freshwater/prophylactic baths, and a nice, comfortable 21-day stay in a private aquarium for several weeks before being introduced to the main aquarium. Few things that a hobbyist can do are as simple and effective as quarantine to guard against potential spread of disease and loss. As they say, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Actually, an understatement if there was one.

Still not convinced? Well, stay with me here for a few more minutes and you'll realize how easy the process really is.

Equipment Needed

The equipment involved for quarantine is ridiculously simple. You will need a small glass/acrylic tank with cover (from 10 - 40 gallons, depending upon the size/number of specimens that you are working with), outside power, canister, or sponge filter, and a reliable aquarium heater of sufficient wattage for the tank that you're using. Other items include an accurate thermometer, a dedicated net (that will not be used in any other aquarium), siphon for water changes, and test kits for any therapeutic agents that you will be using, such as copper.

That's about all you need! No rocks, gravel, or other substrate is used, as these materials can potentially bind with or absorb any medications you may be using. Inert materials such as PVC pipe sections may be used to create hiding places for your fishes.

Setting Up and Using the Quarantine Tank

Setting up is a very simple process. Several days before the arrival of your new animals, fill the aquarium with water from your main system. Introduce the filter, plug in the heater, and you're ready to go. (Here's a tip: If you keep your filter sponge or other quarantine tank filter media in your main system's sump when the quarantine tank is not running, you will always have a filter that is fully colonized by beneficial bacteria at all times.)

Following a proper dip/bath procedure (see www.wetwebmedia.com/dips_baths.htm), which is in itself a simple procedure, introduce your fishes to the quarantine aquarium. I highly recommend refraining from running the tank lights, if present, for at least the first 24 hours to give the new fishes a chance to settle in after a rough journey. In fact, ambient room light is usually fine.

It's a good idea to wait overnight before attempting to feed your new arrivals, as they are usually not inclined to eat right off the bat. Besides, cleanliness in the quarantine tank is of utmost importance. Any uneaten food should be promptly siphoned from the tank to avoid pollution.

The quarantine tank's water chemical parameters (pH, etc.) and temperature should approximate these found in your main system. Some hobbyists like to run their quarantine tank at a lower specific gravity (as low as 1.010) to assist in eliminating parasites, but I like to keep the quarantine tank at a "normal" specific gravity (1.022 - 1.026). Since you are working with a smaller volume of water in most cases, it's important to follow a diligent schedule of small water changes. Assuming that your main system is healthy, you can utilize water from the main tank to replace the water in your quarantine tank. Since it is the water that your new charges will eventually be living in, I can't think of a better use for wastewater from your main system's routine water changes (you are doing regular water changes, aren't you?). The quarantine period should last 21 days.

During the quarantine period, observe your fishes daily and be sure to keep a keen eye out for any potential infection. Obvious signs of illness, such as rapid respiration, open sores, fungus, etc. require recognition and quick action on the part of the aquarist. As you will find, the quarantine tank presents a perfect environment to treat fish diseases before they can spread to your main system. See elsewhere on the wetwebmedia site for information on the recognition, diagnosis, and treatment of various afflictions that can affect your fishes.

What do you do if your fishes do become ill during the quarantine period? Two things: First, take the appropriate actions to treat your fishes, and second, congratulate yourself on having the foresight to utilize quarantine procedures with your fishes! Unfortunate though it may be, you will receive the best possible lesson on why quarantine is so important.

Keep in mind that, should disease rear its ugly head during quarantine, you'll need to reset the clock for another 21 days after you have successfully eradicated the ailment. There would be absolutely no point in rushing to add your newly cured fishes to your main system at that stage of the game. Patience is truly a virtue with quarantine, and it will, reward you and your fishes handsomely.

Should you acquire more new fishes while you are in the middle of the quarantine period (this never happens, right?), you have two options: either add the new fishes to the quarantine tank (after appropriate prophylactic dips/baths) and reset the calendar for 21 more days, OR you can set up a new quarantine tank! Either way, you have to stick to the 21-day rule. It's that important.

In addition to being an invaluable aid in the prevention of disease in your main system, the quarantine tank provides a perfect environment for newly-received fishes to "toughen up" and rest after the long ordeal of capture, shipping, and handling. Your fish will be refreshed, well fed, and most important of all, healthy after a stay in your quarantine tank.

When the 21 days are up, and your new fishes have been introduced to their new home, you can break down and thoroughly clean the quarantine system. Be sure that none of the equipment from your quarantine tank comes in contact with your main system before it has been cleaned, particularly if you were utilizing copper or other therapeutic agents in the tank. Your sponge filter or other filter media may then be sterilized and placed back in the sump of your main system to re-colonize beneficial, ready for your next new arrivals.

Hopefully, you are now convinced of the value of the quarantine tank, and the piece of mind and other benefits it provides. Such a simple concept, yet an invaluable tool. The quarantine tank is used at all public aquariums as a first line of defense against the introduction of disease. Aquarists at public aquariums cannot afford the risk of infecting their entire population of fishes, neither should you. Quarantine should become an integral part of YOUR fish keeping procedures.

New article for your approval Hey Bob, <Hey Scott> Attached please find an article that I hope you will find acceptable for placement on the website and/or elsewhere. It's on a subject that is very near and dear to me: Quarantine of Marine Fishes. It seems that I have answered a fair number of inquiries about problems that could have been avoided through quarantine, so this may be timely and hopefully a good edition to the existing resources on the topic. <I'll/We'll say!> Please review and advise me if further revision or total trashing of the article is necessary. =} <A cursory look at the dnld... very nice. Have you sent this along to the hobby mag.s yet? I will help you do so... and you're welcome to add any pix of mine if you'd like. Bob F>

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