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Well first of all welcome to the world of cichlids and sorry you've had such a rough start.

A couple of things stick out in the info you've provided. First: did you put the rift lake substrate over an existing/established substrate? This is usually not a good idea. Waste gets trapped below and without air anaerobic pockets of bacteria form and these are very harmful to your fish. Nitrate will also rise. Using a siphon hose siphon the gravel one small area at a time. Don't stir it up!! Push the siphon nozzle straight down, keep it there until no more brown is coming up and then move onto another section.

Sounds like your tank may not have been cycled. Impossible to tell without testing. It may be cycled now but if any of the fish were exposed to ammonia and nitrite spikes then this would put them at greater risk for illness and disease. You state that your tank currently has 0 nitrates. Either your test kit is wrong or your tank is not cycled. In a cycled tank you will always have some kind of nitrate reading. (unless its heavily planted). So you should double check your water parameters ASAP.

Stop using any kind of Algae killer. Later, when your fish are in good health you can consider using such products but really, there are much better ways to deal with algae and most of them don't involve adding anything to the tank.

Sounds like your fish have a bacterial infection--probably Columnaris so here's what you should do:

First of all make sure you're using a good quality declorinator. You need one that removes ammonia and detoxifies nitrite. (Seachem Prime is a good one but there are others).
Do a 25% partial water change. Wait several hours and then do another 25% water change.
Add salt--sodium chloride, (that's plain old table salt without any additives.) Aquarium salt from the fish store will work. Add 1-2 tablespoons per five gallons. Dissolve it first and add it slowly.

>Treat the entire tank with a combination of Maracyn and Maracyn-two, (used concurently),
OR Kanamycin.
>Turn the heat down to 76 while treating.
>Increase water movement/areation. Add a water jet and point it to the surface and/or drop the water level by an inch or two so that the filter return creates a waterfall/splash.
>Feed sparingly. Even better: fast them for 24 hours and then feed sparingly.

Don't change filters but you can check and make sure that the filters arn't clogged. If there's buildup then rinse the filters in a bucket of tank water and return them to the filter. (note: if your filters are less then a month old remove any carbon before using meds)

Please post back with any additional questions
Robin
 
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