Monday, May 31, 2010

Bye Bye Fish

It was finally time. I'd been threatening to do it for a couple years now, always derailed by something or another, notably the size of the job. Occasionally even a renewed interest trumped the bother and kept it all going for a bit longer. But now, the help I'd been getting was gone again, and it just got to be way more effort than reward, so... bye bye fish.

It all started twenty years ago, when my youngest, Paul, asked for an aquarium of fish for his X-mas present.

What on earth for?

But, I finally gave in, got a 10-gallon tank and the accessories, and, against all advice, stocked it full of fantail goldfish. It turns out the experts were right: everything died. We had no biological filter developed, ammonia levels built up, and they were poisoned. Start over, slowly, and they started to survive. The tank sat on the counter of the pass-through between kitchen and dining area, handy to watch while eating. When I started visualizing their fin motions while driving, I realized I was hooked. The ten gallon didn't really use all the space available, but a 30 gallon would, and a family hobby was off and running.

We joined Minnesota Aquarium Society, aka MAS, learned a lot, gained access to experts and exotic varieties of fish and plants. Relocating to a house gave us a basement to turn into a fish room. More tanks filled with more fish of more varieties, and we started breeding them, gaining points and awards in the club. Ponds got dug in the back yard for koi and goldfish, lotus and waterlillies, water cannas, water hyacinth, water lettuce.... A pair of 300 gallon stock tanks joined the basement clutter for wintering goldfish, and for raising babies.

Who knows where it might have gone, if it hadn't been for my puffy eyes and asthma. Asthma?!? I'd never had asthma in my life! Where did this come from? Apparently, I was allergic to something, and since it was worse after taking care of the fish, it had something to do with them. The scratch test proved it wasn't the dogs or cats, and I finally talked my doctor into a patch test. Itchy itchy itchy, but she finally took the patch off, and... everything was red! She had to place the grid over my back to sort out what I really was reacting to and what I wasn't. The first thing was the medical adhesive used to hold the patch on, and I kept reacting to that for about two miserable weeks. Can't scratch, and that makes full removal a bit tricky. But the grid sorted it all out. I'm allergic to nickel.

Apparently it's common among Swedes. I'm a quarter Swede. Lucky me.

But how's this relate to the fish? Well, it was much worse after touching/feeding out bloodworms, one of the best foods for tropical fish, especially if you want them healthy enough for breeding. Usually these are found in ponds in small amounts, and it's not the worms themselves that cause the problem. Commercial quantities are harvested from what is euphemistically called effluent, which concentrates things like nickel and other metals as well as the crud the worms actually eat. I touch worms, later touch eyes, and Poof! I pour out dried worms, they go airborne in tiny particles, I breathe, and hack-hack wheeze. (Once I spilled some in the kitchen, and Mom thought to might help to turn on the fan to clear it up. I had to leave the house.)

So, we cut way back on the hobby, keeping only the vegetarian goldfish and koi. Of course that didn't last, so we restocked one tank, the 75-gallon, with tropicals, just for fun this time, not breeding, staying away from bloodworms. Of course that wasn't quite fun enough, so we added pineapple swordtails, and when livebearing threatened to overstock the tank we added predatory fish and found something of a balance. Then the knees went bad, it got harder and harder to keep up with only one tank, and they started getting neglected.

It was finally time.

I drew a bucket half full of tank water, and started siphoning/cleaning the rest. Plastic plants came out, driftwood and "African Root" pieces got searched for hiding critters - found one! - and set aside, air and heat disconnected. The ancistrus were the first fish caught. It had been one of those wedged in a hole in the African Root, and he flopped out on the basement floor, and easy catch for me. The other one, the albino, went and "hid" in a corner, easy to net. These guys eat algae and wood, having big sucker mouths with rasping teeth on their underside.

Next to be caught were the butterfly fish, our top-level predators. They normally hang on the surface, still as a dead leaf, until prey wanders in front of their mouth, and a big gulp sucks it in and snap! Dinner. They had been raised on baby swords, until we were finally down to three adult males. Floating flake and pellets plus an occasional bug made their diet, until recently we tried feeder guppies. Since none remained at cleaning time, we drew the obvious conclusion. I hadn't thought they had grown until we went back to the fish store for the guppies, and saw they were twice the size of the butterflies for sale there.

By the time the water was down to about five inches left, it was possible to start catching the swords. They're very fast and skittish, and it takes some practice.

That left the loaches. If we still had some, that is. Years ago I'd put in three horsehead loaches and four kuhlis. They love to burrow in gravel, and for years all I had seen was the occasional horsehead sticking up from the gravel. or darting across the tank when I got too close in gravel cleaning. I thought the kuhlis died, until one day I was taking some pictures of the fish, and noticed as one picture was expanded to full screen size on my laptop that way back in a corner were four heads sticking out in a clump. They lived! The flash caught them where I'd never seen them before. Even with that kind of encouragement, I had no idea recently with the neglect whether or how many might still be alive.

What I did know, having it etched on my brain by accidentally killing a huge loach hiding in the gravel of an "empty" used tank I'd bought once, was that I'd need to pull out the gravel and go through it by hand to find every possible surviving one. Ice cream buckets make handy scoopers, and can be set next to a large pail for hand transfer and sorting of gravel. I did find a piece of polished snowflake obsidian I'd dropped into the tank which had gotten lost in the gravel, but no loaches in the bucketfuls of gravel. They were, however, starting to appear in the bit of water left in the tank, scurrying through the puddles and over the gravel to the next puddle in their efforts to escape both my net and their lowering water levels. I stopped siphoning and started netting, occasionally removing more gravel to eliminate hiding places. In the end, I had 7 loaches, two very achey knees, and an arm that decided now would be a good time to start reminding me it hadn't healed yet and was about to get even!

But the loaches had all survived!

Even if I wasn't sure, now, that I would.

After calling the pet store to verify Sunday hours and their willingness to take back the fish for new homes (I pled "tank disaster", imagine what you will), I rested, cleaned up, and had Paul load the bucket in the car for me. I also made him go back down to the baasement to turn off lights and cover the gravel so the cat wouldn't decide it was a great new location with a new style litter. It does seem to attract them. Once I had quit, it was all over and I had nothing left for a couple hours. Well, except pain reminding me why I'd been putting this off for so long.

Later that afternoon, discussing this with my brother over the phone, he asked if the store paid, even in store credit, for the fish? What I got out of it was a lower electric bill, not having to go down those stairs twice a day to feed them and turn lights on and off and do any more water changes. In other works, that would be a "no."

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