The neglected reef aquarium

 by Antonios T. Andronoglou


            Some of us, at one time or other, come to the point of setting up a reef aquarium. We plan ahead and calculate all aspects of its maintenance (or at least we should have!) and then slowly, give it less and less attention, until the time comes when we finally face it and admit: “I have seriously neglected my aquarium”.

            Of course this can happen to almost any kind of leisure activity, and of course to any kind of animal keeping and certainly to any kind of aquarium. The reason I mention reef aquarium at the title is because of my latest (put the emphasis on ‘latest’) neglected aquarium incident. I will tell you my story, and I can imagine that it will sound familiar to many of you fellow aquarium keepers. I know it would sound familiar to me if I had heard it before my ‘latest’ incident.

            My story is a mixture of unexpected events, budget cuts and good old plain boredom. Well, here it goes! I set my tank up seven years ago, after finishing all other work at our new home. My tank started as a not-so-successful marine fish only tank. I put great effort in this since I wanted a reef tank but had to learn somewhere, so I started with a fish only tank. I must admit I made every mistake there is to make.  Even my wife finally made peace with the bag in the freezer where I kept all the dead fishes. I can remember one incident when I bought a 20 cm Euxiphipops Navarchus, against everything I had ever read to the many books I had on the subject, regarding tankmates, feeding, temperament and age of this fish, not to mention tank size (75 gal). Well, when the fish died, it was so big that it did not fit in the freezer bag, which was full of other unfortunate fishes, so I had the brilliant idea of ‘recycling’ the fish and tried to feed it to the dog. Of course my dog knew better and refused to eat it. I feel really embarrassed as I write these lines but I must admit I had the idea of eating the fish myself! On second thought I did not eat it but I knew there and then that the fish tank had to go. It was time for a reef tank!

            I wanted a reef tank anyway, so I took all fish (well, the still alive ones…) to the dealer, emptied the tank and ordered live rock. After a couple of months I was the happy owner of a tank full of rocks with no suitable lighting. So I ordered new lights, a cooler and my tank slowly was coming together. The first year went by with moderate success and the second year slightly better. I kept my routine of water changes, testing, logging, administering additives, the works! I kept mainly soft corals and they were alive and growing. I even had success with anemones after the many I killed in my fish only setup. I could not get the clownfish to live in them, but I surely kept them alive. My pride of the anemone world lived on the front glass under the lights, but it was faring far better than the ones that turned into jelly. I must mention that I had success with ALL anemones, especially the ones that you can get for free. I fought my battle against Aiptasias and, you guessed it, I lost. I mean, I lost a big way! It was as bad a pest as I read in the books, but I had the enthusiasm to keep my routine.

 Just as I was getting really frustrated with the Aiptasia thing, came the unexpected. No, the tank did not leak. My marriage leaked. My wife went for a biweekly vacation with a (female, recently divorced) friend to my country house, and when she returned she asked for divorce. She said that she was too bored with me, that I looked after fish all the time, and she wanted me out of the house (which belonged to her). I agreed, went to the lawyer, signed everything, it was over.

As you can understand, I was not paying any attention to my tank during this time, and then started to look for a suitable house to buy, so I could get out of her house as fast as she wanted! It took me about two months to find a house and start moving my stuff. All I did to the tank during this time was to feed the fish and maybe every couple weeks clean the skimmer collection cup (I had automatic skimmate drainage, so emptying the cup was not needed). The Aiptasia situation was getting worse every day and I tried not to think about it for now!

I moved everything of ‘my’ stuff to my new home except the tank. I was too preoccupied with everything and could not think very clearly, so I wanted to leave it last. When I finished with everything else, I bought a large open top plastic tank slightly larger in capacity than my aquarium, placed it under a window to get sunlight, since it was late spring and after a week of aging seawater in it, I started moving  a few rock pieces at a time. It went smoothly, and my corals actually liked the new temporary setup. Maybe it was the sunlight, maybe it was the new water, but I had excellent results. My Aiptasias flourished as well. I felt that now was the time to attack them again. So I took a wooden toothpick and meticulously scraped every piece of live rock where they were attached, to get rid of as many as I could. Of course I could not get all of them, but I killed quite a few. I didn’t even thought I had so many! I moved only so many pieces of rock or coral each week to give the system time to adjust and to have time to do the Aiptasia scraping. It took me about a month to move all the contents of the aquarium to the plastic tank. I installed a couple powerheads for circulation and a needle wheel skimmer (actually a sad case of needle wheel skimmer) and no heating, no lighting, just direct sunlight for about six hours and indirect sunlight for another six hours a day from the window.

I emptied the aquarium and moved it with the help of a friend to my home (I think the damn thing got heavier than when I bought it, or I got weaker…). Having so good results in the plastic tank, and also having other things on my mind as well, such as getting new (used) furniture for my home I left everything in the plastic tank with little attention other than feeding the fish and emptying the skimmer collection cup. Summer went by, and when sunlight started to diminish in late autumn, I felt it was time to set the tank up again. During all this time I could not really observe in the plastic tank because of surface turbulence. I used to stop the powerheads for a couple minutes, to observe, but could not really see in there. It looked fine from above.

After setting up the aquarium again and moving some rocks from the plastic tank in there, I finally saw that everything was not so fine. I still had many Aiptasias, the rocks lost some coralline algae, a little hair algae appeared. I decided to attack the Aiptasias once again. I bought a Chelmon Rostratus and put him in the aquarium with the rocks. He was alone and roamed freely around the rocks looking for something to eat! He could not care less for the Aiptasias though. I decided not to feed him anything; he decided not to eat any Aipasias! But he had a taste for featherdusters, so it only took him a day to rid the aquarium of every tiny featherduster worm I managed to keep alive on every rock he could reach. That was sad, but I had read somewhere about it, I only hoped that he would eat some Aiptasias as well! He went on to starve for a week but he did not touch the Aiptasias. After a week he finally ate one (1) tiny Aiptasia that was on the glass, and died of starvation a couple of days later! That’s what I call total success!

I went on and bought another Chelmon Rostratus and I fed this one from the start, since he would not get any featherdusters now. He was better than the previous one and ate almost any Aiptasia on the easily accessible places. I proceeded and moved everything from the plastic tank in the aquarium. Unfortunately my second Chelmon Rostratus died about a month later and I still had Aiptasias in the tank. I got a third one, and he was the best of the three. He ate all the remaining Aiptasias in a week and died of starvation a couple weeks later because he would not eat anything else. I guess you can’t win everything.

Time went on and being now Aiptasia free I went on to enjoy my aquarium. Having new water in the aquarium meant that everything was extra happy. I stopped all water testing, the only thing I did was to add food and whatever additive I had left from my stash without buying anything new. I was financially exhausted at the time because of the mortgage payments for my new house and various other expenses, so the decision to cut back on spending was easy. Everything looked fine anyway! My anemone finally decided to stay where I wanted it, on a rock pillar, my clownfish pair decided to live in there and my home-grown-from-one-polyp Lemnalia reached the water surface and expanded like crazy. I figured I couldn’t improve on that, and did not have the money or the energy to do it anyway.

Well, since I stopped calcium additions, after my supply was used up, levels dropped. I employ a plenum system, and this is supposed to give some calcium but not much, so… the coralline slowed down, and detritus started to build up in pockets in the rocks and in the substrate. After a few months of just cleaning the glass, feeding the fish and cleaning the skimmer cup biweekly at best, the color of the back glass started changing from coralline pink to algae green. Nothing else seemed affected though, so I did not change my routine.

Six months later, the back glass was green and there were green patches on the rocks. Too many nutrients were in the water, no water change, no calcium to aid growth of organisms that would consume some of the nutrients. I went on to purchase a Lo Volpinus, to help my Zebrasoma Xanthurus  with the algae. I also purchased about thirty snails. The snails had some impact but my bristleworms got to them. My thirty snails were gone all but one in a couple of months. And the bristleworms were getting fatter… The herbivore fishes were also fat and extremely happy, my Lo Volpinus grew at a fast rate and doubled in size. All this from algae, since I cut back on feeding and only fed every other day.

I know that I must vacuum the gravel, the top of it at least and also change some water, but I do not seem to get around to do it. Don’t get me wrong, I like my aquarium, It costs a lot to run anyway with lighting, chilling, pumps and all, and I could easily sell it if I did not want it, I just didn’t have the energy to do anything more to it right now.

Being now about a year with no water change and no additives, some coralline algae still hanging on, corals, anemones and fish in great shape, clownfish start to lay eggs every couple of weeks, nothing to bother me too much, except that I know that I should be doing a better job at maintaining the tank. Then disaster struck on the morning of September 11. You know, I live in Athens, Greece but I am employed in a company that supports investment and asset management companies, and things started to go really bad in the stock market and depression hit all related companies. Greece was not too far to be affected by the terrorist strike, and that came on top of an already ailing local stock market. I managed to keep my job, but the whole thing affected me psychologically, I was disappointed and did not feel like doing anything to my aquarium. Mentality is everything, for me at least, and although it does not seem like much to change water and perform some other simple tasks around the tank, all I could muster was to feed the fish every now and then! I also fed my anemones very sparingly now if at all. Sometimes they got nothing for a whole month, except what they could catch on their own.

Time went on, and nothing really changed in the tank, I guessed it reached a new level of equilibrium now, with the “maintenance” schedule I was employing. Most of the free surfaces are now covered by corallimorfarians, even most of the back glass. It is not ugly to the eye, but other organisms are starting to decrease in size. The nutrient level now established in the tank favors some organisms over others in a way that makes me think of a few years back where I could not get corallimorfarians to multiply! Now they are all over the place! The fish are doing fine though, anemones and other inhabitants fairly well. Some small encrusting species are overgrown with corallimorfarians, everything tall enough to stand over them is fine. I am getting used to the new financial situation as time goes by and feel bad about neglecting the tank. I must admit though that it is not an ugly sight. Despite the algae covering on the back glass it is a very interesting aquarium with my 30 cm Lemnalia and my large anemone with the clownfish pair being the focal points. My Zebrasoma Xanthurus is fine, actually it is my older fish about 5 years old now. You see, my point of view is “I know I am doing something wrong but it seems to work reasonably well” which is hard to combat.

As I write these lines in August 2002, the situation is pretty much the same. When I compare the time when maintenance of the tank was proper and regular, with the neglected present situation, I come to some strange conclusions. I understand that nutrient level is much higher now. I use a homemade skimmer, which performs much better than anything else I bought from the market, but skimming selectively removes some pollutants while others accumulate. I use carbon but haven’t changed it for at least 18 months. The water is not noticeably yellow. Actually in the morning when the lights come on, it looks extremely clear and bluish. In the evening it takes a more yellowish hue, due to the brownish cyanobacteria mat, which starts to form on the gravel and is reflecting brown light in the water column. This cyanobacteria on the gravel thing was worse in the past and is directly related to pollutants that can be removed with skimming, and detritus vacuuming. I upgraded the skimming when it started to look ugly, to keep it under control. The fish however look better in this kind of water than when it was extra clean. My clownfish spawn regularly. They never did before. My herbivores look healthier and happier then before. I guess it is the algae grazing which keeps them occupied in a natural way. They even made friends with each other, which is not the easiest thing to do with a Zebrasoma Xanthurus and a Lo Volpinus. They now swim together and graze as a team! I never thought I would live to see this. I am not talking about tolerance, it is real friendship. I also have a couple of Gramma Loreto bought together a couple years back. They live happily in the tank and one of them has grown very large and fat. Maybe it is sexual dimorphism but I could not find information about them since they are not supposed to live together in the same tank! I hope they spawn! This will prove they are happy, won’t it!

So I came to the conclusion that my situation is not all bad. I prefer to think of it as a new higher nutrient level reef aquarium. It is stable from what I can see, since I do not run any tests, not even pH. I plan to upgrade maintenance, which will not necessarily be a good thing, since it will shift the equilibrium point again to a new level. This will result in some organisms gaining ground over some others. I think that what is most important is to keep the nutrient level constant, whatever that be, and keep the organisms that seem to like it. I couldn’t keep anything that requires very clean nutrient poor water, but I have a pretty tank with lots of fish and inverts, a great large anemone with clownfish that spawn regularly, and in my mind this is a very interesting tank. My friends seem to think so too! What I am saying here is that the environment is good for some organisms either way. They will sort it out themselves if you let them do it. If I had the time, the resources and the mentality to do it properly, I would, but after almost three years of “neglect” it does not seem all that bad. Don’t get me wrong; I am not proposing that you do it on purpose! I believe that the reef aquarium has usually such diversity that it will adjust to neglect. It will not be exactly like it was, but it will be alive and waiting for you when you get home from work! The collection of organisms in a typical reef tank does not live in the same water in the wild anyway. When you shift the nutrient level of the tank you just move the water quality closer to what some of the organisms prefer. They are the ones that will overgrow the others which find now conditions unfavorable. But it won’t kill the tank. I do not really know if it can be returned to the previous state without serious ill effects to the organisms that prefer the “neglect” state.

Well, regardless of my conclusions being correct or not, I hope you find my experience useful. It seems that reef aquaria are much tougher than we came to think in recent years. And to paraphrase a lighting equipment manufacturer’s motto, that’s good news for aquarists!

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