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Thread: The Mature Aquarium

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    Brittle Starfish

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    The Mature Aquarium

    One of the most common errors new aquarists make is to try and rush their marine system in order to stock it. It's understandable. Often the purchase of a marine aquarium is a more or less spontaneous or impulsive event, or at least it’s an emotional time, and the person wants to see fish and mobile invertebrates in the display NOW. This, however isn't Nature's way. The whole starting up process of a marine aquarium is dependent upon Nature, and Nature has its own time schedule.

    Many readers know how much I care about fish. This post, though related to FOWLR marine systems is about marine fish. It's about having a proper home for your choice of marine fishes and is no less than the same consideration that should be given to preparing to bring a dog or cat into your home.

    Rushing the process can produce sick livestock, stressed livestock, injured livestock and aquarium crashes, together with outbreaks of a variety of nuisance microbes and algae that become very problematic later on. This is where and how learning marine aquarists waste more marine life then they will in the years to come (if they stick with the hobby). But, there is no need for this waste if the learning aquarist can cultivate patience. And to help with that, they should understand why that patience is needed.

    It was actually easier 30 years ago to get the new aquarist go slow. They didn't have much choice. We didn’t use live rock. Now, LFS salespeople sell the (expensive) live rock (LR) on the promise that the marine system doesn’t need to cycle and you can begin stocking the display aquarium in a few days. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this same bad information. I even hear professionals, educators and some experienced aquarists saying this same thing. There are two things wrong with claiming:
    With LR you can begin adding marine life to your aquarium very quickly.

    1. The nitrifying bacteria on the LR have to adjust to the new bio-load. These bacteria don’t just ‘spring up’ to handle the nitrogen wastes created by fish and mobile invertebrates (bio-load). When a bio-load is added, the bacteria slowly increase in numbers as their food (nitrogen waste) becomes more plentiful. This takes time and invariably the marine system will still see a cycle and the aquarist will be able to measure some ammonia and nitrites before they disappear. The cycle may be quicker, even go unnoticed by the aquarist not testing once or twice a day, but not totally absent.

    2. THERE IS MORE TO A MARINE SYSTEM THEN JUST THE BACTERIA THAT HANDLE NITROGEN WASTES. In other words, the bacteria that process ammonia to nitrite and nitrite to nitrate (the nitrifying bacteria) are only a fraction of the bacteria and other microbes reproducing and spreading in the new marine system. Adding nitrogen waste producing marine life means that the aquarist is adding food for these bacteria. These organics, together with other organics released by the marine life, cause these kinds of bacteria to multiply. This is a cycle that the aquarist does not measure or readily see. This is what I call the Secret Cycle. This is the main reason why the marine system, even though it contain LR, still needs time to mature.

    That is what this post is about – the maturing of the marine system.



    A normal sequence of steps, and what is happening in the marine system, goes something like this:
    1. Tank and equipment is up and running for first time.
    Some time must pass for everything to run and settle in to its life-long pattern. The aquarist has to be sure that the lights are on/off when wanted, the pumps are doing their job, flow rate is suitable for the livestock, no leaks in the system, and any final 'junk' finds it way to the filtration process. Aquarist would do well to begin maintenance routine (water changes, etc.) during this time.

    2. With live rock for nitrification, the aquarium must show good water quality.
    No livestock (other than what comes with the live rock) should be put into the aquarium until ammonia and nitrite levels show zero for a few consecutive days. LR usually brings some die-off with it. That is, LR brings some nitrogen wastes to the empty marine system. Adding foods to the display for LR inhabitants (if any), in small quantities, starts the organic cycle. Not only will a large variety of microbes come and go in the next few months, but they will wax and wane in numbers. DO NOT CONTINUE TO 3. until ALL ammonia and nitrite readings are zero "0." (That is not ‘almost’ zero, but ZERO or ‘undetectable’ by an actual test kit results (not test strips)).

    3. Clean up crew introduction
    Some of the hardy clean-up crew members are to be introduced and fed. Just snails (herbivores and carnivores) to start. More food is introduced into the aquarium now. The bacteria that live on other organic materials are getting a good foot hold. Brown algae and nuisance growth may be apparent. Aquarist keeps removing it and continues with good and diligent maintenance. Aquarist now tests for all important water chemistry parameters according to the livestock wanted. The aquarist practices making adjustments to alkalinity, calcium, magnesium, pH, salinity, and temperature. The new aquarist has got to learn how to keep these things steady and controlled.

    4. Introduction of more sensitive mobile invertebrates
    Now can come shrimp, larger snails (e.g., conch), hardy brittle stars, and selected crabs. Feed them well. (No hermit crabs ever)! The tank shows signs of a thriving pod population. They seem to be everywhere. This is a good sign that things are moving along.

    5. Nuisance 'algae' and microbes seem to settle into a small population.
    The system is getting older. The microbes are not shifting in kinds and in numbers as often as they were before. Pollutants are finding their way out of the system or being processed by organisms in the system, at nearly the rate they are being introduced. Delicate brittle stars and additional hardy non-fish livestock may be added, if desired.

    6. Hardy fish livestock is introduced, after its quarantine.
    This is now a challenging time. The aquarist has waited a long time for this. This is the time the aquarist's patience will be truly tested. The introduction of fish should be as they come out of a 6-week quarantine. That means one fish every 6 weeks can be added to the aquarium. Hardy non-fish reef livestock can be slowly added at a slightly faster rate.

    7. Aquarium has maturity.
    No (or very little) signs of nuisance microbes or algae. Water quality is stable and where it should be. For larger aquariums, larger clean up crew members may be added (e.g., starfish, cucumber, sand sifting fish, etc.). The frequency of testing the water for chemistry can be relaxed since now the aquarist knows what changes normally occur. The aquarium and aquarist are 'seasoned.' The aquarist needs to make decisions about any additional equipment needs. Is a calcium reactor going to be needed to keep up with those additions? Is a phosphate removal system needed? Are the water changes (quantity and frequency) good enough?

    8. More sensitive fishes
    At this point in time, the mature aquarium is ready for more sensitive fishes like the large Angelfish, Butterflyfishes, more sensitive Tangs, etc.

    What kind of time is needed? These times relate to the above steps:
    1. Two to three weeks.
    2. Variable from two weeks. Fully cured LR is assumed here.
    3. One month. Cleanup crew is first life after LR.
    4. One month. Mobile inverts may be added.
    5. From this point the marine system is really maturing
    6. Two months. First fish, then additional fish every 6 weeks thereafter if all is well; hardy sessile invertebrates)
    7. Two months. Marine System near full maturity.
    8. Ongoing. Sensitive marine life.

    NOTE: Don’t move to the next step at any time ammonia and/or nitrites are detected. After these return to 0 (zero) readings for two weeks, then go to the next step.

    What does the time-line usually look like?
    0. The aquarium, equipment, and accessories are acquired, assembled and setup
    1. Weeks 2 - 3
    2. Weeks 3 - 5 (or more if LR is not fully cured)
    3. Weeks 5 - 9 (Clean up crew)
    4. Weeks 9 - 14 (Mobile invertebrates)
    5. Weeks above 14
    6. Weeks 14 - 23 (First fish added, then one every 6 weeks after the last; hardy sessile invertebrates may be added)
    7. Weeks 23 - 31 Marine System is nearing full maturity more less hardy marine life may be added
    8. Weeks 31+ Marine System is mature and ongoing. (First sensitive fish and sensitive sessile invertebrates may be added). This is now about 7 months after LR was added.

    Before the first hardy fish is put into the aquarium, the aquarium should be no less than 3-4 months old -- or at least 3 months past the time the water quality showed no ammonia or nitrites. Hardy fishes and invertebrates may be introduced when the system has been running with LR for no less than 3 months. After about 7 months, the marine system is ready for sensitive marine life provided the marine aquarist has been doing a proper job of care and maintenance AND the marine system continues to show zero readings of ammonia and nitrites, then later on, undetectable readings of phosphates.

    The aquarist can hasten the second step (2.) to the indicated weeks 3 - 5 by choosing live rock that is fully cured and not decaying. So the weeks 3 - 5 can be easily doubled if decaying rock or problems occur. The aquarist doesn’t go beyond the second step until ammonia and nitrite levels remain zero using test kits (not test strips) for several consecutive days.

    It takes time for a marine system to mature. Maturity is basically when the system is 'organically stabilized' and doesn't have any significant swings of microbe populations. This is like saying that the available organics have reached a steady level -- the exporting of them (e.g., water changes, skimming, carbon/absorbents, macro algae growth, removing detritus, cleaning substrate, cleanup crew consumption, etc.) and the action of microbes processing organics (not just the nitrification bacteria) match those organics being created and being introduced into the system.

    So much emphasis is placed on getting the tank to the point where there is no ammonia and nitrite detected by test kits, that it is forgotten that there are hundreds of other types of microbes that need time to also settle into the routine of the organics produced by the inhabitants and introduced by the aquarist (foods for example), a.k.a. bio-load. These microbes don't start their job until the tank is up and running, and can't settle in until the nutrients in the water come to a sort of equilibrium with the things removing or using them. This is Nature's way and Nature's time frame.

    If the aquarist wants great success, minimum frustration, elimination of wasted marine life, etc., then time and patience is needed to allow the Secret Cycle to catch up to the nitrogen cycle, and stabilize. This is preparing a proper home for what the learning aquarist wants to invite into their life.


    Additional information:

    A quarantine article:
    An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure: A Quarantine Tank for Everything by Steven Pro

    A quarantine process:
    A Quarantine Procedure

    Starting up a Fish-Only-With-Live-Rock (FOWLR) Aquarium:
    Starting up a Marine Aquarium

    A listing of other links:
    Table of Contents and Link List

    LEE

  2. #2
    Brittle Starfish

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    Discussion of this post can be found in this thread:
    The Mature Aquarium - Discussion
    LEE

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