Do you know someone (or perhaps this could be your story) who got all excited about the prospect of fishkeeping, pulled out all the stops with a new tank, equipment, the works… and then came the grand finale, the new fish. But then the newcomers did not survive, and their “corpus delectis” were floating at the top of the water. Heartbroken, you decide to swear off the fishkeeping hobby; thinking it is more trouble than it is worth. Well, I am here today to inform you that this scenario is NOT uncommon, and you did not kill your fish on purpose, and you are not cursed! You have just encountered what is called “New Tank Syndrome”. Luckily, I can provide an explanation and a solution as well. Don’t let NTS kill (no pun intended) your aquarium hobbyist dreams off for good! You just need to master one of the most important points of fishkeeping and that is cycling your tank properly.
A well-maintained tank needs bacteria in it in order to sustain life. A brand-new tank with clean, pure water free of chlorine is important, but without a developed bacteria colony, what happens is that aquatic newcomers get overwhelmed by the sudden onset of ammonia present in their byproduct waste. Ammonia is a toxic byproduct of fish waste matter. In an established bacteria colony, ammonia is converted into nitrites and later nitrates which are less toxic than ammonia. This is known as the “nitrogen cycle” and it keeps a colony of fish in a more balanced environment. When a tank is brand new (even if it is free of chlorine and impurities) the ever-present ammonia released from the waste matter of new fish, uneaten food, or plant matter doesn’t have the “good” bacteria to neutralize the “bad”. Kind of like how enzymes are important to our digestion. Didn’t think you were getting a science lesson here, did you? Well, successful fishkeeping is every bit as much a science as an art, so stay with me.
Many fishkeeping enthusiasts debate the “best” way to cycle a tank properly. The key to doing this right is to just be very piecemeal in the beginning. Only get a few fish at a time and in this case get the kind that is very inexpensive, such as common goldfish which are dirt cheap at 27 cents apiece, so that at least you will not be out much money if they should conk out. Goldfish will make a lot of waste indefinitely. Two or three at one whack is all you need. You may have to play it by ear for awhile and if a death should occur do not panic. This is a process, remember? You may choose to wait a week or so and then replace one lost fish with another one or two… just have faith. It can take up to a month before the cycling process is complete… when, I can’t say, but if you see your fish thriving more, that is a good indicator. Even at that point, don’t keep adding tons of newcomers. I never buy more than four fish at a time and I know it can seem like a hassle when you have to acclimate two fish to their new environment when it seems like it’s just as easy to acclimate four or more.
Now, about the “fishless cycling” method… for this procedure you will need pure ammonia in which the bottle should read something like “pure ammonium hydroxide” and free of surfactants or colors, and also a master test kit. These kits measure the levels of ammonia, nitrates, nitrites, and Ph accurately. A good investment since you will find yourself using your test kit periodically. Upon adding the ammonia, you will want to perform a water test using the kit. Make a note of results… there should be a list of level indicators included with your test kit to take the guesswork out. The amount of ammonia you add to the tank may depend on the volume of the tank. This may be a quicker process, but still, do not rush. You may need to repeat this process again and compare test readings until they show optimum figures. Pure ammonia can be found in supermarkets and home improvement stores and test kits are generally found at aquatic dealers, or you can also purchase them from an e-commerce supplier.
Now you have got the straight dope on the importance of cycling and can choose whichever method you prefer to do so. Hopefully, I will have spared you from a lot of grief on this one as I know (from past experience) how devastating it can be to put a lot of work into setting up an aquarium only to have a lovely school of fish go to the Great Barrier Reef in the Sky! Just keep in mind that this will pass, and over time the bacterial colony will get stronger and stronger and can support more of your finned friends. Good luck!