How to Keep a reef tank for 40 years with few or no problems

Paul B

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In My Opinion, how I feel a reef tank could be run to last over forty years with "Almost" no problems. (from a few years ago, I forget when)

This is not for a quarantined tank, for that listen to Humblefish as it is a totally different method

First of all this will not be for Noobs as I realize most things printed for this hobby are. There are many other people besides Noobs and if many Noobs tried these methods, they would fail. Not because they are stupid or have knock knees, but because this hobby requires a level of experience that can not be taught by reading alone, but comes about by seeing with your own eyes and by making mistakes which unfortunately we all had to make at one point or another. After a number of years we can look at a fish and read it's mind, know how it feels, determine if it is lonely or has gas. I can look at my tank from across the street and determine if one fish has one scale out of place, but that takes time and nothing but time will teach that skill.

This will also not be for a very mature, successful aquarist who has a well run functioning, old system because those people, Me being one of them, are hard headed, stubborn and in many cases bald and we don't like people telling us how to run our system or show us how to dance. (watch, those will be the people argueing with me tomorrow, but that is fine, I would probably do the same thing and these people are friends of mine so it is just a friendly conversation until they throw eggs at my house.

This is for the few people that fall in between those extremes. Those people I like to call in the "Fusion Zone" where they are not sure what to do. If they should put in a DSB, BB, keep moray eels, bake a cake, eat broccoil or forget about it and go bungee jumping.

I started with "In My Opinion" because virtually everyone will disagree with almost all of my ideas. I even disagree with some of them. (This is why I wrote a book)

If I were to start a new tank tomorrow I would do it exactly as I did when I started my tank 45 years ago. (with a few exceptions) In those days I used Natural Sea water and I realize most people can't do that and that is a shame. So if you must, use ASW. ASW has a few problems first of which it is actually "fake" sea water. Yes, it has "most" of the chemicals that we can measure in generally the same proportions but real sea water has everything in it that is on earth. Things from undersea volcanic vents, meteorites (some of which I assume contain substances we don't test for because we are not sure exactly what they are but Chewbacca spit may be one of them) everything that runs off land masses during storms, some good and not so good. Chemicals exuded by corals, algae, bacteria, viruses and Columbus wash water. It is questionable if these substances are good or not, but our fish evolved in them so I consider them natural and I want my tank to be as natural as possable. This is very important to me and to my fish. (But most of my tank water is also ASW)

You can of course run an un natural tank and have success as most tanks are run like that. But most tanks have problems.

Make believe I put "In My Opinion" before every sentence so when people argue with me, I can point to that.

I would start a tank with gravel, not sand (remember IMO) Sand can work very well and is needed with certain fish but after 45 years, gravel has seemed to work perfectly for me. Gravel has one huge benefit. Any detritus (which I do not feel is bad) hides in it and doesn't get blown around. "In My Tank" I would help the gravel by installing a reverse undergravel filter and running it very slow. (I will give you time to stop laughing now)

Thats enough time. If your tank has run longer than mine without a reverse undergravel filter, raise your hand. Thats what I thought.

People ask me if I were to start a tank tomorrow, if I would use a "better, more modern system". First you would have to show me that system which lasts longer. (Thats what I thought)

The reverse UG filter needs some maintenance just like The Space Shuttle, the Enterprize air craft carrier, your teeth, your car, your toenails and everything that works needs maintenance. The good thing about a Reverse UG filter is that it only needs a stirring once or twice a year and a filtering of whatever comes out of it. That is not because detritus is bad, but that it can clog in between the gravel grains.

A huge advantage of this systemis that oxygen will flow through the entire substrait nourishing worms, amphipods, copepods, brittle stars, Godzilla larvae and everything else that is at the bottom of the food chain. Remember, this is for a natural, immune tank.

The next thing I would do is (and remember to add " IMO" before every sentenance) buy a fish (not the most expensive or delicate fish there is) and if I started this tank with fake water, I would put it in a spare tank, not decorated with PVC but have real rocks in there, I would watch this fish for maybe a week and if it is not covered in parasites, I would put it in the Main tank. I did not say to quarantine for a reason and this is "my" theories and I did say IMO.

Yes, this can be "dangerous", but remember this tank does not have any coral in it yet. The fish you bought was hopefully collected a few weeks ago in the sea and all fish in the sea have some sort of immunity. That immunity will be severely tested in this new tank and may develop some sort of parasites. This is OK. (and actually preferable) Yes i did say that but this is how "I" would start a natural, immune tank.

If you are squeemish, you could put the fish in copper for about 10 days as that will kill parasites and not affect the fishes natural immunity. (Or you could stop reading and take a dance class, maybe Rhumba)

If I were a Noob I would not do this or know anything about it because I did say Noobs should not be reading this. Perhaps they would be watching a Soap Opera if they still have such things.

As soon as I buy this fish I would try to feed it with live foods such as blackworms or earthworms. Just a couple of worms a day is fine because we are not that interested in the protein, but in the live bacteria in the worms. If you can't, or won't get worms, at least try to get clams. Live clams would be the best thing but I also realize many people live in Utah, the Sahara or Tunisia and can't get live anything except maybe Buffalo which is not the best food.

You can use frozen clams from a supermarket but my fear is that there may not be much living bacteria in a commercially frozen clam. If that is all you can get, then get that.

I did "not" say to feed squid, octopus, fish fillets, shrimp, chicken, taco's or anything else because we want the guts of the prey animal, not just the tentacles. This is very important.

As I said we are mainly interested in the live bacteria for this "natural" tank which By the way will also be an immune tank. I would also feed something like LRS food or some other commercially available food preferably with pro biotics added.

If you can't get foods with live bacteria, forget what you read so far and set up a good quarantine system as you will not be able to run a natural or immune tank. Nothing wrong with that, it is what it is. Just a different type of a system and a system that many successful people have. Just remember a quarantined fish must always be with quarantined fish as they will have no immunity from parasites.

Now when we added that first fish to our tank, we also added parasites AAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHOOOOOOOO. Don't panic. A natural, immune tank needs parasites. Don't think of them as bad, but as "not very cute" poodle puppies. If this all works out, the parasites will live right along side your fish, maybe sampling a little slime occasionally while keeping your fish immune from the parasites.

Remember, fish have been living with parasites since they were invented, probably by Al Gore. Healthy fish are well equipped to handle parasites and parasites are needed if we are to keep our fish immune from them.

If, that fish we put into our tank becomes "covered" in parasites, we need to catch it and place it in copper at the proper dosage. This should not be viewed as a bad thing, I said there were parasites in there didn't I!. Do Not put copper or anything else in your main tank to kill parasites. If you see a couple of parasites, don't worry about it, maybe go out for a nice dinner of linguini and clams, try the merlot.

Now when you eliminate those parasites on that fish and continue to feed it the "proper" foods (which are not flakes, pellets or any dry foods of any kind) it will have an immunity from those parasites in that tank. But we need to feed the fish the foods I mentioned. (always) There are no short cuts and please don't mention "Quality" dry foods. All dry foods are Quality, but they are baked, sterilized and loaded with preservatives, if they were not, they would rot and virtually any great food will go bad very quickly without freezing unless it is live like a worm (the best food)

OK now we have the "hopefully" immune fish in there and we are feeding it the proper foods. Now we can buy another one and do the same thing.

But we must "always" feed the correct foods with living bacteria. It is OK if we go on vacation for a week to have someone come over and feed them oatmeal or TV dinners but only for a week.

A diatom filter is a great invention for a natural reef tank for a few reasons. If you would like to limit the number of parasites in your new tank, a diatom filter will severly restrict their numbers, but it won't cure anything by itself. I use a diatom filter to stir up my UG filter a couple of times a year, but any canister filter will do that.

If that new fish (or any fish) became covered in parasites, a diatom filter in conjunction with copper will cure that fish much faster and is similar to the tank transfer method which accomplishes almost the same thing. I sometimes purposely buy fish covered in parasites because i get them for free, a diatom filter and copper, in many cases clears these fish from parasites and they become great fish. Many of my fish I aquired like that and all my fish only die of old age.

Algae, cyano, flatworms, black ich, and a whole slew of other things seem to be a problem in this hobby and IMO there is no need to "Battle" these things. This is a hobby so there is no need to battle anything, if you want to battle, tell your wife she looks fat in those shorts.

Now the disclaimer:

This is as I keep saying my opinions from my experiences which span over 60 years. I did not come up with this last Tuesday and none of it came from a book or from a rumor or fish forum. It is all from my experience and I have kept many specimins of almost every fish available and have spawned many of them. I have also spent time under water with most of the fish we normally keep, but not Godzilla Larvae as they scare me.


My Book
The Lady on the corner who keeps 40 cats.

Paul B

Well-known member
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Bobby, I didn't mean to put something on your forum that doesn't involve quarantining, I just can't help myself. :unsure:

Paul B

Well-known member
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Relax! Have Fun! It’s a Hobby!
saltwater aquarium fish and corals
I realize that many of us take our aquarium keeping very seriously, but we have to put it in context and remember that it is just a hobby. A hobby, by definition, is something that gives us pleasure, not something that is necessarily important (except, of course, to us and our fish and corals).
Actually, they are not even our fish and corals. Most are wild creatures that we decided to “help” by rescuing them from the sea, housing them in fake water, feeding them foods that they never saw in nature, and illuminating them artificially while providing a vastly different water movement system and forcing them to live with creatures from the other side of the planet whom they’ve never met.
Between the aquarium and the deep blue sea
Besides that, we love what we do and some of us are very good at it indeed. Many of the fish that we “rescue” actually live longer in our care than they would in the sea. If given a choice, I am not sure whether the fish would want to stay in the sea or come and live with us, given that some of us watch reality TV in full view of our tanks. Who knows whether fish even like reality TV? I mean “Dancing with the Stars” shouldn’t excite fish much, as they don’t have legs. I would assume the National Geographic Channel would be a better choice. Also, some people identify as liberal or conservative, but what about fish? I am not sure how fish would vote. Which party is for which fish?
In contrast to their wild counterparts, fish in our care are prone to the same afflictions that we are due to lack of exercise. My dad, many years ago, was a seafood peddler, and every day he walked over the Brooklyn Bridge, pushing a very heavy cart full of fresh fish, crustaceans, and ice. I just walk over to the fridge and grab a shrimp cocktail. Long before that, our great, great, great, great, etc. grandfathers had to run down game if they wanted to eat. They were in great shape. However, now we can drive our 300-horsepower, 3,000-pound cars three blocks over to McDonalds and drive away with a small part of a cow that someone else caught and made into chopped meat.
Reef aquarium corals

Fish in the sea have a hard time finding food and often have to swim after it and then fight with it while simultaneously fending off other would-be predators that either want to steal their meal or eat them. This happens to wild fish at almost every meal, but in our tanks, they kind of float there, waiting for someone to squirt some food in their face at about the same time every day. That’s how they feed supermodels; they just spray some chicken soup into their face once or twice a day.
Fish, like us, have muscles, and although I am not a fish strength trainer, I assume their muscles atrophy just as ours do if they aren’t used. I think if we released our fish into the sea (please don’t!), they wouldn’t make it ten minutes, as all the rest of the fish (after making fun of them for being in such terrible shape) would be flying past them from all angles to catch prey.
No contest
Many of us lose sight of what we are trying to accomplish by yearning for the best tank, in which everything grows and spawns, corals grow up the walls, and we can have the honor of Tank of the Month or Post of the Month or just Something, Anything of the Month. But this thought is completely wrong. This is not a competition, and there is no end game. I know because I have been doing this for over 60 years and I am still not done. We try desperately to get to the point where we’ve won, where everything is perfect, but if we think like that, we are sure to be disappointed.
Aquarium keeping is like sailing. When you go on a sailboat, you don’t usually even have a destination. It’s the act of sailing that is the fun. If we actually get anywhere, that is great, but then if we needed to be somewhere, would we really jump into a very expensive sailboat that goes maybe four miles per hour in a good wind and splashes us every five minutes? I mean really.
It’s called “aquarium keeping,” not “aquarium finishing” because we will never be finished. It is the ride, the act of keeping these colorful and expensive little creatures alive that is the thrill. And keeping them alive is only part of the fun. Changing water, cleaning glass, testing, dosing, re-aquascaping and writing about our experiences are all part of the fun, too. Even when something dies—yes, even when something dies—we can find fulfillment in figuring out what happened. If nothing ever died, we would call it stamp collecting. Now that’s a thrill.
Challenges are part of the fun
So when cyanobacteria, hair algae, flatworms, ich, or any number of other problems occur, be happy for the experience and don’t think of it as a disaster. A tornado is a disaster, an earthquake is a disaster, a supermodel gaining a pound is a disaster, but something happening in a fish tank is not a disaster. It’s just part of this wonderful hobby, a hobby that makes us happy.
I’ve enjoyed this fantastic hobby every day of my long life, and I will keep doing it until they put me in a nursing home. It has helped me through hard mental times and just boring times. Sometimes I spend days on end “working” on the tank, and sometimes weeks go by where I barely have time to feed the fish. I have had large die offs and constant spawning. But I’ve savored all those times and have never been disappointed. You can put whatever you want into this hobby, and I’ve loved every minute of it!
Photo credit: Paul Baldassano