Fishful Thinking

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A very basic guide to the dos and don’ts of fish keeping.

It’s interesting to realise that, as a society, we have come to the conclusion that the iconic goldfish (and all its fishy friends) are quite content to live in a bowl not much larger than themselves, and the eventual death is surely due to a “fault” in the fish.

Of course, perhaps it’s time that this changed. For anyone who has ever kept fish, it can be truly puzzling as to why, mysteriously, it all becomes too much for our scaled friend, and they pass away. Strangely enough, however, this fails to inspire any sense of guilt in most people, who instead believe that purchasing yet more fish, dumping them into exactly the same conditions, and wondering why, once again, the poor things move on to a better place.

So, for anyone keeping fish, here is a basic guide, a few dos and don’ts. Please, don’t use this as your only reference, invest in a book, or use one of the many fishkeeping webpages, but this may very well save a few fishy lives:


Search around for a deal on ebay, your local freecycle, the advertisements in your newspaper or www.aquarist-classifieds.co.uk. You may be very surprised as to what can be found, and this may open up your budget for the purchasing of vital water chemistry management kits. However, remember to inspect any second hand equipment whenever possible. There have been many horror stories in which a tank has mysteriously cracked, shattered, and spewed its precious contents all over the expensive carpet that was bought only a few months ago!

Please, research carefully into the fish you would like to keep. Many small, apparently innocent fish will often wreak havoc in a community aquarium, and you should always look into the maximum size of a fish and how agressive it is. Two examples would be the clown loach, which, whilst sold small, often around the size of most corys at 5cm, seems an ideal bottom feeder, renowned for its healthy appetite and playful demeanour. However, the purchasing of this fish is a disaster waiting to happen for most small (”nano”) aquaria, as the clown loach can reach sizes of up to 16 inches! Another example would be the dwarf puffer, who appears to be small, and undeniably cute. However, not only is the fish incredibly sensitive to changes in water chemistry, but also is incredibly aggressive for its size, attacking any fish too slow or too stupid to escape. These beasties are hardly a good choice for a community aquarium!

Cycle” your tank. Further information can be found on most fishkeeping webpages, but briefly explained, this is the “activation time” for the lovely bacteria in your filter. They need time to grow in number enough to eat all the waste in your aquarium. If enough time isn’t taken, then any fish introduced too early will very likely die. This is one of the most common mistakes made. So remember to purchase a bacterial activation kit, and closely monitor the water chemistry until the bacteria can successfully remove any ammonia injected into a tank.

As mentioned earlier, refer to a book, or fishkeeping website whenever possible. What would be ideal, is to sign up to a fishkeeping forum, where you can receive advice that is specifically relevant to your own dilemmas. A great website and forum would be www.practicalfishkeeping.co.uk, which i know from personal experience has a huge amount of supportive forum members.

Consider the following species as easier fish to keep as a beginner: most types of danios (your probably most likely to find Zebra Danios), barbs (although some are notorious fin nippers, many are quite docile, for instance the Cherry Barb, provided it is kept in a shoal of no less than 5, and if possible, with a ratio of 2 females to 1 male. Ask your local fish shop about this, and they should explain why) and corydoras catfish (nicknamed “corys”). All three of these prefer to be in a shoal of five or more, so consider choosing five corys (of the same type), and five of one of either danios or barbs. You may experience a small amount of fighting, but do not worry, as this should settle down once a pecking order is established. Later, you could introduce some tetras (e.g the popular Neon Tetra), but they are smaller, and slightly more sensitive. You could also consider introducing guppies, platies, mollies or swords, but as these are primarily slow moving with ornate finnage, do NOT keep them with fin nippers (such as many barbs).

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Do not think goldfish a) are a good first pet, or b) can be kept in a bowl. No, not even one. Most people fail to realise that, despite there being no need for heating, they are notoriously long lived and can grow up to 15cm! Yes, many will reply claiming that they keep a goldfish in a bowl, and it seems to be just fine. Indeed, some local fish shops may encourage it. But goldfish need a spacious tank, and powerful filtration and aeration, as they are surprisingly messy eaters. So yes, a fish tank for goldfish needs cycling too.fish tank for goldfish needs cycling too.

Do not continue to purchase fish for a tank after the previous inhabitants have died. Now, I’m not saying you should give up fish keeping as a hobby, I’m suggesting that you attempt to establish the cause of death. Fish, contrary to popular belief, do not just occasionally lose the will to live. They do not run out of batteries; they are not a toy. If you add more fish to a tank in which the previous inhabitants have died, then what killed the first fish is likely to kill the second. Please, it may seem a daunting concept, but learn about water chemistry. Learn what are healthy levels of ammonia, nitrates, CO2 (which is needed for plants, but not to the extent that it harms the fish) and pH for your fish. Buy a book, or research online. I promise it isn’t too complicated!

Don’t start small. This might seem a strange thing to say, but a larger tank is actually easier to look after than a smaller one! The water chemistry of “nano” tanks is considerably harder to keep constant. A perfect tank, if possible, should have a length of around 90cm.

Do not forget to change the water regularly. Ideally, a 25% (never a 100%) water change every week is perfect for most fish. Remember to use a dechlorinator on your tap water, and to research into the pH and hardness of the water in your area!

Do not assume that fish are stupid. Fish actually have a memory of up to and in some cases, well over a year. They are surprisingly intelligent, and have complex mating rituals. Some even mate for life, which is something that many humans can’t cope with! Many fish can be handfed, and develop a bond with their owner, just like a dog or cat, however, this is normally the case for larger fish. They should, therefore, be treated with the equivalent respect and love.

Don’t overstock, or stock too soon. Allow the tank to cycle, and then only add a small amount of fish at a time. Cycling can take anything from around a few weeks, to in excess of a month, so be patient!

Don’t overfeed. This just increases the strain on your filter. For smaller fish, feeding a pinch of flakes, 2-3 times a day, should be fine. Of course, remember to research into the diet of your chosen fish!

Don’t forget that there is different equipment for each type of aquarium. The best type to start with would be a tropical freshwater aquarium, for which you will need (as the very basics) a heater, filter, lighting, substrate, décor (essential for shy species), and potentially some plants (although this can quickly bring other equipment into the equation). However, once the tank is established, it is normally one of the easiest to keep.

I hope this article has helped, but remember, I have only touched on most topics here. I urge you to research more into your hobby, to guarantee your fishy friend’s lives are not at risk!

That said, fish keeping is rewarding, fascinating, and equally as fun as keeping any other pet, if not more so.

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