In a comment on my first aquarium post, Mike wrote,
I just skimmed the page about cycling an aquarium. This was a healthy reminder of why I don’t attempt to keep fish — the whole process seems terrifyingly complex.
I commented that fishkeeping only seems terrifyingly complex – it actually runs on a handful of guidelines that almost always work. I started writing them out in the comment, and when I got them all down, I cut them out and pasted them here. Without further ado:
Matt’s 10 Rules for a Happy Aquarium
- Be patient. Start small, with many fewer fish than the tank will ultimately support, until the nitrogen cycle is up and running (I guess knowing about the nitrogen cycle is step 0).
- Start with hardy, inexpensive fish, that can withstand some swings in temperature and water chemistry. In practice this often means fish that evolved in crappy environments, and fish that are good at establishing new populations. Ancestral platies are from shallow streams in Mexico, and there are introduced platy populations in Florida (expected), Singapore, Hong Kong, and Montana (whut), so they’re pretty tough. Get a fish book and learn the basics about some prospective boarders.
- Make sure the temperature of the tank suits the fish. Goldfish do best in the 50s and 60s Fahrenheit, tropicals in the 70s to low 80s. Some fish are picky and have narrower ranges – those fish are usually picky in other ways and are not good starter fish. See the fish book.
- Give some thought to how fish get along with others, or fail to. For schooling fish, get small groups rather than individuals. Don’t keep fin-nippers like tiger barbs with long-finned fish like angelfish and bettas. How will you know which are which? See the fish book.
- Realize that almost all pet-store fish are young juveniles and they will grow, so plan for the adult size, not the size-at-time-of-purchase. For the adult sizes – see the fish book.
- Don’t overcrowd – one inch of fish per gallon of water is a good target once the tank is fully up and running. If you want 15 to 20 fish, get a 15-to-30 gallon tank, start with 5 fish, and build up patiently. See the fish book.
- Don’t overfeed – give only as much food as the fish will entirely consume within 5 minutes. See the fish book.
- Do filter heavily. IME it’s hard to over-filter. I started out running big-ass filters because I was keeping aquatic turtles that generated a lot of waste, but those big filters kept the tank looking good even when I had no turtles. The more biological filtration – letting the water run over or through filter media with crud growing on it – the better. See the fish book.
- Keep live plants, the more the better. First because they’ll outcompete the algae and you’ll spend much less time scraping the tank. If you have live plants and a snail or plec, your scraping time may be zero. I’ve never scraped algae in my life, and I never will. I’d rather buy a cheap bundle of anacharis and a snail and never worry about it again. Second, because the more complex and diverse the tank ecosystem is, the better it will be buffered against all kinds of maladies, from chemical imbalances to bacterial blooms to parasites. Not all fish books push readers to keep live plants, but most do.
- Accept that even if you do all of that stuff, you’ll still lose the occasional fish, especially when you’re first starting out. Those hardy fish from crappy environments are strongly R-selected so although they are tough they are also evolutionarily disposable and they die at odd times, often for no detectable reason. Accept it and move on. In the same way that one builds a body of work by publishing one thing after another, one remains a fishkeeper by not quitting when fish die.
I rather snarkily added “See the fish book” to as many entries as possible because all of this stuff is covered in any intro fishkeeping book. There are zillions of these on the market, and any of them are probably good enough for someone starting out. I prefer older, more comprehensive works. A printing of Exotic Aquarium Fishes by William T. Innes from the 1960s or 70s can usually be had for a buck or two (example), and it will have a LOT more useful biological data than the newer, flashier titles.
Now, compare all that to what far too many aspiring fishkeepers actually do: get some crappy little 1- or 2-gallon nano tank or betta bowl, put in a couple of goldfish – which would maximally stress an established, cycling 5-gallon tank, let alone a brand new nano tank – and no live plants, with probably inadequate filtration and no temperature control, and then be shocked and disappointed when the fish get sick, get parasites, and die. When 5 minutes of online investigation would have led them to any of a zillion advice pages like this one.
It’s just like stargazing or most other hobbies – you can avoid most of the frustration for a trivial outlay of research time.