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/The Conscientious Marine Aquarist

Nutrition; Foods & Feeding for Marine Aquarists

By Bob Fenner

Mix and match your dried foods

DIY fish foods are not that hard to make... and the cost can be markedly less... but, oh, the clean up! Here's a friend (who shall go nameless less his wife find out!) making some Sankey mix at home... Careful with that Nori algae Tom! Oops! Almost done! All the squid (cleaned) and scallops (yum!), shrimp (whole with shells this time) and algae have been chopped and ground... now to fill those freezer bags and lay them down flat... What a bargain!

Captive aquatic animals in the way of fishes and most invertebrates have remarkably similar nutritional requirements as ourselves. At the atomic and molecular levels the same few fats and carbohydrates, ten (maybe eleven) amino acids (the "building blocks" of proteins), vitamins, minerals, "trace elements", and water. The same as humans, most can make other necessary materials (e.g. other amino acids) and must derive others from outside sources (e.g. vitamin C). Also, like "po" folk, if they are offered too much of the "right" and/or "wrong" things, there is the possibility of lack of or mal- nutrition, poor developmental histories, nutritional disease (deviation from a "normal" or healthy state) and enhanced susceptibility to other co-stress factors.

Basically, our job as aquarists in the way of nutrition is the appropriate presentation of a suitable mix of food items, in an adequate format at a workable interval of enough of what it takes bio-chemically to make our stock do what we want it to do (e.g. stay alive, reproduce, grow, color up...). Just like your own nutrition, too much deviation from the way it's supposed to be results in undesirable attributes; irritability, poor health, sterility, death.

One can be endlessly bothered by the minutiae of what accounts for "fish nutrition" articles, even books. These pour and bore on endlessly as to "the function" of one bio-active substance after another; with little enlightenment as to what a mere mortal without a PhD and lab might/should/must do. This short Section is intended to offer some (all that's needed?) background and quiet the nerves of the earnest pet-fish type foods & feeding wise.

"Natural Foods:"

One of my favorite misused/mis-useable nouns and adverbs. What is "natural" versus not or un-natural? Is vitamin C extracted from rose hips any different or better than vitamin C from other sources? Of course (!) not. The molecule is the same, identical, exact; with the same "activity", essence, "aura", bio-chemical consequence. My advice, buy the quantity at the best price and forget about "the source".

If by natural, live is implied, allow me to present my opinions pro and con:

First of All the Negative:

1) Live foods are relatively more expensive per unit nutrition, due to the vagaries and costs associated with capture, transport, maintenance and service. Is serving you a live/right-then-freshly-killed chicken more nutritious than one that has been commercially "dressed"/prepared? Why not? Think!

2) Live foods pose more of the possibility (than other formats) of introduction of pests, parasites, infectious disease and pollutants. As per human foodstuffs, of the known toxicants, the most virulent are "naturally" occurring (like botulism).

Obviously, there are techniques for minimizing these risks; using marine foodstuffs for freshwater and vice versa, rinsing before use (e.g. brine shrimp), quarantining the food... And once again, these add directly to cost.

3) Live foods are inconvenient. How many marriages have been rocked by live worms, feeders, crickets et al.? More than I would care to admit, being in the industry.

4) Live foods incite and intensify "predacious" behavior in a system. Though I am not readily able to cite a scientific source for this, feeding live foods makes animals "meaner" (more agonistic for you ethologist types). I could drone on with numerous anecdotal evidence of same, but for now I'll spare you.

& Now the "Pro" Argument:

1) It's more "natural" for aquatic life to be infected, your systems to be infested, the fishes and invertebrates to be aggressive.

2) Maybe you enjoy spending my money and days at the aquatics stores buying feeders, shrimp... Or culturing same.

3) For folks who lack a sense of self-importance (power?); other than driving like knuckleheads, this gives them that certain sense of satisfaction. "I'm in charge of this live food".

4) Lastly, and perhaps my only valid argument for live foods; some "varieties" of livestock do poorly initially (or not at all) in captivity without their meals live and kicking. Most all these species may be trained to accept prepared foods, others should not be kept. Your conscience will be your guide, along with your pocket book.

The flat out "truth" of the matter is the livestock we keep in artificial marine systems are for the most part trainable and would do "better" nutritionally fed a "prepared" diet. It's cheaper, safer, more nutritious, more convenient... For the same reasons we feed ourselves and our companion animals (doggies and kitties) pre-prepared foods. There is nothing wrong with them! So, let's get on with this story:

Prepared Foods:

Foods of all types of formats; flake, frozen, dried in a few ways, gelatinized, irradiated, pelletized... are/can be completely (this is a scientific term) nutritious.

Flake/Pelletized: Flake/Pelletized: are amongst the most popular formats. These foods are readily accepted by most species maintained, easy to store and use, less-fouling (never not, let's be honest), "harder" to over-feed, and do the job in all ways nutrition-wise. They come in softer to harder, crumbly to crusty, flatter and fatter, colorful and not, ways.

A few words concerning "freshness" as a function of palatability and nutritious-ness. The legitimate manufacturers (e.g. Tetra, Sera, Aquarian, O.S.I. et al.) go to amazing lengths to compose, prepare, package and other ways assure the quality of their products. Do not thwart their efforts! Buy what you can use in a few weeks to a few months and store it as they suggest.

Don't be stupid! Don't be stupid! Don't waste your time/money/fish's health on "re-packaged", "bulk", or "refills". How many times do I have to re-state the reasons? Would you eat nothing but a box of breakfast cereal that purports to be "wholesome" & "completely nutritious" that had been sitting around, exposed to the air, light, bugs, etc. for who knows how long?

Check it out, I've been there: Commercially prepared foods are packed with "shaker" mechanisms and often in a "high" nitrogen environment to prevent oxidation of nutrients (mainly fats and proteins) through exposure to the atmosphere. Just spill out the contents of a new canister. Smell it; try to get it all to fit back in the can. You can't.

It's packed in this way for good reasons. Don't buy "re-packaged" fish food and tell me you're an aquarist; you're a fish killer! Okay; hey thanks for letting me get that off my chest.

Frozen Foods

Are great! Though perhaps not as convenient as dried types, they are available in a myriad of types, sizes and formats, appear more palatable to some stock, and are bargains compared to many strictly "fresh" foods. If/where processed properly, frozen foods are just as nutritious as fresh.

Cubes, "packs" of single species (e.g. Brine shrimp, krill) or blends (like homemade "mixes", commercial "formula"s) are the present epitome of attempts at complete nutrition in an appealing format to aquatics and their owners.

Some writers advocate defrosting frozen foods before introducing them into the system, some even rinsing; I have yet to experience/observe ill effects from just "sticking it in". For ease of dissemination and perhaps avoiding a cold "tummy ache", frozen foods might be better off broken up through setting in a container of system water and squirted through a feeder, or poured in.

"Dried" Foods:

Made through air, sun, lypholization ("freeze-drying"), are an appropriate means to the ends of getting nutritives to your organisms in a "pretty" format except for one consideration: they are inordinately expensive for what you're getting. Check out the equivalent price per ounce, let alone pound. You will be shocked. If you have a freezer available (!?) you'd be better off fiscally using frozen.

Some argument can be made for viable food value loss...but the economics should be enough to convince most folks that this method is generally more expensive than the trouble of other formats use will warrant.

"Green Foods":

Semi-fresh, dried, flake, pelletized or otherwise are oftentimes touted as necessary/recommended for certain species. Some have little nutritional value (other than vitamin and mineral content), the worst sources do render at least "roughage" and "give the critters something to do". One of my optimal sources is the dried algaes (noritake, kombu among others) available through the "oriental" food sections/outlets. Canned, cooked okra, zucchini and the like are fine except for the build up of oxalic acid (in the long haul). Lettuce of different types and other green-leafys are probably best considered "filler". "Fortified" prepared green foods in the trade are good for their fortification and fiber/ash content.

My favorite advice as usual; grow your own. Do have some algal material, "live rock"... available for the occasional, casual munch by your stock. This technique yields many benefits; amelioration of the environment, reduction of aggression, reduction of metabolites...

Vitamins, Additives & "Trace" materials.

Where do you get yours from? Not the tap water, beer or even real good wines; from the foods you take in. This is the case for all but autotrophic marine organisms (bacteria, funguses, strictly photosynthetic <algae> life). This is the big emphasis on utilizing nutritious foods. Not sure you're offering an adequate mix? Maybe you should use XYZ additives; on your livestock and yourself.


Over the range of species, sizes, even individual variation in such massive groups of organisms as marine fishes and invertebrates it may seem hard to make useful generalizations; but here goes.

Know your livestock and system. 

What do they eat in the wild? What have they been eating in captivity? What are the consequences of varying temperature, lighting, other aspects of water quality on their desire to ingest, ability to digest, utilize and egest (excrete through diffusion, gills, urine, feces) any of the given/offered foodstuffs? Know your livestock and system. What do they eat in the wild? What have they been eating in captivity? What are the consequences of varying temperature, lighting, other aspects of water quality on their desire to ingest, ability to digest, utilize and egest (excrete through diffusion, gills, urine, feces) any of the given/offered foodstuffs?

For instance, it turns out that more frequent feeding of higher (concentration) protein foods in greater total quantity does shorten the life span of cultured marine organisms.

Is the enhanced growth worth this trade-off?

Feeding more frequently, smaller amounts is good safe advice; never to where food lays about and rots. The practice of underfeeding your livestock is not really a problem. As you might guess, this is probably a situation they run into in "the wild".

My last pitch about over-versus-under feeding, underfeed. When you go on vacation (what's that?) hide your foods! Throwing them away would be better, all incidents considered, than entrusting insolent youth or worthy neighbors. Unless you're gone for weeks, and in some cases, even if you are gone for weeks, you and your livestock would be better off nibbling on the rocks, gravel, each other then counting on other's not to over/mis-feed.

Some (electrical, mechanical) automatic feeders are to be lauded, the "in-the-tank blocks" are at best a feeding placebo and at worst a melting chalk buffer-gravel clogger. Try putting one in your mouth! Yuck! I'd rather eat or use chalk.


What is nutrition? The ready assimilation of a mix of blah blah blah. How much is enough, how often, how?

Just what is meant by "protein content"? Proteins are made up of smaller building blocks called amino acids, which in turn denote specific arrangements of carbon and hydrogen skeletons, an amino group (nitrogen and hydrogen), a carboxylic acid group (COOH), and in two types, sulfur. Some sources of amino acids are more "animal" abundant (tryptophan, lyseine, threonine) and therefore more "expensive" as a function of food "web", "pyramid" efficiency. So simple protein content without some description of source or amino-acid mix is ludicrous.

What about caloric counts? Calories are a measure of "heat content", the capacity to raise the temperature...through oxidation (burning, if you will). What does this have to do with nutrition? Gasoline for internal combustion engines has lots of caloric value. Don't try feeding it to yourself or your fishes.

Become a conscientious consumer. Pay for what you're buying! All foods are not alike. Some are sold or repackaged illegally that have been exposed to the air; ridiculous.

Ho boy. Let's see; oh yes: Along with genetic potential, developmental history, chemical/physical/social suitability of the environment, presence and degree of infectiousness of disease-causing organisms, foods and feeding rank right up there as determinants of your livestocks' vitality. Know what you're doing nutritionally and...do it!

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Anon. 1979. Disease prevention and control; a considerable amount of speculation has existed concerning the possibility that brine shrimp, Artemia salina, fed as a live food, is also the carrier of disease organisms. Potential disease pathogens of both fresh water and marine fishes have now been definitely isolated from commercial brine shrimp egg packages. FAMA 10/79.

Anderson, Frank G. 1992. Food for beginners. FAMA 9/92.

Betros-Seligson, Sherri. 1990. Feeding in the major leagues; techniques used by public aquarium keepers in constructing marine fishes' diets. FAMA 3/90.

Blasiola, George. 1983 Maintaining Good Fish Health Through Proper Nutrition. FAMA March 1983.

Blasiola, George C. 1993. Feeding marine fish; varied diets tailored to specific needs ensure good health and longevity. Pet Age 12/93.

Borsom, Michael E. 1978. On foods and feeding for the marine aquarium. FAMA 4/78.

Brousseau, Richard. 1992. A treatise on marine fish nutrition. FAMA 1/92.

Duerr, Christine. 1982. Brine shrimp: forgettable but noteworthy. TFH 12/82.

Dempster, Robert P. 1954. The use of larval and adult brine shrimp in aquarium fish culture. TFH 2(4):54.

Dewey, Don. 1979. Brine shrimp, parts 1-3. FAMA 4-6/79.

Dulin, Mark P. 1979. Tropical fish nutrition. TFH 3/79.

Emmens, C.W. 1985. Aquaristics in perspective, part 5; foods for fishes. FAMA 10/85.

Engasser, A. 1976. The gelatin diet (make your own). Marine Aquarist 7(1):76.

Flood, A. Colin. 1992. Better by the bottle; liquid foods in the miniature reef. FAMA 7/92.

Ford, David M. 1981. Fish nutrition. part 1-3. FAMA 1-3/81.

Giwojna, Pete. 1989. Feeding butterflyfish. SeaScope Fall 89.

Glodek, Garrett. 1990. Wash your hands before dimmer (your fishes' dinner, that is). FAMA 12/90.

Halver, J.E. 1972. Fish Nutrition. Academic Press. NY.

Kloth, Thomas. 1979. Live food for the marine aquarium. FAMA 3/79.

Kloth, Thomas. 1979. Plankton... what is it? Kloth's Korner 12/79.

Lamm, Darrell R. 1988. Culturing copepods: a food for marine fish larvae. FAMA 10/88.

LePage, Paul. 1974. Feeding marines. Marine Aquarist 5(2):74.

Montgomery, Bill. 1989. Nutrition in the reef aquarium. FAMA 10/89.

Paletta, Michael. 1990. Reef invertebrate feeding. SeaScope Volume 7 Summer 90.

Pishvai, Emran. 1990. Simply fish health; the nutrition of your fish(es), parts 1-6. FAMA 2-7/90.

Shute, J.R. & John Tullock. 1995. Fish food basics. TFH 2/95.

Spotte, Stephen H. 1972. Use of live food. Marine Aquarist 3(1):72.

Stansbury, L.E. 1979. Fish nutrition and foods. FAMA 4/79.

Taylor, Edward C. 1995. Live foods for fish- a new revolution, parts 1,2. Pet Business 2,3/95

Teh, Anthony Y.F. 1972. Feeding marine fishes. Marine Aquarist 3(5):72.

Tekavic, Joseph P. & Edward J. Bronikowski. 1977. Feeding techniques. Marine Aquarist 7(8):77.

Turk, Christopher T. 1988. Marine fish nutrition, parts 1,2. TFH 7,8/88.

Turk, Chris, & Devin Bartley. 1989. Marine fish and invertebrate nutrition, parts 1-5. FAMA 6-9/89, 1,2/91.

Volkart, Bill. 1991. Build a brine shrimp pond. FAMA 2/91.

Volkart, Bill. 1991. Live food; marine fishes: the fussiest eaters. FAMA 12/91.

Weingarten, Robert A. 1993. Culturing appropriate food organisms for newly hatched larval fish and invertebrates, parts 1-3. FAMA 10-12/93.


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