Ich eradication vs. Ich management
The purpose of this article is to discuss the pros & cons of ich eradication and ich management, and present the best methods for implementing each.
Ich eradication - Simply put, this method means doing everything possible to keep ich out of your tank. That can be accomplished by establishing & maintaining a strict quarantine (QT) protocol as outlined here: How to Quarantine. It is very important to QT each & every fish, including your very first one, if you wish to avoid ich.
Why practice ich eradication? Once introduced by an infected specimen, and so long as there are always fish to feed on, ich can survive in your tank almost indefinitely. The only way to get it out is to starve it out by going fallow (fishless) for 76 days. The parasites continuously attack (feed on) fish, which does damage and can even kill them. I personally chose ich eradication, because I got tired of “ich management” being a part of my aquarium husbandry. There’s enough to do in a reef aquarium on a daily basis without adding “battle fish parasites” to the list.
The cons of ich eradication are somewhat obvious. In addition to having to setup & maintain a QT, not being able to add your newly purchased fish directly to the display tank (DT) can be a major buzz kill. QT does zap some of the “thrill” out of the hobby.
What if I already have ich in my tank? There is no easy way of dealing with this. You have to catch all of your fish, and QT/treat using copper, Chloroquine phosphate, tank transfer method or hyposalinity. More detailed information on all the aforementioned treatment options can be found here: Medications and Treatments.
The DT itself must be left fallow (fishless) for 76 days to starve out any remaining parasites. Corals/inverts cannot host, so they can be left in the DT during the fallow period. You must be wary of cross contamination during the fallow period, avoiding anything wet (including hands) when going from QT to DT (or vice versa). Aerosol transmission is another concern, so it’s best to house your QT at least 10 feet away from the DT. More info on that here: Aerosol transmission.
Remember there is no “reef safe” ich treatment that actually works! Those may (or may not) help fish with their symptoms; but no tea tree oil from India or garlic extract or any other herbal/natural “medication” will completely eradicate ich from a tank. The day someone does finally develop an effective “reef safe” treatment, we are all going to hear about it, and the inventor will become a millionaire.
Ich management - This method involves just managing the presence of the disease, instead of eradicating it. You know you have ich in your tank or are willing to risk it by forgoing QT. Despite how strongly I advocate ich eradication these days, I employed ich management for almost 30 years. I found the key to success was keeping the overall number of parasites down, while simultaneously boosting the fishes’ immune systems to deal with the parasites that survived. Some ways to accomplish this include:
- Utilizing the biggest UV sterilizer you can fit/afford. While a UV will probably never “zap” all of the free swimmers (theronts), it will keep their numbers down so the fish can better cope with the ones remaining. A diatom filter can also be used to remove free swimmers.
- Boost your fishes’ immune systems through proper nutrition. This means feeding a wide range of live & frozen nutritious foods, not just flake & pellets. Feed nori, as that is loaded with vitamins. Also, soak fish food in vitamin supplements such as Selcon, Zoecon and Vita-Chem to further enhance health. Omega 3 & 6 fish oils are great (and cheap) soaking alternatives.
- Stay on top of your aquarium husbandry! Maintain pristine water conditions, stable parameters and avoid fish that are likely to fight. Poor water quality, fluctuating parameters and aggression from other fish may “stress” a fish out, lower his immune system and make him more susceptible to parasitic infestation.
- Choose your fish wisely. Avoid “ich magnets” i.e. fish with thin mucous coats such as tangs. Clownfish, anthias, wrasses and even mandarins are better choices as those have thick slime coats protecting their skin from attacking parasites. Also, only buy from reputable sources, and don’t buy fish that look diseased/damaged, won’t eat or who share water with diseased fish.
- No discussion of “ich management” can be had without mentioning garlic. This topic is often debated, and I honestly don’t know whether or not soaking garlic in fish food helps with ich. I have seen it work as an appetite stimulant, so that might help right there. However, I’m less confident in its ability to boost a fish’s immune system. Another theory is that garlic leaches back out of a fish’s pores, and that makes the fish an undesirable host for parasites. While there is no scientific evidence supporting anything beneficial, studies have been done linking long-term garlic use with liver damage in fish. Therefore, I use garlic sparingly.
Pros & cons - One upside of practicing ich management is obvious: not having to QT. I get it; I really do. It’s exciting to make the rounds of the local fish shops, finding that “perfect fish” and then adding him to your DT. After all, having fun is what a hobby is supposed to be all about. What’s fun about adding a fish to a bare bottom QT with PVC elbows?
However, the downsides are numerous. All it takes is one “stressor event” to undo years of ich management. By stressor event, I mean something like a prolonged power loss, heater sticks, fish fighting, etc., anything that stresses a fish out and lowers his immune system. Sometimes ich capitalizes on these events by overwhelming a fish’s immune system, and fish start dying. Also, secondary bacterial infections are common in fish afflicted with ich, due to their already compromised immune system. All it takes is a cut or an open wound left by an ich trophont. These bacterial diseases sometimes prove to be far deadlier than ich itself, especially if caused by a gram negative bacterium.
Ich management is more of a “learn as you go” process, which is why experienced hobbyists often fare better than newbies. For me, ich management just got to be too stressful. The stress of seeing the spots, wondering if today was going to be the day it finally caught up with me, or if the fish that just died was a result of ich or something else. Losing too many fish under “mysterious” circumstances is what finally led me to choose ich eradication.