Transporting small fry

by George J. Reclos & Frank Panis

On January 25th, I had to make a business trip to Belgium and, naturally, my first thought was to meet Frank, even though the duration of the trip was extremely short (less than 24 hours there - the business meeting included). Frank was recovering from a serious illness which complicated things even more, but in the end we managed to meet each other. It was the first time I saw the whole family (Catho was not born during my last visit there) and spending some time with my beloved friends always makes a trip something enjoyable.  Well, in case you were wondering, there were also some fishy issues associated with this meeting. Frank had successfully bred Altolamprologus calvus "White Chaitika" and I really loved this fish so he was kind enough to offer me some of his fry. Since this is a rather small fish when fully adult Johnny and I decided to dedicate a couple of tanks to raise them and eventually keep two pairs. There are also some other friends who were keen to receive this fish so, there we were. Frank proposed some new techniques for the transportation of the fish, so I thought of it again and again and finally decided to give it a try. If you don't try new things you never learn and the transportation of fish is always a very important issue, for all of us. As you can see in the photo below, I took a suitcase which I didn't really need, just for the fish. This particular suitcase has carried more fish than an average petshop normally holds. Six Coca Cola bottles (the 2 liter ones), methylene blue, cotton swaps, heat packs, tons of white foam, fish bags, rubber bands, special waterproof tape, my last oxygen pills (a gift from Francesco) and more.. all went in there. 

The luggage filled with the essentials... for a business trip ! Photo: G.J.Reclos

Of course, it wouldn't be me, if everything went according to schedule. Indeed, on the day before my departure, a weather front from Siberia came to Greece, with extremely low temperatures and snow.. too much snow. As you can see in the photo below, taken at 7 o'clock in the morning on our way to the airport, the road was covered with snow and ice.. which is really rare for Greece. As if this was not enough, more snow was falling during our short ride to the airport.

Snow falling, snow on the road, snow everywhere.. A delayed white Christmas.. Photo: G.J.Reclos

And more snow, at the airport. Photo: G.J.Reclos

What you see in the photo above, is the Athens airport just minutes before we took off. Thanks to the authorities, the runway was clear of ice but the white scenery says it all. Sub zero temperatures in Greece and me getting in Belgium to bring tropical fish.. It was evident that temperature would be one of the key problems in our attempt to carry the little beauties to Greece.

Belgium.. hours later. Guess what? More snow..  Photo: G.J.Reclos

As you can see in the photo above, Belgium was no different so I felt really like at home - at least as far as the weather conditions are concerned, since I always feel at home when I visit the Panis family !! Let's leave Frank tell you more about his new idea..

Juvenile fish are usually small, and this opens new opportunities for transporting them. We can use the common but vulnerable plastic bags with large openings or even double bags to have an extra safety buffer, but we don't really NEED them. We can use very sturdy and large 2-liter plastic bottles with a 2 cm bottleneck that are used for gas-containing soft-drinks like Coca-Cola instead. There are also the much thinner 2-liter plastic bottles for gasless drinks like fruit juice that can do the job too for larger fish as they usually have a 3-4cm opening. With these bottles all worries about leaking and losing air/oxygen are gone.

Catching the small fish out of the raising tank. Photo Hilde Guns

Of course this method needs a bit of preparation as it's desirable that the funnel we're going to use has the exact same opening as the bottle itself. Of course this is easily solved by cutting an identical bottle 1/3 from the top. Then we can start catching the fish. These small fish can be put in a small bucket or beaker first. Then we need some assistance to transfer the fish into the bottle. One guy (called the "idiot" ) holds the bottle and the funnel and the other one pours the fish from the small bucket or beaker into the bottle. Two sets of eyes are also highly welcomed to check that no fish gets stuck in the funnel. Another portion of water is kept to flush the "sticky" ones and to fill the bottle to the desired volume. Of course it's best to do this above the tank when possible, as the very active jumping cichlids can accidentally fall outside the bottle. This way they would land into the water again instead of the cold floor or on another hostile surface. An alternative can be a large plastic basket with a bit of equally warm tank water on the bottom. When all fish are in the bottles we can add a bit of methylene blue and blow in oxygen to saturate the water with this essential gas. If the trip is rather short, another good alternative is adding an oxygen pill in each bottle. Usually the fry only consume a tiny bit of oxygen compared to larger cichlids, so this shouldn't be a too big issue, especially when the fish density in each bottle is very low.

Pouring the fry from the bucket through the funnel into the bottle. Photo Hilde Guns

The Altolamprologus fry at the bottom of the bottle. Photo Hilde Guns

Look at this smile ;-) Photo Hilde Guns

Diluted methylene blue and distributing it over the 4 bottles. Photo Hilde Guns.

Transporting fry during winter creates another challenge. The very cold temperatures are not exactly ideal for the sensitive fry and can kill them very quickly. Thereby we need to take strict measures to protect our beloved young cichlids as well as possible. We can wrap insulating foam around the bottles and add heat packs in the box or case to keep the temperature high enough.

Extremely professionally packed Altolamprologus calvus fry. Photo Frank Panis

I must confess that I had my doubts when I first listened to Frank's idea of using the Coke bottles for the transportation. However, a couple of days before my visit to Belgium he told me that he run a test and the fish went smoothly in the bottles. I know that these bottles are extremely durable and much safer than any kind of bag so, if we could get the fish in, this would be the best possible choice. After considering this solution for cichlids, I discussed (with some other friends) the idea of plastic tupperware containers for the transportation of larger fish and especially catfish, which, unlike cichlids, become hyperactive during the dark phase of transportation and, with the spines they usually have, may tear any bag apart. This will be probably tested in the near future so watch out for some additional notes. To come back to the A. calvus, each bottle was wrapped with white foam using rubber bands, while the bottom of the suitcase was covered with the same material as you can see in the photo above. After all the bottles were in place, the heat packs were added between them. The heat packs were also wrapped in foam to allow for a more gradual release of heat since we didn't want to boil the fry. Two heat packs were used for this transport (many thanks to Andreas Kamarinos and Antonis Roussos for donating / bringing them). A second layer of white foam was placed over the bottles, so, any heat released from the heat packs would be trapped there and not escape to the environment. The suitcase was closed and the normal process was followed at the Brussels airport.

Flying back. Don't let the sun deceive you. It was only visible at 33.000 feet. Photo by G.J.Reclos

The small fry arrived in Athens but when I checked the outer surface of the suitcase it seemed rather cold, which smelled a disaster. When back home I opened the suitcase and was happy to see that they were all alive although the temperature of the water in one of the bottles was just over 18C. Despite what we thought, the correct number of heat packs would be one pack / bottle, wrapped as described above. The three bottles which were in contact with the heat packs had kept a nice warm temperature but the fourth one was considerably cooler. I removed all the foam, opened the screw in covers and placed the bottles in a tank to raise the temperature to 26C before releasing the fish. After 25 minutes, the bottles were immersed in the tank with the opening just under the surface of the water. The fish slowly swam out of the bottle in the tank, while the water they were kept in stayed in the bottle. This has the advantage of avoiding the addition of methylene blue in the tank - which has an inhibitory effect on the biological filtration. Two hours later, the little Tanganyikans had their first meal which they enjoyed, despite the long and cold travel.

The beauties two hours after their addition in the tanks. Actually, there were 25 of them, divided in three 100 l tanks (6+13+6). Hopefully they will become the same kind of excellent fish I saw in Frank's tank. I am sure that Francesco will take his share of fry in August, when we all meet in Belgium again ! All in all, this was proven to be another excellent idea from Frank, which may be extremely useful when you have to transport small fish.

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