Ramblings from an Old Reefer

by | Mar 17, 2015 | 1 comment

By Paul Baldassano

Underwater in the Grand Caymans. Photo by Richard Natoli.

Underwater in the Grand Caymans. Photo by Richard Natoli.

If you are involved in any hobby, past time, or job long enough, you can easily become bored. In time, reefing, even with all of it’s controversial wisdom concerning substrates, lighting, additives, foods, and water treatments can also become boring which is in my opinion the main reason why so many people leave the hobby after a few short years. This is a shame because some of the animals we keep can out live even us if properly cared for.

I have had fish since the fifties, (the early fifties I hate to say) and I have not become bored quite yet. When I find myself looking at my tank and dozing off, I know it’s time to shake things up a little. Unfortunately, sometimes my shaking up things does not make my fish any happier; but they get used to it.

Every five or six years I remove the rocks and corals just for the fun of it. I am really curious as to what is going on under there. I also want to re-aquascape for my own benefit. Again, the fish give me very dirty looks when I get in those moods.

I also am never happy with the current methods of doing things and am always looking to make it better. I have found many ways to do things that you will not see in books or even magazines.

Let’s take hair algae for instance. It is a pet peeve of mine. My tank still gets it from time to time and it really drives me crazy. It is one of the most written about and least understood banes of this hobby. People want to know how to “cure” it immediately.

Well, it can’t be “cured” because it is not a disease. It will also probably always be there as it is a natural part of any reef. In the sea, there are numerous algae predators that attack it in the day and at night there are even more diversified animals eating it. Tangs make up a major part of the life on a reef, and they eat mostly algae. At night, urchins and slugs scrape up what the tangs couldn’t get. That’s why you do not see algae on a reef. If there were no algae growing, you would not have these animals. This works in the sea but not in a tank. Why? Because the sea has an almost unlimited volume of water and most of it is where it is much too dark for algae to grow. In a confined tank, whatever goes into a fish is still in the water. It just comes out of the fish as algae food which makes more algae. You can not use animals in a tank to control algae. They will eat it, but it will come back.

The reason why so many people buy animals to control algae is because someone will say that they added a sea hare, snail, urchin or whatever and all their algae is gone in a week. That is probably true but not because of those creatures. The truth is that the algae disappeared on its own and would have no matter what you added. Algae are self- limiting and will die as soon as it eliminates whatever nutrient it needs. It could be phosphorous, nitrates, iron or a few other things. When the algae dies, it will de-compose and again release these nutrients back into the water but the same algae may not immediately grow. Something else may grow in its place until that exhausts whatever nutrient it needs. This can go on forever, or we may get lucky and not see any algae for a few years. Your clams may be using up the nitrate (doubtful) or your skimmer may be doing an excellent job. Maybe there are no more viable algae cells in your tank to get a culture going. Whatever it is it can come in cycles, and it is not from pollution or phases of the moon. Certain pollutants will make it a very luxuriant algae. It is a natural occurrence. You can not eliminate 100% all of these nutrients. We try but we will fail. It takes very little of these pollutants to grow algae and the symbiotic algae in your corals and clams also need small amounts of these nutrients.

Naturally, we want to limit feeding and vacuum detritus as good normal aquarium maintenance not just for reducing algae but also for the general health of the inhabitants. Unfortunately, if there are animals in the tank, there will be nitrates and carbon dioxide; and if you add almost any food, there will be phosphates. Water changes will dilute these nutrients but can not eliminate them entirely.

NewalgaetrayThere are ways to live with algae. In my case, I built a shallow tray the length of the tank that sits above the water and slightly under the main tank lighting. Water is fed from the skimmer outlet and flows over this tray and back into the tank. There is a plastic window screen in the tray that can be rolled up and removed to clean. The idea is that the algae prefers to grow in the tray because the water is shallow allowing more light to illuminate it, and the water flows fast which is advantageous to algae. The algae are happy to grow there because of the better conditions. I am happy because most of it grows in the tray where I can remove it and very little flourishes in the reef. The small amount of it that grows in the reef will be eaten by all the animals that you bought to control the algae. It doesn’t work 100% but it works enough to make a large difference. A lighted refugium will do the same thing especially if you can get some sort of macro algae to grow there to use up some of the nutrients.

AlgaeIn any case, it lets me expand my involvement in the hobby by trying something a little different. Even if it did not work, who cares? At least I now have the knowledge of what will not work. After all, even failing teaches us something.

Another activity is the collection and use of Natural Sea Water. There is so much negative talk about this that is, in my opinion unwarranted. Yes, I know about pollution, parasites, bacteria, etc.; but all of the animals we buy came from NSW. Okay, so there is one or two clownfish that someone bought that were spawned in artificial sea water but the vast majority come from the sea. If you travel to some of the places where these animals are collected, you will see that many come from areas where there is no sewage treatment and the runoff from the land is far more than some of the coasts that most of us live.

Anyway, the good news is that natural sea water is “usually” safe to use almost no matter where you collect it providing you use some safeguards.

I have been collecting sea water from the Long Island Sound right after it passes through New York City for almost forty years and have never had a parasite or bacterial disease associated from it. If the water doesn’t smell, I just adjust the temperature and salinity, filter it preferably through a diatom filter and dump it in. If I sense a problem like red tide, I add unscented regular bleach. Yes, bleach! I didn’t invent this. It was Robert Straughn, who is considered “The Father of Salt Water Fish Keeping”. Anyway, the dose is one tablespoon of “Regular” Chlorine bleach to five gallons of water.
“Unscented” bleach must be used. After a few days, I add twice the amount of chlorine remover and aerate for a day. There should be no chlorine smell, if there is I filter it through carbon and pour it in. If you don’t use unscented bleach, you will likely kill most if not all of your animals.

If it scares you, try it on a damsel for a few days. No, I don’t want you to kill the little damsel. He will be fine. I have been doing it since Nixon was President (he was after Lincoln). If it really scares you, keep using the fake stuff, and if you use the wrong type of bleach and kill your fish, don’t call me. Someone once wrote me to complain that he killed all of his fish because I told him to add bleach to his reef. Don’t do that. (As a matter of fact, many of the things I do are considered by many to be not quite normal.)
So collecting sea water can be added as another phase in the hobby. Now, don’t go to a toxic waste dump and suck up water. A little common sense as to where to collect is wise. I am sure I don’t have to say, “Don’t collect near river mouths, sewage treatment plants or if there are signs that say “No Swimming” due to whatever.” While you are at it, and if there are no signs, take a swim and enjoy the beach and walk around in your speedo. Well, maybe all of us shouldn’t wear speedos, look in the mirror first or ask someone who is not related to you first.

Long nose butterfly fish and squirrel fish in Tahiti.

Long nose butterfly fish and squirrel fish in Tahiti.

“ICH!” This is a word that strikes fear in most aquarists. It is another thing, that although fully understood, has many treatments available some of which have questionable value. The garlic cure is my favorite–not that it works, because in my opinion it does not, but in its ability to stay around so long. (It does work as an antibacterial and anti “internal” parasite tonic though). However, garlic does seem to provide some beneficial elements to fish. (I personally love it with linguini and clams)

My next favorite is cleaner fish and shrimp. Please! I can’t even talk about that as a cure. Not gonna work. There is also hypo salinity which eliminates the parasite by limiting the salt in the water. This does work but it takes a while. Ich many times will kill the fish before the hypo will work. The single best way to kill ich is with copper. Copper kills ich because copper will kill any invertebrate. Copper will eradicate ich in a few days. Even better is a combination of copper and formulin and the best treatment by far is copper with formulin and quinicrine hydrochloride. Never heard of that one did you? I think I may have invented this formulation; but in any case, it will clear a fish of ich in about a day.

People are afraid to use copper because they think of it as a poison. It certainly is a poison as is aspirin, Tylinol and Pepto Bismol in the wrong dose. If you had cancer and needed radiation or chemotherapy would you say, “Certainly not, It is too dangerous. I would rather die?” Or what if you had paracites all over you including your eye balls and I said “would you like me to cure you in a day or two? The medication may upset your stomach for a few days” Would that be OK?

Of course, the fish will not be cured in a day and a ten day treatment is still needed. But the fish will get almost immediate relief. So besides being a bored aquarist, you can be a fish doctor and amaze your friends.

Why don’t you see this treatment for sale? Good question. Quinicrine is a prescription medication for malaria in humans. There is not much calling for malaria cures in the US anymore making the quinicrine difficult to acquire. Malaria comes from mosquitoes which bite mammals and in doing so leave behind parasites with some similarities to ich. Anyway, the copper, formulin and quinicrine affect the parasite at different phases of their cycle. Any one of these medications will kill ich; but depending on where the parasite is in it’s cycle, the fish may succumb before the parasite does. Unfortunately, none of these medications can be used in a reef.

There are various so called reef-safe ich cures. Sadly to my knowledge, none of them work. But if you get bored, you can always pick up an ich infected fish from almost any aquarium store and try to cure it while not harming corals. It may get expensive experimenting with corals so I would imagine you can get a bunch of snails while you are collecting that sea water and experiment on them.

Then there’s live rock. You can spend immeasurable amounts of time building your own rock. There is a plethora of information out there on ways to build rock. I personally like my home made rock better than the stuff I collected. (I never bought any.)

Rock can be made in any shape imaginable for practically nothing. You may have noticed that most rock for sale comes in fairly boring shapes. That is a hazard of shipping. Anything delicate or interesting will arrive like a suitcase that was lost by an airline and returned a week later. No, it does not have to be live rock. This just means it is wet and has some bacteria on or in it. If you sneeze on it, it will become live but it is better to place it in your tank where the bacteria from everything else will colonize it starting in about a minute. In time, it will be indistinguishable from all of your other live rock.

If after re-arranging your tank, curing everything, building enough rock to make a rock climbing wall and eliminating enough algae to make salad for Taco Bell you are still bored, there is always stamp collecting. Now, that’s exciting.

Now for the disclaimer – I am an old guy. I’m a little older than many here. These are only my opinions. I have been keeping fish since tanks were made of wood. You can certainly disagree with me and many do.

  • Paul B

    I hate to say it but I have been keeping fish from about 1954 or so. I Was drafted in 1969 and was in the Army until 1971 and when I returned back from Viet Nam I bought my first salt water fish started a tank, that tank is still running. I Did my first SCUBA dive in Sydney Australia while I was on R&R and became certified in about 1979. Most of my dives were for lobsters in NY waters with about a quarter of them in the tropics. I am also a boater and a Lisenced boat Captain. I made my living as a construction electrician foreman in Manhattan from which I recently retired.

    View all posts

1 Comment

  1. Keith

    Your malaria cure can be got at American Aquarium Products. They reissued the old Aquatronics line of remedies.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *