Several users throughout Facebook and Reddit have reached out to me asking detailed questions about aquatic life. Some of the questions I felt were very insightful for everyone to learn and know about, so I have compiled them into a FAQ list. Below you can find answers that many active aquarium hobbyists have about saltwater species, aquariums, etc. I tried my best to answer each question in the most depth that I could, but I am also willing to elaborate on each question if any of you require further information per topic. Hopefully this list can answer questions you may have had in the past, or just common knowledge that would be useful down the road. If you would like to ask your own question, please feel free to leave a comment below and I can answer them in a future FAQ!
“Why are there so many outbreaks of disease, sometimes very suddenly and without introduction through an external source (like adding new stock into a tank, for instance), in controlled environments? Bacterial diseases, viruses, parasites both internal and external, fungal, etc. There are so many different types of each; are they ALL pre-existing in the water? If so, is there any way to disable some of these before they become a problem? As some of us have experienced, keeping our water parameters perfect isn’t necessarily going to prevent any and all outbreaks.”
A lot of the diseases we see in saltwater can actually remain as a dormant bacteria or virus until ideal situations for them arise. Ich (both fresh and saltwater) is the biggest contributor in this regard as many of us know. Sometimes the disease can lay dormant in a fishery, aquaculture center, or any type of aquarium and latch onto the fish. When transported to the store, everything can host the disease, even though there are no signs of it and can be virtually untraceable. This includes the water that they are transported in as well, naturally. When looking at fisheries and fish hatcheries, we are able to see a plethora of parasites and bacteria that come into contact with the fish at these facilities. These types of bacteria/viruses start becoming aggressively active when fish begin to stress, or there has been some new type of introduction to the tank/environment to trigger it. And since fish in aquarium settings are trapped in a box, there is nowhere for them to escape the stress indicators so they become even more stressed.
So to fully answer your question, these types of diseases are not necessarily pre existing in the water, but rather develop in the facilities that bring the fish in and ship them to our LFS. This is why I’d argue that it’s crucial to research where your fish are coming from via your LFS and find out more about the aquaculture centers in this regard. The best method to disable the problem is to quarantine all fish before going in the main tank. This isn’t a 100% kill-all-disease method, but it significantly reduces the chances of your water being contaminated with any disease. Hardest part is doing this with invertebrates, as there’s not a lot of workarounds.
“Does garlic work [for getting fish to eat]? Is it also good for the immune system of the fish, like it is in humans?”
Yes! I experimented with several flaked foods with my clownfish. One was without garlic, and the other was with. I first had them on the food with garlic. They love that stuff and even try to attack my fingers to get the food from me faster. The food without garlic they would put in their mouths and spit out. They lost all interest in eating and would just pick at the flakes instead of actually being interested in eating the food. Also tried this with krill and had the same effects. I also tried this in reverse with other fish. They would eat food without any garlic on it. Then whenever I introduced foods hinted with garlic they become completely stimulated with eating. A lot of the garlic products for fish also include many vitamins within the food, which is even more beneficial to the fish.
“Is there a species we should stay away from that’s popular in the hobby? Any species that we should preserve more?”
Cleaner Wrasse. They aren’t as popular as they used to be, particularly because stores have realized they aren’t good to have in the hobby. They rely on their food sources being parasites, bacteria, nuisance pests that are hosted on other fish. In an aquarium setting you won’t have a lot of this, and the wrasse will keep trying to eat off of the fish, sometimes leaving an infliction on the fish itself. Most of the time they will starve to death in the matter of a week. I had the privilege of seeing them at a cleaning station in Hawaii eating off of Surgeonfish and Parrotfish, and they should be left to their natural environment in this manner.
One fish I would like to mention that should be preserved is the Blue Tang (Blue Surgeonfish). Their numbers have been decreasing in the wild, as most are wild caught for the hobby. However! There has been a fairly recent breakthrough at fisheries being able to breed them in captivity, so this gives hope to keeping them in the trade. Within the next few years I would say to keep an eye out at your LFS if they are wild caught or captive bred. Always go with captive if you can. Another fish that should be preserved, yet may only be seen in aquatic culture in the near future is the Banggai Cardinalfish. They are on a protection list now, as many have been caught for the aquarium hobby and their numbers in the wild have suffered due to this. Its mostly in relation to their natural area in the wild, where the countries they are found in are poor and are just wanting to get money in any way possible. So it’s a sad trade off both ways.
“Are we any closer to being able to treat ciguatera? Do the old Ciguacheck test kits work (do they even still make them)?”
From what I’ve heard, those test kits are no longer sold, and I’m not actually sure how effective they ever were… we never used them. As for ciguatera itself, this occurs at a microscopic level via dinoflagellates which requires DNA sampling. It is rather difficult to pinpoint in fish sometimes. As to my knowledge, there is currently no treatment for ciguatera. I have only dealt with this poison once, and it was mostly just researching its occurrence in the Gulf area.
“What do you have in the aquariums you’re researching and what kind of data are you collecting?”
My personal aquarium is FOWLR where I research and look after blennies, clownfish, invertebrates. Personally, I feel that clownfish can give a lot of insight to behavioral traits compared to some of the larger fish we see in aquariums. Recently, one of my male clownfish died and the female it was paired with lost all interest in food, socialization and swimming around the tank. She remained like this for a week. Just the other day I got a new mate for her, and now she has done a complete 180 in her behavior. Her and the male have been swimming around nonstop and act as if its the best thing that’s ever happened to her. I know that this seems like one of those things where you’d probably think “oh its just a fish and they like being around their own kind.” But actively dedicating years to how each individual fish behaves and what they do on a daily basis helps prove that fish do have some sort of sentience to them. If you watch fish long enough you can pick up on individual behaviors, and not just those that are uniform to the species.
The overall data collected is to see differences in behavioral traits as mentioned above. This helps give a better understanding of what is going on in a fish’s mind and how they interact with their environments, loss of mates, new additions, and so forth.
“Fish are much smarter than most people realize. Any personal examples?”
Yes. Anybody who has worked with Pufferfish can probably vouch for this one. Puffers, particularly Porcupine Puffers, have an immense curiosity to them. They analyze everything and can understand the nature of humans that interact with them. The ones that I have worked with would swim up the the glass and do this little waddle whenever I came in the room. I would then show them different containers of food and they would “pick out” (did this little swimming movement and fixed their eyes on the food) which one they wanted by recognizing what had been pulled out from it in prior feedings. I’m sure they would’ve been happy with anything, but it was cute seeing them choose, in a sense.
Sharks and Rays. I interacted with several bamboo sharks several years ago. They had an open enclosure, kind of like a pond of sorts. They got so comfortable with humans that they would swim to the sides and let me pet them. The rays did the same thing.
My clownfish know the exact time I feed them every day, almost down to the minute. They patrol the front of the aquarium and wait for me, which this can be associated with Pavlov training.
I know you mentioned fish but octopus and cuddlefish are some of the smartest creatures in the ocean, aside from cetaceans. They can solve complex devices to get food, or to get out of certain situations. When I was diving in Maui I saw a day octopus that would blend in with the rocks and coral simultaneously, and waited for crustaceans to come near it to ambush.
“I am writing my senior thesis paper on how the impacts of the aquarium business on the environment. In your opinion, what are some of the largest environmental concerns the business brings, and how can we combat those issues?”
One of the largest environmental concerns about the aquarium industry is how we are catching marine species for the trade. Most species that are labeled as “wild caught” in stores are done so with cyanide spray. This has been going on ever since the 60s. This is where a diver will crush up cyanide tablets, mix it with water and spray fish in the face with it. This will stun or paralyze the fish temporarily, where the diver can then scoop it up and sell it. This may not necessarily be harmful to the fish, but its harmful to everything else. This spray kills invertebrates, particularly ones with a calcium carbonate exoskeleton. This has been destroying/bleaching reefs in surrounding areas, especially since most of the fish for marine aquariums live in a reef system.
Another detrimental practice is low surveillance of fish hatcheries across the country. These fisheries are ridden with diseases, bacteria, parasites and infections that transfer from one fish to the other. Some of them even completely overstock their containment areas and the fish suffer due to it. Not all fisheries do this, which I would like to point out. But this again shows that you really need to be careful on where you’re buying your fish from.
A way to combat these concerns are to become active in aquarium communities and spread awareness of humane ways to raise and catch fish. Nearly 1/3 of all marine species are found on reefs, so why damage or collapse an entire ecosystem for a short term profit? Unfortunately a lot of these reefs are not under US jurisdiction, so the only thing we can really do is speak up about not using the method of cyanide for catching aquarium fish. Higher regulations need to be put in place for hatcheries, so contacting your local government leaders can help spread awareness for fishery protocol and hopefully increase regulation standards.