No doubt about it, keeping an aquarium can be a fascinating pastime. It can also be challenging. Every type of fish and invertebrate in your tank is a separate animal with its own needs and environmental requirements. It’s like having a whole bunch of pets (think dogs, cats, hamsters, snakes, birds, turtles ) all in the same room at the same time. But an aquarium is even more complicated. An aquarium is a complete ecosystem. In an ecosystem, animals, plants, microbial processes and energy conversions are all interconnected. This fact alone sets an aquarium apart from other types of animals you might keep.
Maintaining a healthy ecosystem is not always easy. Ecosystems are complex and always changing. New animals are added, fish grow bigger, lighting spectrum changes, and so on.
On top of that, each aquarium is unique. Aquariums come in different shapes and capacities. They contain species of varied types and numbers. They differ in filtration equipment and lighting. They are located in diverse home environments. As a result, generalizations can sometimes be less meaningful when applied to any specific aquarium.
An aquarium ecosystem should be actively managed to ensure a healthy, stable environment for the living things it contains. All aquariums, freshwater or saltwater, benefit from aquarium management. Aquarium management is even more important for marine aquariums, especially reef aquariums. Marine systems are more complicated and there is less room for error.
There is lot of good information to get people started successfully with aquarium keeping. You’re probably aware of most of these success factors. For instance, don’t skimp on equipment, don’t overstock fish, don’t place an aquarium near bright sunlight, how to pick the right substrate, don’t make impulse purchases, and so on. However, doing all of these things right is still no guarantee of continued success. For long term success, aquarium management is another discipline you should master. In my opinion, aquarium management is an area that has been neglected in the aquarium literature. It needs to be more fully developed and appreciated in our hobby.
The ultimate goal of aquarium management is healthy livestock and a fun, enjoyable hobby for many years.
So, What Is Aquarium Management?
First, there is no hard definition of aquarium management in our hobby. For me, aquarium management is both a philosophy and a set of practices.
Philosophically, aquarium management is about gaining ever more knowledge that makes you a better aquarist. A more knowledgeable aquarist increases the chances of long term success. From success comes the satisfaction and enjoyment we all want from our hobby.
For the aquarist, successful aquarium management means fewer frustrating problems, less work, and more time to simply enjoy the aquarium. For your aquarium, success means keeping aquatic life healthy by consistently maintaining excellent water quality, a stable environment, and proper nutrition over the long term.
In practical terms, aquarium management should at least consist of recordkeeping, scheduled maintenance, and analysis.
The Practice of Aquarium management
Let’s face it, recordkeeping isn’t the most fun part of our hobby. Of course, cleaning filters and water changes aren’t fun either. But they are all necessary. Conscientious, meticulous recordkeeping is the foundation on which aquarium management is built. Without comprehensive recordkeeping, it’s not possible to do the best job with the other aspects of aquarium management.
Your ability to understand what’s really happening, and to learn from mistakes, will be very limited without proper recordkeeping as a starting point. Simply put, if you don’t know why something happened, you can’t learn from it. It also goes without saying, you can’t have routine maintenance without recordkeeping. In order to know when you should do something, you have to know when you did it in the past. Recordkeeping then, is the starting point for developing maintenance schedules, for gaining a better understanding of your aquarium, and for learning cause and effect.
Ideally, you should keep a record of all activities and events related to your aquarium. Taking water measurements, dosing additives, cleaning equipment, and replacing carbon media are common examples. But don’t limit yourself to just regular tasks. Observations, problems, feeding, adding new animals, and animal deaths are some additional examples.
Most aquarists understand what aquarium maintenance is. In fact, people often equate aquarium management with aquarium maintenance. Water changes, dosing additives, cleaning filters and other maintenance are obviously necessary. Without routine maintenance, your aquarium will surely fail. But maintenance does not by itself ensure long term success. Maintenance should be a component of aquarium management, not an end in itself.
Books and online resources are great for informing us about general aquarium keeping. However, each aquarium is a unique ecosystem. This makes it important to gain knowledge about your specific aquarium.
Analysis involves understanding trends and relationships in your aquarium, as well as learning cause and effect. Some analysis is observational (the shrimp ate my cluster duster). Often though, a detailed examination of the information from our recordkeeping is required to discover these. Tools such as tabular and graphical analysis can be a big help.
A Graphical Analysis Example
Look at the chart above. It uses actual data from a 90 gallon reef tank. The graph plots nitrate levels and shows how often the aquarium’s canister filter is cleaned. We want to keep nitrate levels as low as possible. Notice that cleaning the filter more frequently (Feb 2012 to Apr 2012 and Aug 2012 to Sept 2012) helps bring down the nitrate levels. When we cleaned it less frequently (May 2012 to Jul 2012 and Oct/Nov 2012), nitrate levels start to increase. This type of analysis could help you fine tune how often to clean your filter. It’s just one example of many.
Successful aquarium management is all about gaining knowledge about your specific aquarium that enables you to become a better aquarist. A more knowledgeable aquarist benefits from healthier livestock, less work and a more enjoyable hobby. Recordkeeping, scheduled maintenance, and analysis are key components of aquarium management.
We’ll explore more details of aquarium management in future articles.