The Art Of Fishkeeping

Focusing on the basics of fishkeeping.

Ember Tetra (Hyphessobrycon amandae. Via Dawn Endico/Flickr

A few years ago I was fortunate to visit the fish room/garage of a serious breeder in Brampton, Ontario. His system of water preparation was impressive, not only because of the obvious success in breeding everything but also the complex mechanics and controls of the water-processing equipment. Driving home, this thought occurred to me: “Why can’t I do what I’ve just seen?” The answer: I’m not an engineer, and I’m not all that good as a plumber. I wasn’t smart enough (see title).

Sixty years ago, my father, convinced that the stale air accumulating in my parents’ bedroom overnight wasn’t “good,” designed and built a trap door and fan mechanism that exhausted the “bad” air at 3 a.m. into the ceiling. I can’t do that either.

Discovering New Avenues

Fishkeepers regularly visit someone’s house, or in the case of this traveling fish man, someone’s fish room and are left with the thought: “Why didn’t I think of that?” Well, maybe we aren’t smart or observant enough. Perhaps our natures don’t include problem solving. But whether what catches our eyes is labor saving, merely attractive or involves a scientific advance, it is certainly desirable and worthwhile. However, to take that next step requires some knowledge (see title).

By now you have recognized this as my annual effort to induce you to get better at the art of fishkeeping. Even the simple notion on my part to determine if red-tail sharks — which hate each other — more than sight was involved in their aggression. This required a basic sense of water movement and equipment.

I put a 3-inch specimen in each of two 15-gallon aquariums side by side on my two-by-four rack. A piece of black paper between them eliminated the sight aspect. An outside filter drew water from one aquarium, but with a long tube discharged it into the second. A U-shaped tube connected the two tanks to maintain balance. When the filter was running, the flow through the connector tube back into the tank from which the filter was drawing caused visible agitation on the part of the shark in it. Voila! Pheromones, the chemical signals at work, were responsible for this aggression.

Get Sharp

Sometimes we just aren’t curious or observant enough. Sometimes we’re dumb. I have a well-planted 55 in my basement, which is (was?) stunning. Primarily sword plants with runners and flowers, various angels, congo tetras, bush-mouth plecos, a flying fox and one black tetra, etc. finished the picture. Beautiful!

It is probably the only one of my 20-plus tanks that you’d allow in your family room. Most are working tanks. I was given a state-of-the-art hood with four special bulbs and fans and replaced the two-bulb unit with it. I am now fighting a battle with a colloidal suspension of pea soup algae. Oh, it’s healthy, but unsightly. Did I mention dumb?

Allow me a brief digression. Discover magazine did an assay of its readership to identify the funniest joke, ever. From all the submissions Discover received, the following won: Sherlock Holmes and Watson went camping. In the middle of the night Holmes wakes Watson and tells him, “Look up and tell me what you observe.” Watson finally offered, “I see millions of stars. With their associated systems and planets the probability that another race as advanced as ours exists is very high. How’s that?” Holmes said, “You dummy. Someone stole our tent!”

What is obvious to you might escape me completely. “Obvious” is subjective. It is a matter of education, background, common sense and focus. I had the opportunity to speak to two quite diverse groups. One was the seventh grade class at St. Luke School. The other was Bob Chitester’s board of directors. Chitester was the producer/director of the Guppies to Groupers series.

I presented this: A man hits the best golf shot of his life and when he catches up to it he sees that it has rolled into a paper bag. Not wanting to lose a stroke what should he do? No answers from the kids or the erudite. However, when told that this was not a golf problem, but rather one of what you do with paper you need to get rid of, hands went up immediately. Focus!

Tough It Out

Problem solving requires wherewithal (see title). If you want to get better at aquariumkeeping, you must do your homework. You can’t adapt a sump to your filter without knowing that _ _ _ _. You can’t get plants to thrive without knowing that _ _ _ _. You’ll never breed your _ _ _ _ until you discover that _ _ _ _.

All those spaces are waiting for you. You must read, google to find an answer, visit a good pet shop or aquarium society. One of the greatest labor-saving devices in the hobby is Python’s system of hoses and switches that make water changes so easy. I wonder what was behind the idea. Would you or I ever have come up with that idea? We know why not. It’s time to take a step in the right direction.

If this has you thinking, perhaps in the same way as a New Year’s resolution, you will need focus to complete your tasks. Because of the sophistication of the hobby in the scientific vein you might pick one discipline. Mind you, new adventures of this sort have a common stumbling block. They have a language peculiar to their subject matter. Some of my thoughts on a selection of such follows.

New Terms and Ideas

Learn about water quality. Get beyond your current approach of saying, “There. I made a water change. Please live another day.” You might even understand why pH is expressed as a negative reciprocal of the logarithm of the hydrogen ion content. Learn about live plants. Find out about their needs that you never considered, such as trace elements and water changes. Lighting is a study of its own in aquatic botany.

Learn about nutrition. Find out why trout pellets are a terrible aquarium food and why lipids, which are perfect food (in terms of not being an insult to the water quality), are limited in flake foods. Learn about metabolism.

Learn about the arithmetic of the hobby. Temperature and volume conversion between the two systems are common. Understand density and/or specific gravity. Take into consideration volume, weight and area constants. Understand power consumption and its effect on your electric bill.

Consider photography. Almost everyone has a digital camera, which makes this easy. Consider submitting an article about some facet of your hobby. Words and photos make Freshwater And Marine Aquarium magazine what it is. Don’t worry about writing — that’s what editors are for. Do it anyway.

Consider one of my favorites: scientific nomenclature. Look at those names. The roots come from many elements of our language. One of my favorite memories is speaking at one of the Marine Aquarium Conference of North America conventions years ago to a sophisticated group about the topic. I can picture the sight of a group of them standing around Sea World’s main show tank and dissecting the name of the harlequin filefish they were watching. Oxymonacanthus longirostris became “sharp-one-spine/long-snout” under their combined efforts. The genus refers to the single predorsal spine.

When speaking to eighth graders about fish I always include a /h2 message to never skip past a new word. Look it up. When I discovered a girl who had adopted this simple step forward I went to the school to pat her on the back. She extended her palms. Written on hers with magic marker were two words to look up. Try this exercise if you do nothing else. You can’t start ‘til you start. But it is like losing weight. There is no reward tomorrow.

And finally, keep a log and check the title.

‘Til next time.

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