Feeding a Reef Tank:
A Progressive Food Recipe
By Adam Blundell
fish health is a commonly overlooked aspect of the marine aquarium hobby. In
fact nutrition should be a very well known, and highly discussed aspect of
aquarium care. Poor nutrition in fish leads to loss of vigor, poor
appearance, and death; while good nutrition leads to better colors, growth
and even reproduction (Fenner 1998). All too often, we see new hobbyists
setting up their aquariums, buying their fish, and buying their single can
of flake food. Of course, the reason for this is the lack of discussion
regarding fish nutrition. Hobbyists have been trained for years to feed
their fish the same old food everyday. After all, most new marine hobbyists
have had years of experience in the freshwater hobby, where simple flake
food is the norm.
What is most amazing to me is to see that we are now over a decade past the
release of Angelo Mojetta’s The Encyclopedia of Aquarium Fish
(Mojetta 1993). In that book, Mojetta lists several common aquarium fish and
their appropriate diets. Mojetta’s food recommendations are mostly chopped
fish, squid, artemia, bivalves, and vegetable matter. Yet, several years
later his recommendations are still not well understood by the common
hobbyist. This article will discuss some common fish food recipes, as well
as present a new progressive recipe for different tank inhabitants.
Many fish food recipes exist and more and more hobbyists are willing to try
their own. Most recipes have the same basic idea; get a bunch of different
foods and mix them together. The source of those foods and the proportions
of them are often variable and are the differing aspect of those recipes. A
recipe I have coined as “The Fenner Recipe” is one of the most widely known
recipes due to its publication in The Conscientious Marine Aquarist
(Fenner 1998). In that book, the recipe is referred to as “Fenner’s
Wonderful Marine Mash” (Fenner 1998, pg 145). This recipe calls for shrimp,
mollusk (of any kind), seaweed/algae, and a multivitamin supplement. It is a
direct, easy to follow, few ingredient recipe. For anyone new to the hobby,
or who hasn’t made their own food, this is a great starting place. It
provides nutrition and variety in simple food.
Another popular recipe is that of a coral food recipe published in Aquarium
Corals Selection, Husbandry, and Natural History by Eric Borneman
(Borneman 2001). Borneman prefaces that recipe with the following statement
“the requirements for suitable coral foods are nutrients that will remain
largely in suspension and contain a mix of particle sizes, compositions, and
elements to sustain and enhance the requirements of a mixed coral tank”
(Borneman 2001, pg 64). Borneman’s recipe includes fresh seafood (shrimp,
clams, etc.), frozen aquarium foods, dried seaweed, flake food,
antioxidants, and liquid vitamins. This recipe is more in depth, requiring
the acquisition of more ingredients.
Other recipes include using “human food” as a basis for the fish food. By this
I mean items such as carrots, peas, trout, salmon, cod, romaine lettuce,
etc. I have termed this recipe the “Hobbyist Formula”. While extremely
convenient to make and arguably far better than standard flake foods, it can
be argued that it is not natural and therefore is not the best recipe. I
believe this argument to a certain extent and therefore discourage its use,
especially since other recipes (like Fenner’s and Borneman’s) exist. If
indeed common foods are used it is still best to “stick with protein sources
of saltwater origin” (Fenner 1998, pg 145).
A fourth recipe I refer to as “Adam’s Fish Food” takes a different approach to
food making. In that recipe I describe a process of basically mixing many
types of frozen aquarium foods. The main difference between that recipe and
the previously mentioned recipes, is that the “Adam’s Fish Food” contained
50% meat items, 30% vegetative items, and the remaining 20% was already a
mixed food (i.e. Formula 1 or Prime Reef). The reason for this recipe was to
match the natural diet of fish, since herbivorous fish eat between 30%-50%
of their diet as vegetative matter.
This article is
the first attempt, to the author’s knowledge, at publishing a progressive
recipe for fish foods (although several revisions and follow ups are
undoubtedly to follow). The basics behind a progressive recipe are to allow
different fish foods (better term is “Reef Foods”) to be made, all in one
mixing session. It is important to note that when we feed our tanks we are
not just feeding our fish, but also our corals, mollusks, arthropods,
echinoderms, annelids, and a wide range of other inhabitants. Because of
this, a better term like “Reef Foods” or “Feeding a Reef” should be used.
Common ingredients I would
suggest for making “Reef Food.” I mix up my recipes all the time
based upon what I have. So these should serve as general guidelines.
focuses on using marine meat products as the basics for coral food. This is
under the assumptions that natural conditions provide marine meats as the food
source for corals. The fish food section of this recipe focuses on a wide range
of meat and vegetative items that are also assumed to be the staples of reef
fish natural diets. Remember, whatever food you add to your tank will be feeding
everything in your tank.
[Editors note: To minimize the
nutritional degradation caused by repeated thawing and freezing of food items,
use fresh products when possible, and keep previously frozen foods as close to
freezing as possible.]
Begin by chopping up halibut, cod, shrimp, oysters, squid, krill, and
silversides. A blender or food processor is of great help here. The
seafood should be chopped up into large pieces. What I mean by
“large” is that the items are still identifiable, around ½” long
(about half the size of an individual frozen krill). Set aside a
small amount of this food. That food you are setting aside is done!
It is a great food for anemones and large polyp corals that can be
Next, we take another portion of this food out (around ¼ of what is left)
and we blend it down to a much smaller slurry. This food, which is now
done, makes great filter feeder, and general coral food. It, of course,
would also serve as a great fish food, but we’re getting to that later.
Now, we have already made our coral foods, so we take the remainder of
our mix, and we begin making the fish food. We take that mix, and
add to it: flake food, brine shrimp, krill, blood worms, and all the
packaged frozen foods. Once again we blend this up (your choice of
how much blending) and we now have a meat based fish food. I like to
keep some of this food separate for feeding my more aggressive and
done! For the next step, we take the remainder of the food mix and we
add to it: spirulina, nori, sponge, and some liquid phytoplankton. Once
blended up, this will become our herbivore/omnivore food. You can weigh
out the food mix and the vegetative matters prior to mixing, and get a
percentage of vegetable matter in the final product. I usually don’t do
this, because at that time my hands are slimy and I’m stinky, and I just
want to finish. However, I would say that ideally, I would like 40% of
my final herbivore fish food to be of vegetable origin.
The final step is to get the consistency you want and to add the final
additives you want. For consistency, I add liquid phytoplankton (if the
food is too thick), or add gelatin if the food is too thin. Consistency
and additives are described below. Of course the only thing left to do
is to place the foods in small Ziploc style bags, or ice cube trays, and
freeze the food for future use.
The recipe presented here intentionally left out all additives. The reason for
this is because I would like to specifically address this issue separately.
I DO add additives, primarily Zoe/Selco, to my foods. Note that Adam’s
(2003), Fenner’s (1998), and Borneman’s (2001) all include the usage of
multivitamins in their mixes.
Not just for repelling
vampires, garlic is thought to have anti-parasitic properties and it is
an important additive to homemade foods.
Additionally, I do also add liquid garlic extract to my fish foods .
Hobbyists have widely reported the benefits of garlic as a cure/preventative
for many diseases including marine ich. My personal observation has me
believing that garlic is in fact close to a “miracle cure” for many
situations. I do add this garlic to the food mix after I have made the coral
food, because after personal communication with Jake Pehrson (owner of
CoralPlanet.com) we concluded that the effects of garlic on corals is
not well known or witnessed. Therefore, better safe than sorry.
Additional additives of amino acids may provide greater feeding responses in
corals. Amino acid supplements from nutritional stores are now making their
way into aquarium foods. The amino acids with the most potential appear to
be those that induce feeding responses in nature like praline, glycine, and
glutathione (Borneman 2001). Adding these amino acids to the water, or to
the coral food, may increase polyp extension prey capture. They are also
very useful to corals because they are building blocks for larger molecules,
and many corals are unable to synthesize their own amino acids.
Binding agents can also be of use in making homemade foods. Some recipes call
for a packet of gelatin (Fenner 1998) to hold the food mix together.
Certainly many commercially available frozen aquarium foods use gelatin. The
key to this is to know if you want your food bound or not. Many coral lovers
don’t want their food to stick together, as they want very small particles
for filter feeding corals. Aquarists with large aggressive fish may want the
opposite, as they don’t want small food particles that do get eaten and will
eventually break down in the tank.
Odd additions to food sources are out there, and their effects are unknown.
For example, I have a friend who claims that the reason his reef tank is so
successful is because he adds a can of Fresca to the tank every month. My
mom always told me the key to a good recipe is to add a little celery salt.
And I know from personal experience that my fish like chicken. In other
words, there is a lot of other stuff you can add to your food, but it is
probably not necessary.
Finally, I would like to mention the addition of color pigments. It is
believed that by adding colorful pigments to coral food (and fish food for
that matter) you can increase the coloration of the animal. This intuitively
makes sense. We’ve all done the experiment in elementary school where you
put a stalk of celery in water with dark food coloring. A few days later you
can see that coloring in the stalk and in the leaves of the celery. It
therefore makes sense to think that high coloration in foods can create more
colorful animals, although not necessarily healthier animals. With this in
mind some people may want to add highly colorful items such as eggplant,
tamarillo, or kale to their food mixes (Borneman 2001).
Move over Iron Chefs. Hide your
blenders, Adam Blundell is in the house!
There are many fish and coral food recipes available. We should be terming
those “Reef Foods” or “Aquarium Foods,” since the food is feeding a plethora
of organisms. While we don’t know the effects of all additives and
nutrients, much variety and experimentation will lead to healthier animals.
Finally, all recipes are really guidelines. It is important to understand
the purpose of the ingredients and not just the proportions of them. For
further reading please consult the references listed below.
“The real trick is in making sure that each specimen gets what it needs”
(Fenner 1998, pg 142).
Borneman, E., Aquarium Corals Selection,
Husbandry, and Natural History. New Jersey: T.F.H. Publications, 2001.
Fenner, R., The Conscientious Marine Aquarist, New Jersey: T.F.H.
Mojetta, A., The Encyclopedia of Aquarium Fish, Translation by
Mondadori A., and Gilbert J., New York: Barnes & Nobles, Inc., 1993.