RSS Bending the rules of reefkeeping

MASA Admin

8 May 2007
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Bending the rules has been the motto of many of us in the hobby for a long time. I, like many of my fellow hobbyists, think that the rules of the hobby do not apply to us and as a result we often bend them, go right to the edge with them, or break them completely to suit our needs.

After thinking about this while on a long drive for my real job, yes that is when most my ideas for this column arise, I started thinking of the pros and cons of breaking or bending the rules. And much to my surprise I actually did come up with positives and negatives for being a strict rule follower.

I realized that much of the success that we now enjoy today is the result of many of the early people in this hobby breaking many of the rules or maybe just bending them a great deal. I also realized that there are some rules, that no matter what we think, are as far as I’m concerned, unbreakable. Now I’m sure I will get some disagreement on this and some of you will show how you broke these rules, but for most of us there are some rules that just can’t be broken.

When I think of the first rule that can’t be broken I think of the rule that only by being patient in setting up and establishing a tank will long term success be achieved. Now when I plan a new tank I plan on taking at least three months to set it up, test it, cycle it, and let it become established before I start adding a serious amount of fish and corals. This may seem extreme as it only takes nine months for a baby, but after setting up hundreds of tanks I know set this as a rule for myself and for anyone who I am helping to set up a tank.

When I have tried to rush this or allow people I am working with to rush this the tanks rarely came to their full potential. Now I’m not saying that you can’t add a few fish or corals during this time to keep from having the worst thing in the world in your house, a seemingly empty tank, but in my opinion one of the unbreakable rules is to take your time of approximately 3 months before fully stocking your tank.

Temporary quarantine tank can make a fascinating display

One of my second unbreakable rules is ‘Quarantine, Quarantine, Quarantine‘. While waiting for a tank to settle down for three months it is the perfect time to quarantine everything. I don’t care where you have gotten something from, or what it is, like grade school kids it is carrying something and usually it is something you don’t want.

So while you wait, see what it has and treat it before putting it in your tank. This is especially the best time to get all the fish you plan to have in your tank and have them quarantined and accustomed to one another before you stock the tank. While I have gotten better at adding new fish to an established tank, it is still more of a crapshoot as every new fish is like the new kid at school and it will get harassed and bullied despite our best efforts. So if you can reduce this from happening you will be more successful. And just as importantly when you go to add something to a tank that is already established, quarantine it first.

My 12 year old Red Sea Regal Angel, only here due to my starting it off on sponges

There is also an unbreakable rule that is kind of a corollary to this: each tank has a maximum holding capacity for fish. As someone who tends to stock their tanks to the max, I now know what the exact holding capacity for fish is in each of my tanks. By trial and error, stupidity and bull headedness, at some point in time despite my knowing what the capacity is, I have felt the need to add just one more fish above capacity. And while this is not in any text book or any book that I know of for that matter, when this fish was added for some reason even if it was a small fish, the tipping point in the tank was reached and bad things occurred.

It may have seemed different each time, i.e, disease outbreak, docile fish became aggressive, water parameter swings etc, in each case the end result was that the fish population would drop below the maximum level and then things would calm down again. Sadly I must admit that the learning curve was steep as it often took this happening a few times before I knew exactly what the maximum capacity was. So despite my thinking I could bend the rules this is not a good rule to try and bend.

A mandarin, a fish difficult to keep unless you have either an old well-established tank or a refugium housing lots of micro fauna for it to eat

I know there are other unbreakable rules, but those are my 3 favorites. Fortunately in this hobby there are a lot of bendable rules and to be honest we would not be where we are today if many early hobbyists were not willing to at least try to bend them. The largest bending of the rules that I remember was when Julian Sprung wrote his article in the late 80’s or early 90’s in TFH, touting the need for us to get rid of our trickle filters and just use live rock and protein skimmers.

It seems funny now as I vividly recall people removing ‘one bioball per day’ from their trickle filters lest they cause some kind of nuclear reaction. In those days fear drove much of the hobby, as corals were just not readily available so you feared wiping out your tank and never seeing those corals again.

Who would of thought that telling people to use mud and Caulerpa in a refugium would cause such an uproar

Similarly almost 20 years ago I talked about Miracle Mud and the benefits of having a refugium on a tank (sorry Jake) and this was considered heresy, as most people kept their sumps spotlessly clean and free of any kind of life and few thought it worthwhile to grow algae and micro fauna outside of the tank. Taken together, these two bending of the rules of that time started the sea change in success that we have today.

Today rule bending occurs every time someone figures out how to keep a difficult fish or coral alive. When I got my Red Sea Regal angel 12 years ago it was considered nearly impossible to keep them. But I read up and learned that diet, and especially the lack of sponges in their diet might have been one of the causes for their demise.

My tank at full capacity. I will not test it again by adding one more fish, unless of course one dies

So I got as many sponge encrusted pieces of live rock as I could find and put some in the sump to proliferate and the rest I added to my tank right before I added the angel. Miraculously the fish survived and is still alive, even though I never saw it actually eat anything that I added to the tank for the first two years, but obviously the large amount of sponges that I added and replenished, paid off, or I got incredibly lucky and it ate something else in the tank.

And as it happened with me, many of the fish we now can keep are the result of other hobbyists bending the rules. Another example is my friend Marcus in Germany who kept the first school of purple queen anthias alive for years. He devised a secret diet, that I still do not know, and fed them at least eight times time a day. From seeing what he did I came back and tried feeding various small foods like Cyclopeeze and tiny mysis and fed the tank as often as I could and I also was able to keep them for the first time. So learning from rule breakers, at least successful ones, is not a bad idea.

Difficult to keep fish like these anthias are now possible because some hobbyists bent the rules on what was possible

Fortunately this hobby lends itself to bending the rules and these rule benders often lead to advancements in the hobby. However, I also see a lot of flaming when someone brings up how they are doing things that are seemingly way out of bounds. One thing we all need to understand is that there is no one single way to do things to be successful, if there was we would all be doing it. Instead innovation and new ideas are the hallmark of this hobby, so new ideas should be discussed and tried, preferably by more than the author of the idea.

However I understand with how expensive things have gotten it is unlikely that anyone can or will try new things to the degree that we used to do. While the internet allows for new ideas and methods to be discussed far faster and more in depth than we could have ever imagined, it can equally stifle innovation, especially by people who have never tried to bend the rules.

A successful bare bottom tank, which once was heresy to go against the rule that you had to have substrate and preferably deep substrate

Here are just some of the rule bending that improved the success in the hobby in addition to those discussed above. Going from the mandate that you had to use at least ‘two pounds of live rock per gallon’, to now where some tanks use very little and others use dry rock to start. Another bending occurred when mounting the rock to various substrates rather than just stacking it showed how innovative aquascapes can be created. The use of bug spray to kill many of the pests on our corals while dipping them.

Using a dog de-wormer to kill off additional coral pests like red bugs. Switching from 400 watt metal halide lamps to LEDs, so that now you can put a tank virtually anywhere. Having a bare bottom tank with strong current rather than low current and deep substrate. All of these examples are things we now take for granted that are the result of the rules of the hobby being bent.

Hopefully the rules will continue to be tested especially if it results in continued improvement and innovation in the hobby. Bending the rules seems to be inherent to many of us in the hobby, it should not be stifled by those who have not at least tried to bend things a little bit
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