It’s been while since I’ve posted anything. Again, that’s both on purpose and not. I felt the need to disconnect for a bit and take care of some other things in and around my life that have, frankly, suffered a bit from neglect (my home, my yard, some much needed family time, and a project that is going to be the main part of this entry today).

Back in November, I posted about a “tank crash” that I suffered, one in which a fish tank that, in some way, shape or form I’d been running, mostly non stop, for close two decades came to an ignominious end. From a full community to zero survivors, and from zero survivors to a tenuous hold on  new community and eco-system. In this process, I have had to come face to face with the fact that everything I thought I knew, and all of the methods and techniques that just “worked” for me basically just stopped working.

What does a complete eco-system crash entail? What does one do when an entire world they were maintaining comes crumbling down? Yeah, this may be a bit over-dramatic, but trust me, I’ve prided myself on keeping fish alive and thriving for over a decade. To have them all die in a short period of time, even after taking major precautions and performing heavy and expensive interventions, has been very frustrating. The situation reached a point where a “baptism by fire” were necessary. Well, OK, not really, but a cleansing of Clorox, high heat and desiccation was very much involved. For those who have ever wondered what a complete purge of a system involves, it basically goes something like this:

– deconstruct everything in the tank. That includes removing all filter media, all rock work, any real or plastic plants, any decorative hiding spaces, and all of the tanks substrate (in my case, ranging from fine sand to pea sized gravel.

– drain all of the water: all 65 gallons worth. Needless to say, the front and back yard plants and trees yard received a lot of attention that day.

– take all of the filter media out of the various filters (sponges, ceramic tubes, plastic inlet/outlet tubes, carbon bags, phosphate absorbers, etc.) and put them in the dishwasher (having run it empty with no soap prior to this for preparation. the dishwasher, acted as a pseudo-autoclave for sterilization purposes).

– take all of the decorative rock work, filter media baskets, decorative materials, etc. and perform the same process in the dishwasher

– gather all sand and gravel into a bucket and boil in various pots until everything had been heated for at least 15 minutes in boiling water.

– soak the boiled rock in a 6.25% Chlorine bleach solution (that’s a cup of bleach to a gallon of hot water) for 72 hours, then rinse with clean water and let soak in water treated with tap water conditioner (to remove any remaining chlorine).

-wipe down the tank, inside and out, with the same 6.25% solution and let dry. Rinse and fill with fresh water and tap water conditioner.

– put everything back into the tank and test over several days to make sure any chlorine or other trace metals were all gone.

– add a biological filter agent to the tank and introduce a “cycling population”. This may sound cruel, but it needs to be done, and a group of fish are the best to do this. For my purposes, a school of six Giant Danios were my literal “canaries in the coal mine”. A month later, and they have been doing fine, as have four Boesmani Rainbows I’ve introduced since the tank has been cycled.

Sounds like everything is working great, huh? Well, not quite. This morning, two fish I recently purchased and was taking care of with the hope of introducing into the main tank after a quarantine showed many of the same hallmark symptoms of the disease I had just tried so hard to eradicate. WHY?!! What is going on here? Why am I seeing such large scale infestations when I wasn’t seeing them before? Why was it happening again? I’d been using a quarantine tank. I’d been changing the water. I’d been feeding in very small amounts and monitoring them. All of the things that I had figured would be to their benefit, and yet, this morning, I found two dead red severums in my quarantine tank. AGGGHHHHH!!!!

Fortunately, after years of being a tester, I decided to stop cursing my bad luck and start thinking systematically about what could be the problem. First, my quarantine tank. It’s six gallons. Not large, but then it’s not really meant to be. It’s only going to hold one or two fish at any given time, and then just for brief periods. The fish that inhabit the tank are all juvenies, and the tank is outfitted with filtration, aeration, light, heat and all the things necessary to keep them healthy, or so I thought. The rainbows had been through the quarantine process, and had suffered no ill effects. Why did these fish have such a different fate?

Part of it has to do with a different morphology. Rainbowfish are cyprinids, and as such they are highly active, but very efficient fish. They don’t eat a lot, and they produce small amounts of waste compared to the red severums. Though the classic yarn of “an inch of fish per gallon” was maintained, the four rainbows produced lots less waste than the two similarly sized red severums. I had figured regular water changes, to the tune of a gallon every other day, would be sufficient to maintain good water quality. It made sense for the rainbows, and may have been overkill. For the severums, frankly, it may have been too little.

There was one other little piece of the puzzle that was introduced, and frankly, I hadn’t even realized it. Since the small half bathroom has a sink and storage for everything I use in the aquarium hobby, it just made the most sense to set up the quarantine tank right there in the bathroom. Of course, there’s also other activities that take place in a bathroom, and to help keep said room “pleasant”, we’d plugged in a wall vaporizing “air freshener, the kind that heats up essential oils to make a pleasant smell for the small room. Having used it for so long, I hadn’t even really given it much of a thought, except to notice that, a couple of days ago, there was a stronger smell. The reason? Christina had changed the small bulb and put in a new scent, one that was more noticeable. For people, not such a big deal. For the respiration of fish? Think of how it feels to breathe in super concentrated pine oil when you clean something. Now imagine you can’t escape it. Yep, dare I say it, that might have had something to do with it. Were the fish in a more open room, or had there been stronger venting of the room, then it wouldn’t have been an issue, but in such an enclosed space, I’m guessing that exposure could prove to be lethal.

So here I am, an empty quarantine tank, two casualties, and a bit of frustration. However, I can take some solace in one aspect of this… the system worked as it was designed. While my fish looked to have succumbed to a common ailment (one that, realistically speaking, all fish have) the environment I had unwitting set up, for the best of purposes, caused the condition to manifest, and to become fatal to them. On the positive side, if there can truly be one, is that I didn’t release these fish into the main tank, where the infection they carried would have spread to the other fish and started the whole process over again.

It’s easy to start second guessing yourself when something that works well for so long breaks down. When that happens, it seems like everything you do from that point on no longer yields success.  It’s enough to make one want to throw in the towel completely, but I also realize that systems, especially ecological ones, are complex. It takes time to reach a new equilibrium, and to get new communities to thrive again. There will invariably be mis-steps, second guessing, and a loss of overall confidence in one’s efforts. It’s especially frustrating when lives are on the line, even if they may just be “fish that only cost a few bucks”.  
I feel it acutely every time an animal dies in my care, because it forces me to think and ask “what could I have done differently? How could I have been better prepared for this?” Additionally, having a space that I can use to isolate and care for  individuals in a manner that will help them thrive, as well as firewall them from others should something go wrong when we bring them home, is now more important than ever. That first quarantine is vital. Making that environment as healthy as humanly possible is critical, and little things that we often don’t think about can have huge repercussions. Here’s hoping I’ve learned enough these past few weeks that future additions will be able to live and thrive, if not disease free, then with as little chance of having those issues coming to the surface as humanly possible.