Having set up more than a few reef systems in my time, I never seem to be surprised at my true hobbyist impatience! Let’s face it—once we get the plumbing done, the lighting tweaked, leaks sealed, and aquascaping set, we’re absolutely hell-bent on getting some fishes and corals in there! I mean—we’ve waited so long for “first water” in the tank that it’s time to enjoy the fruits of our labor. We need to get the fishes and corals in there right away…even just a few.
Think about it for a minute. Would you like to move into a house, which didn’t have a refrigerator full of food? I wouldn’t, for sure. Unlike humans, fishes seem to have not lost their genetic programming for grazing and hunting for food. Let’s face it—most of the waking hours of reef animals are devoted to acquiring food and reproducing (hmm…not a bad lifestyle, actually, huh?). They need to have some food sources to hunt and graze for. That’s reality.
So why not help provide for your animals’ needs by supplementing their prepared diet with some “pre-stocked” natural foods in their new home? No, I’m not talking about tossing in a few frozen brine shrimp hours before the first fishes go in the tank—I’m talking about a deliberate, systematic attempt to cultivate some living food sources within the system before a fish or coral ever hits the water! Imagine a “new” reef system offering numerous foraging opportunities for it’s new inhabitants!
“C’mon, Scott. You’re crazy! It could take months to accomplish this. I’ve just spent thousands of dollars setting up this tank and you want me to keep this tank devoid of fishes and corals while the mysids reproduce?”
Wow—you made a good argument! That’s what I would say too! Yet, in my last two systems, this is exactly what I did. And you know what? I was keeping Pipefishes and Dragonets in the tank from stocking day one with no losses, and fat and happy fishes actively foraging for their natural food sources between regular feedings. And I’m no genius, trust me. I don’t have half the skills many of you do but I have succeeded with many delicate “hard-to-feed” fishes over my hobby “career.” Delicate fishes require careful handling, regardless of who the aquarist is. Why not utilize a simple technique to give these animals every advantage possible?
How do you do it? It’s really quite simple, actually. Once you’ve got the system set up, you simply start adding cultures of copepods, amphipods, etc., along with other live plankton and micro fauna. Our friends at Reed Mariculture offer dozens of different pathogen-free live cultures from which to choose, or you can obtain many for free by simply asking a buddy for a clump of Chaetomorpha macroalgae from his/her sump.
Just shake the Chaeto clump into your tank and you’ve “innoculated” your system with some natural food sources. Of course, make sure it’s a healthy friend’s tank that you’re obtaining the Chaeto from, or you’ve also seeded your tank with Bryopsis, flatworms, and other nasty stuff.
Wait a minimum of four weeks—and even up to four months if you can stand it, and you will have an amazing population of micro and macro fauna upon which your fishes can forage between feedings. Having a “pre-stocked” system helps reduce a considerable amount of stress for new inhabitants, particularly for those fishes that have reputations as “delicate” feeders.
You can run the lights on a regular cycle or you could be more economical and just run them a few hours a day until you start stocking with fishes and corals. You can lightly “feed” the tank with foods like frozen or live rotifers, baby brine shrimp, or even a pinch or two of dried food once in a while.
Break out the flashlight and the magnifier once in a while and check out the action! You’ll see a large population of copepods, amphipods, and other creatures crawling about, free from fishy predators, foraging on algae and detritus, and happily reproducing in your tank.
It takes a certain patience- and a certain leap of faith-to do this. I’ve been doing it for a while and I can tell you it works. If you like delicate or difficult-to-feed fishes, it’s a technique that could help you succeed where you’ve failed in the past. Trust me, I’ve been there. The point of this practice is to help develop—or I should say—to encourage the development of supplemental natural food sources in the system before their populations can be devastated by your fishes and corals.
It’s not always easy to try something a little out of the ordinary, or a bit against the grain of popular practice, but I commend you for even thinking about the idea. At the very least, it may give you pause to how you stock your tank in the future: Herbivores first, micro predators last. Allow your system to mature and develop at least some populations of fauna for these fishes to supplement their diets with. You’ll develop a whole new appreciation for the hobby when you slow down for success.
Until next time.