Culture

Fishy Friday: The Trials, Guilt-Inducing Errors, and Triumphant Successes of the Home Aquarium

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Daniel-san, still a juvenile and growing

My history of fish-keeping is probably like that of many. There was the childhood goldfish, not won at a carnival but rescued from my zoology class after the teacher was going to flush him down the toilet post-microscope lesson. There was the small tank in early adulthood that combined species that really weren’t supposed to be living with each other. There was the betta, Muqtada al-Fish, I kept on my desk at the Los Angeles Daily News (during the Iraq war, clearly). And I hadn’t delved back into aquariums, despite the perpetual lure of adorable fish at the pet store, because I have enough critter habitats to clean.

Then, last year, a neighbor moved out and left his fish with another neighbor. She was getting ready to move across the country, so asked if I’d take the fish. Sure. I went to her home and she handed me a gallon bowl with a comet goldfish and a Bolivian ram cichlid.

Sounds problematic, right? It worked for a while as my tank wasn’t too cool. My kitchen has far more counter space than a non-cook needs, so I set up shop on a long counter next to the sink. This has turned out to be the perfect location as it’s one of the most temperature-controlled rooms of the house and water changes are a breeze with the sink right there. If I accidentally spill a bunch of water, wipe it up. And since I’m always popping in and out, the fish see me a lot and have become very friendly — and I see them a lot, and notice problems early on.

I discovered the very handy AqAdvisor calculator to make sure you’re properly stocked with adequate filtration and species compatibility. I got all the water testing supplies, something that never happened (shame on me) with previous fishkeeping. I graduated from flakes to frozen food, now keeping four varieties next to my Trader Joe’s grub. The goldfish, Fin Jong-il, recovered from the ammonia burns he received in the bowl and started growing. I got him a ryukin companion. I got a Bolivian ram friend for the cichlid, as well. And I added a gold dojo loach for some help with the vacuuming.

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Fin Jong-il, surveying his reclusive kingdom

All was going swimmingly. The fish I got from PetSmart were healthy. But one employee directed me to a local fish store — the LFS, as I’ve learned the lingo from the uber-dogmatic aquarist subculture — to special-order fish. I wanted the natural, wild-colored weather loach. The LFS called me when they came in, and the shop owner recommended some live plants to help with my minor algae issues. I got some floating water lettuce and frogbit, which looked really nice.

Then one day the fish started acting strange. The Bolivians were listless. The normally active ryukin was not. I vacuum gravel every couple of days, so was perplexed. I tested the water. My nitrates had shot through the roof. Turns out bits of the plants and roots were breaking off and getting sucked into the filter and decomposing there. The cichilds, who were so cute and sweet, and the ryukin didn’t make it. The comet was inconsolable. So I pulled the weather loaches out of quarantine and into the main tank. Water levels were back to normal, and I switched from the Tetra water conditioner to Seachem Prime to have a neutralizing agent handy should the need arise.

All was OK for a few weeks, then the weather loaches, which were so sweet they ate out of my hand, started displaying signs of whatever they’d brought with them from the LFS (the owner couldn’t tell me if they were captive-bred or caught, didn’t recommend quarantine and nearly killed one of the loaches when he told me to add anti-fungal for a bacterial infection — treated while he was in my quarantine tank). I pulled out the loaches ASAP back into quarantine, but then Fin Jong-il the goldfish started displaying signs of illness, sitting on the bottom, fins clenched, red veins showing, wouldn’t engage in his favorite activity of eating. When he was nearly on his last gasp, I googled and pulled aquarium salt out of my stash. I dissolved the salt into warmer water that was gradually added to the tank over several hours. The next morning, I couldn’t believe how he’d rebounded, and is now good as new.

Surviving this experience without missing a beat was gold dojo loach Daniel-san. That’s when I resolved only weather loaches and goldfish will exist in this tank. Lonely Fin Jong-il has a new friend waiting in the wings, a red oranda in quarantine who has symmetrical black markings that look like angry eyebrows. The loach population has risen with a mix of gold and wild colored (no more from that LFS), and the best tank decorations I’ve gotten for them (besides the “sandbox” that will soon cover the floor of one end of the tank, leaving smooth gravel on the other end for goldfish enjoyment) have turned out to be PVC pipe pieces from the plumbing department at Home Depot. I’ve also learned not to overfeed despite how much those hungry little fish faces beg.

And when the LFS sold me the weather loaches, he put a tiny guppy fry in the bag. I don’t do live food, so he’s been growing up for the past couple of months in a glass cosmo pitcher with a plastic plant dropped inside. Because he survived more near-eatings than times 50 Cent got shot, he’s named Fiddy. When he’s old enough, he’ll join my betta and snails in their own tank.

What are some of your aquarium successes and not-so-successes?