Top Five Mistakes Made by New Fishkeepers

Fishkeeping needn’t be problematic and frustrating, as long as good methods and practice are followed from the start. Here are five all too common fishkeeping errors and how to avoid them.

Keeping fish properly is really not difficult when the correct methods and techniques are observed. But neither are fish the simple, instant, low maintenance pets they’re often made out to be. Fish have basic requirements that must be met in order to keep them happy, healthy and beautiful. Keeping them properly by following these requirements leads to a highly rewarding pastime with tanks and fish that will be admired by everyone who sees them. Keeping them inadequately without following the basic requirements will lead to a frustrated fishkeeper, miserable or dead fish, and unhealthy-looking tanks.

New fishkeepers are often given all sorts of poor advice, which starts them off on completely the wrong foot and throws them in at the deep end with all manner of problems that are likely to put them off fishkeeping for good. But if they start with the right advice, the necessary patience to take things slowly, and an attitude of wanting to provide the best possible environment for their new finned friends, the whole process will be rewarding, successful, and a gateway to the fascinating world of aquatic life.

Beginner fishkeepers frequently make several common mistakes, which can be avoided completely by seeking good advice and researching the basics of the hobby before making any purchases from the local fish store. Here are five of these frequent errors and how to avoid them.

1. Inadequate Cycling

By far the most common and fatal mistake made by the new fishkeeper is failure to cycle a new tank properly before adding fish. All too often a newbie is told to simply fill the tank with water and let it “sit” for a week or so before adding fish, a few at a time. There is no purpose in just letting a filled tank “sit”. Cycling is about allowing the filter to mature, which means letting it gain a stable colony of bacteria. Bacteria need ammonia, which they feed on, to grow. A tank with no fish or other source of ammonia is not going to begin the cycling process, much less be ready for fish within a week

Cycling can be a lengthy process, sometimes taking a month or more, which is where the patience comes in. There is no way to skip this step. It can be sped up by the addition of filter media to the new filter from an already established filter in another tank, but close observation of water readings will still be necessary to be sure the tank is fully cycled and ready to go.

The process, as mentioned above, begins with ammonia, which fish excrete in their waste. Ammonia is toxic to fish, but is removed promptly by the bacteria which coat surfaces within the tank and seed themselves in the filter. Once these bacteria are present, they convert the ammonia into nitrite. Nitrite is the second stage in the cycling process, and is also toxic to fish. A different type of bacteria is needed to consume the nitrite and turn it into relatively harmless nitrate. Once this second stage of bacteria are established, the tank is cycled and stocking can gradually begin.

A source of ammonia is vital to begin and maintain the cycling process. This can either be provided by a few hardy fish, which are more able to tolerate cycling than most others (zebra danios are a commonly used variety here), or a process known as “fishless cycling” can be used. Fishless cycling is generally considered the better option, because it doesn’t risk the lives and wellbeing of fish during the cycling process. It is a simple method that uses liquid ammonia, as available from most hardware stores. The ammonia is regularly added to the tank in measured doses, providing a food source for the new bacteria.

The other vital part of the cycling process is regular testing of the tank water. Test kits can be purchased from any fish store, and allow the water in the new tank to be tested to determine what chemicals are present, and at what levels. An ammonia, a nitrite, and a nitrate testing kit will be required. When the water is showing levels of ammonia, cycling has just begun. When the ammonia levels start dropping off and nitrite levels begin to rise, the second stage of cycling is beginning. And when nitrite levels begin dropping and nitrate is present, the cycle is nearly complete. Cycling is completed when ammonia and nitrite read zero, and nitrate is showing low levels. Only then can fish be added, and gradually so as not to overload the filter too quickly and throw out the cycle’s balance. Water testing should still be carried out regularly to be sure that ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate are at safe levels.

2. Failing to Research Fish Species

Another very common mistake is the failure to research fish species before purchasing them. Different types of fish have different requirements, some more complex and demanding than others. Many of the fish commonly sold in aquatic stores are unsuitable for beginners. Sadly, some are unsuitable to all but the most experienced and dedicated fishkeepers, often because of their eventual space requirements, but are still sold all too often without any inquiry as to the conditions the purchaser is able to provide.

Proper research into any fish species before buying it is crucial to the wellbeing of the fish and any others that are already in the tank. The water requirements should be discovered – such as whether the fish needs hard or soft water, a lower or higher pH, or a different temperature. The feeding requirements are also important, as not all fish will take standard flake foods, and some have additional dietary needs. The compatibility of the fish to be purchased with those that are already present in the tank is also very important – will the new fish attack or prey on the others? Does it require a different environment, like more rocks or plants, or a sandy substrate? Is it a shoaling species that will need to be in a group of at least six of its kind? And something that is frequently overlooked is the eventual size of the fish when fully grown.

Most fish are juveniles when they’re bought, and some of the more common species can grow to huge sizes, often unbeknownst to the person buying them for their small tank. Fish such as clown loaches, Bala (or silver) sharks, tinfoil barbs, silver dollars, and countless others are cute little babies in the shop, but will rapidly grow to a foot long or more, and need very large tanks with the space to grow properly so they don’t become stunted, which leads to all sorts of health problems and a shortened life expectancy. So do that research! Plan your species carefully and meet their requirements, and you’ll have happy fish.

3. Overstocking

It’s all too easy to overstock a tank. There are so many lovely types of fish out there… but there’s no way you can have all of them at once! An ideally stocked tank is one that actually looks slightly understocked. If it looks like there would be room for a few more fish in there, it’s probably perfect as it is. Fish need space, some need their own territories, and filters can only cope with so much fish waste before the balance of bacteria collapses and you have a mini-cycle on your hands, which is a threat to all the fish.

Despite some of the misnomers that are out there, there is no real rule to the number of fish that can be kept in a tank. Some species need more room than others, some get larger than others, some produce more waste than others. The only accurate guideline is to provide the individual requirements for the fish by researching them properly, and aiming to keep your tank under rather than overstocked.

Also try to have fish at different levels in the water column so they aren’t encroaching on each other’s space. Some types of fish, such as many tetras and danios, are surface swimmers, spending most of their time in the top levels of the tank. Others, like barbs and swordtails, are mid-water swimmers. And then there are the bottom-dwelling fish such as cories and loaches. There are also a few species that spend time throughout all different levels. A balance of these types makes for an evenly stocked community tank.

4. Improper Maintenance Routine

Regular aquarium maintenance is essential for the wellbeing of the tank’s residents. Fish are kept healthy by a regular supply of fresh water and the removal of decomposing waste (be it fish waste, leftover food, or rotting plant matter) from the gravel substrate. Many new fishkeepers are unaware that they must carry out regular partial water changes to keep their fish healthy and nitrate levels down.

Nitrate is not dangerous to fish in low amounts, but can cause problems if levels become too high. The only way to remove nitrate from the water is by diluting it with fresh water. As long as levels are kept low through this frequent routine, nitrate should never cause a problem. Some people advise water change routines of around 25% every two to four weeks, but more and more serious fishkeepers are now rejecting this routine as nowhere near enough to keep fish at their healthiest. A much better routine is to change a higher percentage of the water every week, which allows a fairly steady supply of clean water into the tank, more accurately representing what occurs in the wild in freshwater lakes and rivers, which are nothing like the closed system of a tank. Many people change about 50% of the water on a weekly basis, resulting in a stable tank environment and healthy fish that are much more resistant to disease.

The gravel should be cleaned at the same time as the water change, using a gravel cleaner attached to a siphon. The gravel cleaning tube is pushed into the gravel or other substrate and sucks out the waste and detritus that sinks to the bottom of the tank. The filter medium should also be rinsed regularly, although how often depends on the type of filter. Filter media should always be rinsed in old tank water (preferably whatever has just been removed from the tank), as rinsing it in tap water exposes the essential bacteria to chlorine, which kills the bacteria and therefore upsets the cycle once more. New tank water should always have a dechlorinating chemical added to it in order to remove this chlorine and some other heavy metals, which are toxic to fish and bacteria. Dechlorinators are available from all aquatic stores.

5. Failure to Quarantine New Fish

The fifth top mistake made by new fishkeepers is the failure to quarantine newly purchased fish before adding them to the established tank. It’s all too easy to do this; the fish looks beautiful and healthy, everything in its tank in the store looked just as healthy, and you can’t wait to see the new fish in your tank… but failing to quarantine fish is the number one way to introduce disease to your tank and put all your other fish at risk. Fish may be carrying any number of illnesses that aren’t noticeable for over a week or more, so it’s always a good idea to keep the new fish separate from the others for at least one to two weeks, longer if you have concerns that it may have been exposed to disease (perhaps if the fish in the tank next to it at the store looked ill), only adding it when it looks perfectly healthy at the end of this time.

A quarantine tank is a good idea for a number of reasons, because it can also double as a hospital tank for any fish that might need treating separately at any time. It can be a fairly small tank as it isn’t intended to be permanent accommodation, and as long as it has the basics of a filter and heater (if you’re keeping tropical fish), nothing else is essential, although it is nicer for the fish if there’s a thin layer of gravel and some light décor to help it feel secure. Of course, the quarantine tank needs to be cycled just as any other tank, but this is easily overcome by having a small extra filter running on your main tank at all times, which can then be removed and put in the quarantine tank whenever it is needed. Keeping this additional filter running constantly ensures it is mature and ready to go the moment you need it, giving you an instantly cycled tank for quarantining new fish or looking after ill ones.

These are some of the most important requirements for successfully keeping fish, but they are all too frequently overlooked by a new fishkeeper eager to get going. Following them may require a little more dedication to the task, but if you’re not prepared to keep fish properly, as with any animal, you really shouldn’t be keeping them at all. Sticking to these basics will enable an excellent start to the joys of keeping fish, giving them a happy, healthy environment and the fishkeeper a thoroughly rewarding hobby for many years to come.

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