New Tank Syndrome | Don’t Let It Happen To You!

A Personal Experience With New Tank Syndrome

There was a saltwater aquarium at the recording studio I was working at about 10 years ago.

Located in the reception area, it was a converted freshwater tank, about 4-feet long, one and a half feet wide, and 2 feet deep. It was set up, largely on a whim, by the studio owner. Mind you, this was a couple of years before I had my own saltwater aquarium, and before I knew anything about the nitrogen cycling, water parameters or fish and coral compatibility. Or New Tank Syndrome.

When there was some down time from studio work, my former boss and I would go on excursions to various live fish stores (LFS) around town.

He would buy livestock with impunity. If he liked how it looked, he bought it. Never mind about the particular needs of certain fish or coral species, their feeding requirements, or even their compatibility with each other. One time, the LFS even sold him an orange Killifish — a freshwater fish — by mistake. Or at least I would still like to believe it was a mistake. Once the fish was released into the saltwater tank, it dove under a rock immediately, never to be seen again!

Having only had some experience with freshwater aquariums as a kid, I, too, didn’t know any better. And I certainly had no knowledge of Killifish.

But needless to say, we sat back and marvelled at his new weekly acquisitions from the LFS’s we visited. I say ‘weekly acquisitions’ because a week was about how long most of his fish and corals survived. How they even survived that long remains a mystery to me now as the only acclimation procedure he performed was floating the bag in the aquarium for 15 minutes before the contents, fish, water and all were tipped into the tank!

If only I knew then what I now know about saltwater aquarium keeping! I would have stepped up and said something! Or at least given him some good advice.

But even with all the aquarium faux pas that were being committed, to put it mildly, certain species continued to survive. The longest surviving fish, a Picasso triggerfish, was the dominant fish in the tank while a red, long tentacled anemone continued to open up gloriously under the single 150w metal halide light.

Because untreated tap water was used, green hair algae started to take on plague proportions at around the 6th month of the tank being set up. Why the hair algae didn’t kick in right from the first month remains one of life’s mysteries. It was decided that the live rock would be removed for a thorough scrubbing and the filter media in the canister filter washed out.

Removing all the live rock and scrubbing them in buckets of aquarium water (the single best piece of advice from the LFS owner who warned us not to rinse it in tapwater), we got most of the hair algae off. Turning our attention to the canister filter filled with carbon and ceramic rings, we were surprised at the amount of gunk that was trapped in there. No surprise since the canister filter had not been serviced since it was installed.

But as any experienced reef aquarium keeper will tell you, it is a big mistake to clean all your live rock and filter media all at once as this seriously compromises the tank’s biofilter. Needless to say, trouble started to develop right about the third day after the massive cleanup.

The water started to get cloudy, the corals were closed up and fish started to suddenly go missing. Some lay dying, right in front of us, on the sandbed. Even the tough old Picasso trigger, which had become the studio’s unofficial mascot and the longest surviving fish, wasn’t spared. We didn’t really know what was happening back then, other than that there was some mysterious correlation between our cleaning the tank and the fish dying.

Looking back at the experience, I now realize that it was a classic case of a compromised biofilter and New Tank Syndrome! Afer all the livestock perished and were removed, the tank was left to sit, all pumps, protein skimmer and filters running. The tank was never restocked and my boss decomissioned it after about a month.

New Tank Syndrome — don’t let it happen to your tank!

(Editor’s Note:  The true definition of New Tank Syndrome is when a relatively new tank with an immature biofilter and and insufficient populations of bacteria is suddenly stocked with a sizeable fish population. In a small, newly-cycled 30 gallon tank for example, this could mean suddenly adding 3 or 4 fish all at once.

If the nitrifying bacterial populations are unable to cope with the sudden increase in bioload — the excreted ammonia from the newly added fish — New Tank Syndrome results. In the above example, the thorough scrubbing of the live rock and cleaning out the canister filter decimated the bacterial populations such that this relatively mature tank became essentially a ‘new tank’ which was unable to cope with the existing fish bioload)

Read more about:

New Tank Syndrome

Acclimating Fish

Ammonia and Nitrite

Algae Control

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