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Being a Conscientious Aquarist:
It's Worth More Than You Think!

Jennifer Smith, A.S., B.S.N, M.S.B.

"Protect your wallet AND the ocean, young Padawan.."

In these days of political correctness, it can be hard to separate out the "right" thing to do from the easiest, cheapest or most popular thing. More often than not, choosing the right thing to do also means you must forego some instant gratification (or financial gain) in order to feel as though you are still morally sound. For example: the instant tasty gratification of McDonalds versus going home and cooking a healthy meal for the entire family an hour later. Sometimes in the aquarium hobby, those rare situations present themselves where the right thing to do is not only right for the health of the environment and animals, but is also right for the health of your wallet. Read the rest of this article if saving money while helping ensure the ocean’s spoils are around for your children appeals to you.

There are two integral parts to being a great hobbyist versus just a good hobbyist. Neither has to do with owning the best toys, or the first strain of Bobo’s Electric Polyps ever seen in the home hobbyist market. The first part of being a great hobbyist is understanding how what one chooses to buy affects the ocean and will be the subject of this article. A ‘good’ hobbyist can keep his impulse buy alive after researching it when he gets home, while a great hobbyist will always research purchases before making them. Granted, the  temptation of that huge colony of neon blue zoanthids at your local fish store may be hard to resist, but what are the consequences of buying now and asking questions later? The unfortunate answer is that the animal may die and you will have paid quite a bit of money for a piece of live rock.

Wild Caught Versus Aquacultured Livestock

Saltwater denizens are some of the most beautiful and inherently cool-looking animals on the planet. Brightly colored, streamlined bodies paired with the drape and flow of sail like fins are very relaxing to watch glide through the deeps and shallows of the ocean. Issues like global warming, human encroachment, resource depletion, and pollution make life even in the ocean shallows increasingly difficult for its natural citizens. When we buy from suppliers who use wild caught instead of aquacultured livestock, we multiply the survival problems of the livestock and dramatically decrease the percentage of long term survivorship. How many old fish have you ever seen in aquaria outside of educational or public facilities? The reality is that almost all imported fish die in home aquaria due to ‘operator error’.


When sunlight hits water, it penetrates to varying depths according to spectrum and intensity of the light. Fish, and corals especially, grow accustomed to this and spend their lives in areas that correspond to their biological needs. Shallow water corals live in areas with great penetration of light on order to allow photosynthesizing by their zooxanthellae, etc. Deep waters give homes to corals with less need for light, and more need for resources such as phytoplankton or other meaty food sources. As corals are harvested (and live rock), light begins to strike places it never reached before, and inhabitants shift.

The fish who live in deeper waters have an increased need to find caves, crevices, and other defensible positions that allow them to feel safe. Imagine, for a moment being caught in a net. You would go into a cooler for a short time, and then into a holding area and shipped a few times from wholesaler to distribution center, to retailer, to the home aquarist if lucky. If unlucky, you might get a few extra short term homes. Most of these places with have different depths, different light set ups, and different new inhabitants to protect yourself from and check out. Which brings me to…


In my opinion, the number one killer of imported fish. The more a fish or coral is forced to adapt to consistently changing surroundings, the more tired it gets of adapting. What worked in one tank, may not be a plus in another tank. I imagine sometimes, that wild caught marine fish are subject to shipping "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder"… they will never again feel as at home in a locale as they did in their original ocean home prior to the trauma of being caught. Plus, some chemicals are fat versus water-soluble, meaning every time a fish goes from one holding tank to another, it builds up certain toxicities, predisposing it to disastrous results in tanks where “all the other fish were doing fine!”.

Also, in their natural habitat, fish and corals are used to one set of aggressors, environmental parameters, etc. In home aquaria, the differences are wide-ranging and are many times, the aquarium is not set up for the new addition in terms of rock structures, substrate composition, or other paramount needs in the eyes of the fish. Stable water parameters are common if you look on online forums where people post problems, but isn’t it odd that everyone has that one thing that just won’t live in their tank? We only test for a few common bad guys- the actual chemical composition of the water is made up of LOTS of different trace elements and chemicals… Most of which we don’t test for. This makes A LOT of sense to me when I discuss various success and disasters with other hobbyists like myself. Wild caught zoanthids seem to be one of those corals that should be ‘low maintenance’ but wind up just melting away for no reason next to established aquacultured varieties. The difference? The aquacultured varieties were the survivors of previous shipments of wild Zoanthids that ‘made it’ and established themselves in the ‘new world’ they found themselves in. Take 1000 established adults from your home state, and move them to Japan. How many will be able to establish themselves? A percentage will do fine, but many would fail and hopefully would go back home if possible. In your tank, there is no going home, and death is the realistic alternative. What use is being the first owner in your local of beautiful blue or purple wild caught Zoanthids, if they don’t make it due to stress of removal from the ocean to your tank.

Not being able to hide is a huge stress on a new addition who is unsure of its new tank mates. Can you imagine swimming cautiously around a new tank, looking for the natural predation that exists in the wild where you were raised, and having no where in sight to hide?

Preplanning Tank Mates

Ok, so we were in the tank, looking for natural predation we recognize from our upbringing. Think in terms of a country mouse in the city! Fish that were not from the same areas of the world will likely be housed in the same tank in home aquaria, making everything that a fish knows about predation potentially incorrect. What might hurt you in the country is VERY different than what might hurt you in the city! So while we are looking for the predation we knew before, a new unrecognized predator that our owner didn’t research before buying us might be just… behind… that rock!! If I had a nickel for every hobbyist I overheard saying, “Man, that fish didn’t even know what hit him!”, well, I wouldn’t be writing this article. <grin>

Sometimes, predation is not even the issue with tank mates, as much as it is fighting over real estate. In the ocean, there is lots of water for dilution of toxic chemicals released to back another encroaching coral away. However, in your "home away from home" for Nemo, this is not true. Ocean currents are not going to waft away any such thing… instead, your powerheads are going to recirculate it so that it increases in toxicity over time, and touches every single citizen of your tank until your next water change. If, that is, you are a great hobbyist and do it on time. Every time. Sound familiar? Simple research prior to buying really will save your wallet TONS of money that would look great as other equipment for your tank, or shucks- another new tank!

Feeding is another great concern in the reef. I had a friend who was very proud of his collection of Starfish, and was out one day to buy a new shrimp when his Sexy Shrimp disappeared. Imagine his surprise when, the day after he brought home a new cool purple and white shrimp, he caught the new guy eating the feet off one of his prize starfish. While humorous, a great hobbyist always does his research before buying a cool looking new guy for the sole protection that its natural food source does not include other expensive denizens of your tank. Another great example is the Nudibranch, sold in many local fish stores as ‘Assorted’; and whom many varieties of eat corals and are generally toxic to tanks while ultimately beautiful to look at. Is it really a coincidence that assorted beings with the same first few letters of ‘assume’? And we ALL know by know how to break THAT word down.

Every time I go into a local fish store, I see Mandarins. The poor Dragonets many times are already starving in the store display, where many times there are no copepods, and no live rock really to speak of. Given their death rate, why do they continue to be imported? Well, because one guy got lucky with one dragonet who happened to try frozen mysis out of desperation… so everyone tries to get one like his, starving all they buy until, (maybe) they get lucky fifty mandarins later. Hmm, if you originally asked that aquarist if he wanted, say three 250 watt metal halides with 20k bulbs versus 49 dead mandarins, lots of frustration, and one who lived…? The rest of the buyers simply never do the research and have “no idea why” Dragonets “always seem to die” in their tanks. I’m not really sure which is worse.

Finite Resources and Natural Decline

Having discussed the more common methods of demise for wild-caught fish and coral, I would like to point out again that most, if not ultimately all, do not make it long term. However, the public demand for them is monstrous and never ending, especially in America and Asia. If we continue to kill them at home in the current ever growing numbers that we do, they will ultimately disappear. Some already have, as humans take to the depths to collect them and ruin natural habitats. We see the immediate effects of depletion of oil in our gas prices, but my personal fear is that we will not experience the effects of resource depletion with marine life until it is way past being too late.

Ask your local fish stores if they buy from  wholesalers and distributors who deal with aquacultured livestock. Research before you buy your livestock, and set your tank up accordingly to ensure the long term success of your animals. Your wallet will thank you for it, and so will all marine life.


Reef Systems on WWM

An Introduction to Reef Systems: What is a Reef : Aquarium, Filtration, Lighting, Livestock... & FAQs,

   Reef System Set-Up, Reef Ramblings, A Philosophy of Sorts, on All Things Reef by Tim Hayes, Are You Too Close to the Sun, Wind & Rain? Being a Conscientious Aquarist, pt. deux. By Laurie Smith & FAQs, FAQs 2FAQs 3FAQs 4FAQs 5FAQs 6, FAQs on: Reef Tank Setups, Reef Setups 2, Reef Set-Up 3, Reef Set-Up 4, Reef Set-Up 5, Reef Set-Up 6, Reef Set-Up 7, Reef Systems 3, Reef Systems 4, Reef Systems 5, Reef Substrates, Reef LightingReef Lighting 2Lighting Marine Inverts 1, Lighting Marine Inverts 2, Lighting Marine Inverts 3, Lighting Marine Inverts 4, Metal Halides for 40-200 gal. Systems, MH for 200 gal. Plus Systems, Acclimating Symbiotic Reef Invertebrates to Captive Lighting, Article on Reef Filtration, & FAQs on Reef Filtration, Reef Filtration 2, & Reef LivestockingReef Livestocking 2, Reef Livestocking 3, Reef Livestocking 4, Reef Livestocking 5, Reef Feeding, Reef Disease, Reef Maintenance, Reef Maintenance FAQs 2, FAQs 3FAQs 4FAQs 5FAQs 6FAQs 7FAQs 8FAQs 9FAQs 10FAQs 11, FAQs 12, FAQs13, FAQs 14, FAQs 15, Reef Op. 16, Reef Op. 17, Reef Op. 18,

    The ZEOvit System: A New Concept in Reefkeeping by Alexander Girz,

  Small Marine Systems, Nano Reef Systems by Adam Jackson, Tom Walsh's Small Reefs, Related FAQs: Small Marine Systems 1, Small Marine Systems 2, Small Marine Systems 3Small Marine Systems 4, Small Marine Systems 5, Small Marine Systems 6, Small Marine Systems 7, Small Tanks, Small System Lighting, Small Marine System Lighting 2, Metal Halides for Small Systems, Small System Filtration, Skimmers for Small Systems, Small System Stocking, Small Marine System Livestocking 2, Small Marine System Stocking 3, Small Marine Stocking 4, Small System Maintenance, Maintaining Small Systems 2, Maintaining Small Systems 3, Small System Disease, Tom Walsh Systems,       


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