The beginning aquarist’s emergency setup: new fish survival guide
Beginners guide to newly bought fish
It seems perfectly reasonable to a newcomer; excited to be entering the world of fishkeeping, purchasing their first batch of fish at the spur of the moment and taking them immediately home to introduce to their brand new aquarium habitat.
Beware, however, as this is a common cause of unnecessary fish death due to what is frequently called New Tank Syndrome. A brand new fish tank is not immediately ready to support your fish, and introducing them immediately can unbalance the delicate ecosystem of your aquarium.
How to keep your new fish alive
Although the situation described above may seem perfectly reasonable at first, the fact of the matter is that the fish tank environment is a much more subtle one that it may appear at first glance. Simply throwing your fish into a tank of tap water and hoping for the best will not work.
Your fish tank needs some time to become established before it is ready for fish to be introduced; this is performed through a process called fish tank cycling. A properly cycled fish tank is ready for fish to inhabit it because the bacteria necessary to process fish waste matter are present in the filters, providing the correct quality water to support life.
How to cycle your fish tank
A brand new fish tank does not contain all of the elements necessary to sustain your new fish’s life. In order for this to happen, it must be given enough time for the nitrogen cycle to take place: Bacteria will grow in the filter, converting toxic ammonia (broken down from fish waste) into nitrite, and nitrite into less harmful nitrate.
After being left to grow in the filtration system for a few weeks, the bacteria will take care of this job by themselves and let your fish lead long, happy lives. During this time, you are recommended to add fish to the tank one at a time over the weeks so as not to overwhelm the bacterial colony.
If you already brought your fish home
If you have just bought a brand new fish tank, threw in your fish, and are only reading this now, you need to adhere to the following emergency setup guide. This will take some work, but if you are careful about it, you will be able to avoid having any of your fish die.
• Do not over feed the fish. For the first 2 or 3 days do not feed the fish at all. Then start light feeding the fish for a couple of weeks. As the weeks go by and the filter becomes more established, increase feeding to normal amounts.
• Do not add ammonia. You may have read that you need to add ammonia to your fish tank in order to create the correct environment for your fish— you don’t anymore. This is only for a fishless tank cycling in which you let the bacteria grow before adding fish. Now that you have fish in the water, they will start producing ammonia by themselves, and that is precisely the problem.
• Change the water daily. Essentially, the problem you are facing is that your fish are slowly being choked by their own waste. You need to flush out the waste by changing 25% of the water volume every day for the first few weeks. This will keep the ammonia levels suitably low until the bacteria have a chance to grow.
• Use de-chlorinated water. If you filled your fish tank with tap water, chances are that there is chlorine present in the water. Dissolved chlorine is added to tap water in order to prevent bacteria from growing. Also, chlorine irritates and burns the fish. Furthermore, the beneficial bacteria will not grow in chlorinated water.
Thankfully, there is an easy way to de-chlorinate most tap water: simply leave the water out and exposed to air for 24-48 hours and the chlorine will evaporate. Having a large barrel of water standing in the garden to draw from can make this task easier. Most pet stores also carry commercial de-chlorinating chemicals that can do the same thing in a rush. If you already have fish in the tank, you should immediately de-chlorinate your water this way.
Keeping up the emergency setup
You will need to keep a careful eye on your fish and make sure that they look healthy. Changing 25% of the water every day should be enough to remove the waste, but you will also want to check for disease during this time.
Your fish, having just been transplanted into a new habitat, are highly susceptible to a wide range of problems at this point. Check for sick-looking fish with inflamed gills or ones that look like they are struggling for air. If you see that your fish look like they are gasping for air at the surface of the water, then an immediate water change is needed.
Heavy breathing, rapid gasping and wide opening gills are also indicators of toxic water. Fish in water with ammonia, nitrites and chlorine, after a few days, will succumb to illness. It can be useful to set up a temporary “hospital” tank in which you can isolate sick fish so as not to threaten the rest of your population.
During this time, you will want to check the ammonia and nitrite levels in your tank regularly and cut back on feeding your fish too much. More food turns into more waste, which can cause an ammonia spike and create more damage. Once you begin to see readings of zero ammonia and zero nitrite regularly for a week, it is safe to call off the emergency and begin enjoying your new tank normally.