Transporting Discus - the Spartan way

by George J. Reclos & Francesco Zezza

One of the great moments in the life of any fish hobbyist is when you know there is a new interesting species which you can get for your collection. One of the worst moments is when you know that you shouldn't get it because a) you are out of tank space, b) the shop will be closed for three days because of Easter holidays and you are not at home, c) the fish are quite large and you know that large fish don't ship very well, d) the fish happen to be wild caught discus which makes (c) look worse and finally e) there is no available tank in the place you stay (Francesco's place to be precise). Common sense dictates to leave the fish in the shop and just hope that sometime in the future you will come across another interesting species like that. This is what common sense dictates but your heart seems to tell you that no matter what, you will manage to make it. This is the short story of transporting a wild caught pair of Symphysodon aequifasciata Pellegrin, collected in Rio Manacapuru (probably "Manacapuru red type") and exhibited in the pet shop "Blu" in Rome to Greece.

Francesco notified me from the very first moment we arrived in Italy for our MCH meeting that the price was good, the fish looked good, they had been quarantined for 15 days, they had been eating normally, but taking them to Greece would be rather difficult. I agreed just to take a look at them and then make up my mind. You have to take into account that this discussion took place in Francesco's car on our way to his home and Christine was sitting in the back seat and - of course - listening to it.  While thinking of this, pictures of spawning them crossed my mind (instead of the blue diamond discus I kept) and all I was hoping for was that the discus would be in a bad condition, not eating, dull colored etc.. just to keep me from buying them. Christine kept on reminding me of my "no fish" promise... hard time for a hobbyist indeed. You can also add this as an (f) reason in the "no-no" list above. Well, after walking a great part of Rome on foot in the morning, we arrived at "Blu" in the evening. No need to look for anything else - no matter how interesting it was - we went directly to the basement where we saw a pair of the fish you see below.

So the fishes were not ill, fastened, dull or colorless, therefore the first question was already answered: I would take them on the spot. Yes, Christine was not with us, this was a strictly men's business. We discussed things with Francesco and we decided that we would go for a Spartan approach using what was available. After all, you will always find something useful in the home of an avid fish keeper and Francesco is by no means an exception to this rule. Bear in mind that what I did is not what I should do. Following your impulse usually ends up in a disaster. The only reason I decided to give it the green light was that if three experienced fish keepers could not find a way to bypass those problems then perhaps we were far less experienced than we thought. Francesco asked the pet shop owner to give us a styrofoam box which would be used as their tank (with a gross capacity of 20 liters or thereabout), a matured small internal sponge filter and a canister with 20 liters of R/O water to make a partial water change whenever needed. The initial plan was to make the only water change we could do just before packing the fish for their trip to Athens but we would also do it if the fish looked stressed. The fish would not be fed for three days so ammonia, nitrite and nitrates would be kept to a minimum. Additionally, they would be kept in the dark for three days to minimize their activity. This would definitely have an adverse effect on their biorhythm but there was no other choice.

As you can see, the Styrofoam box is getting ready to house my new friends. It took approximately 26 seconds from the time I saw them till I said "yes, we will take them". This is what I call carefully taking all parameters into account and examining every possible detail before acquiring new fish. As I said, this is not the correct way to do things but I was in Italy and this was the last day the shop was open. Well, still I find those 26 seconds a bit too quick !! All I had time to do during those 26 seconds was to look at Johnny who made an affirmative gesture. Very sophisticated, isn't it ??

The pair at "home". You can see the internal filter and the top of the heater which was laid on the bottom close to the exit of the filter to ensure that a constant supply of flowing water would always take away the heat. We added the 10 liters of water which were in the fish bags, added 2 liters of fresh R/O water and kept the rest for their future needs. The fish were inspected at least 4 times daily by somebody (all of us were happy to take turns but usually it was Johnny who came back with the daily report) to make sure they breath normally and they are not overstressed.

In the end of the second day we decided to add a small amount of R/O water as a precaution measure - the fish were doing remarkably well in their "prison". They seemed active and their breathing was calm. However, the Capo said the usual "better safe than sorry" - and he was right.

Netting the fish for their final destination was done by the Capo himself (I rarely do this since I regard both Johnny and the Capo better suited for this job). The container used was a simple plastic box (normally used to keep food in the refrigerator) filled with 60% fresh R/O water and 40% water from their original styrofoam box. We had been puzzled for two days wondering what kind of container we should use to carry them to Greece and it was Stefania who found this solution - many thanks for that !! Changing all of the water at once would perhaps stress the fish even more. The primitive carrying container was not water tight so we decided to wrap it with two huge bags and tie them with plastic strips (the ones used to keep electric wires together). Francesco had the bright idea to give me an extra one in case I was asked to open the container for inspection at the airport. Of course, turning the container upside down was to be avoided at all costs since the water would run out. The fish were kept warm by our jackets and of course we would carry them in the passenger cabin and not the cargo compartment, as hand luggage. Actually, their trip called for 25 Km of driving in Italy, carrying them through the airport, a 2 hour flight to Athens, carrying them through a second airport, a 20 Km drive to our lab, the acclimatization procedure and finally the addition to their new home. The most difficult part was to carry this "primitive" tank through the airport since there was no "handle" and 12 Kg of weight become really uncomfortable after just 10 minutes - and it took us a lot more than that to reach our seats in the plane.

As usually, we told the people at the metal detectors and X-ray luggage inspection machines that the fish were breeding stock so inspection by hand was absolutely necessary. Thankfully, the people at the Fiumicino airport were really kind and allowed us to pass without any hassle at all. I must also make a note here that we have never had any kind of problem with this procedure in the airports of Athens, Rome, Brussels, Clermont-Ferrand and Milan up to now. I have repeatedly carried fish to European destinations and I can guarantee you that once you make your request the ground personnel will be happy to assist you. I still remember the surprise of the people at the Athens airport when I showed them the 15 Haplochromis sp. "fire" Uganda I was carrying as a gift for Francesco - they couldn't believe that someone would carry such small fish with him (actually we all had a problem to spot them in the large bag we had put them in). Please keep in mind that this is only true for inter-European Union destinations. Experience from or to destinations out of European Union can be really traumatic as it was proven by Carli's visit to Belgium and the experience of Francesco while importing his wild caught fish from Lake Malawi and Peru.

Since the water in the 240 liter tank in Athens had not been changed for 5 days, acclimatization should be done slowly and of course, in almost complete darkness to avoid stress to the newcomers as well as to the old inhabitants of the tank. We arrived at the lab 10 minutes after midnight so darkness was not a problem. Adding the fish in the dark was supposed to give the newcomers a peaceful night and no conflicts till they had settle down a bit. The size difference was also a promising factor. We also made a 45 liter water change with deionized water that night (easier said than done in the dark) and after a 30 minute acclimatization period (2 liters of tank water added in their container every 5 minutes) the fish were added in the tank. Of course, we would have to wait for 12 hours to see the results.

Needless to say, those 12 hours seemed really long to all of us but in the end we found the Discus pair gracefully swimming in their new tank, side by side while the old inhabitants of the tank didn't seem to bother them at all. Some white markings on them indicated that the wild caught pair effectively used the morning hours to make sure everybody understands who the boss is in their tank. The water parameters were very good too (pH=6.88, conductivity: 118μS, GH=3.57). Click on the images below for larger pictures of the fish.

This article is supposed to serve two different purposes. First, it is supposed to show you what you shouldn't do under normal circumstances which is not to follow your impulse to acquire new fish if you don't have made preparations for them in advance. Second it is a proof that correct planning may save your fish in a really difficult situation. However, if you ask me whether I would do it again, my answer would be "no". Once is more than enough and, apart from correct planning and experience, this kind of transportation demands a great deal of good luck which may not always be there for you.

Photos by George J. Reclos, Frank Panis and John G. Reclos/MCH

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