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Purchasing, Transporting & Acclimating Cichlids
by Marc Elieson

This article covers selecting and purchasing fish, how to transport fish home, ship fish, and even what to do when receiving shipped fish. I also discuss how to take down an aquarium when moving and what to do to set it back up.

Selecting & Purchasing African Cichlids:

Fish, and especially African Cichlids, should never be purchased on impulse. African Cichlids constitute a large array of almost 600 species, each with unique behavior and differing dietary and habitat requirements. If you randomly and impulsively collect your fishes, then you will learn to regret it and will probably be frustrated with the results. Just because two fishes are African Cichlids from say, Lake Malawi, does not mean that they are compatible. One may in fact be considered prey of the other.

Instead of purchasing your fish from what is available, do your homework; decide what kind of aquarium setup (i.e., decorative look, size and shape of aquarium, etc.) appeals to you and then construct a list of the Cichlids that will excel within these conditions.

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It would certainly be a mistake to set up a planted tank and then ignorantly introduce a group of Mbuna. You might be shocked to discover that it would only take a few days before these vegetarians raze your entire water garden.

Only once you know what kind of aquarium setup you want and have constructed a list of fish compatible with your setup are you ready to start shopping. I would recommend visiting a few fish stores in your area to see what from your list is available. Then, without buying anything, return home and learn all that you can about these fish to make sure that they are compatible with one another and that they will work in your setup in every other way. This site and the Cichlid Compatibility Chart are great places to start.

Okay, now that you have double-checked your list you are ready to buy. Where to buy? Well, there are many options. The cheapest is not always best: pet store chains are usually the cheapest but fish identifications are almost always lacking or unreliable and the minimum wage staff not very knowledgeable.

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Plus, the selection at these places is often limited to a few of the more common Mbuna. I am not trying to discourage you from shopping here; I usually get the more common, run-of-the-mill Cichlids here for much cheaper than elsewhere. The next option is your local fish store (LFS). Fish tend to be more expensive here, but the selection is by far greater and the advice more reliable. The third option is to buy from a dealer on the Internet. There are several large businesses on the WWW that have become quite successful. If you have questions about their reliability and quality, check out the Review of Retailers section of Prices online are usually reasonable, but unless youre going to buy over $150 worth of fish, the shipping charges outweigh the potential savings. If you're purchasing online because you can't find what you really want, well then...that's a whole 'nother matter.

A few final words of advice:

When buying a fish, make sure that the fish you are buying is the fish advertised. If you do your homework, instead of buying on impulse because the fish looks really cool, this wont be hard.

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The reason why this is so important, other than the necessity of knowing how to care for it, is to avoid purchasing or accidentally breeding hybrids. Why are hybrids bad, you might ask? Hybrids are bad for several reasons. First, they dilute gene pools for some really gorgeous fish. Let's say you want to purchase a M. estherae (Red Zebra). You are expecting a bright reddish-orange. But, these are often cross-bred, giving a diluted, washed out orange, almost pale pink. Or, if you wanted some other fish, imagine the same scenario. Furthermore, many Cichlids are only exported once or a few times, meaning that if we want to keep them in their original form, we need to maintain their purity. Also, in addition to often producing mottled or pale colors, hybrids may turn out sterile (which would actually be a good thing). Not to mention that most of the Victorian Haps are either extinct in the wild or endangered, which leaves it up to us to propagate these species.

Also, never buy too many fish at once. The nitrifying bacteria in your tank are in equilibrium prior to adding any new fish. Adding fish will set the nitrogen cycle slightly off-balance, but if you add too many, then it will really be thrown into disequilibrium. The ammonia and nitrate levels in your tank may rise too levels that would simulate a new, un-cycled tank, although it will cycle more quickly than otherwise. This scenario could prove dangerous to not only the new fish but to all the creatures in your aquarium.

Transporting Your Fish:

When transporting fish, there are a few things you should consider. Fish are sensitive to stress; therefore, transportation should be as short and stress-free as possible. In this portion of the article, I'll discuss ways in which this can be achieved, whether you're carrying them home, moving your residence and theirs too, or shipping them across the country.

Taking Them Home From The LFS:

If you are buying fish, you dont have much control over how the fish are packaged. Usually, they are packaged one to three fishes per plastic bag, although individually is ideal. Bags are filled ⅓ with water and the remaining ⅔ is inflated with air, and sometimes pure oxygen. The amount of water is not important as long as the fish stays wet.

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The air is necessary to keep the fish breathing. Fish can be kept in this state for 12 hours, and even 24 hours if pure oxygen is used. Even though they have enough oxygen to last 12 hours, they are still subject to drastic temperature fluctuations and the toxic build up of ammonia in the water. Not to be concerned, they'll handle the ride home just fine provided they aren't jostled too much.

Speaking of the ride home, there are a few things you can do to make it less stressful. I recommend turning the bags upside down so that your new purchase doesnt get trapped in a corner. If you anticipate keeping them in their bag for more than 20 minutes, I strongly recommend purchasing a cheap Styrofoam ice chest from the grocery store. Transporting your fish inside this insulated box will keep them from experiencing fluctuating water temperatures. Furthermore, the enclosed container will keep the fish in the dark, which will help it relax.

Moving? How To Move Your Fish And Their Home:

If you are transporting fish across town, or even longer distances, it is important to take a few extra precautions. Fish should be "cleaned out" prior to moving them. This entails fasting them for a period of 2-5 days, depending upon the size of the fishes. This is crticial because it will cut down on the wastes they produce in their bag. Fish waste is quickly converted to ammonia in the bag, which leads to stress and potentially death.

The second most important precaution is to NOT use tank water. I know, most people out there on the web will tell you to use your tank water because it is most similar to their current environment and will be the least stressful transition for them. That may be true, but this would prove to be the most stressful situation during transport.

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Dissolved organics present in tank water will form ammonia as soon as they enter the plastic bag. Take your biological filter away and the ammonia (the most toxic of the nitrogen compounds) starts to build up. Instead, use treated tap water. If you are doing frequent water changes, your tap water and tank water should be very similar in pH and hardness. Furthermore, don't move the fish straight from the tank to the bag. Instead, drop them in a bucket (with or without sedative drugs, depending upon your preference). You'll probably notice that despite having fasted your fishes that they'll still poop a little. Better here in the bucket than in the bag. Plus, if you're medicating your fish, this is a good place to calm them down - this water should be medicated. After about ten minutes, move them from the bucket to their bag, which has fresh, treated/drugged water (separate from the water in this transition bucket).

Bag your fish individually. Usually you can get enough bags to move your fish for a few cents (or free) from your LFS. If you are transporting smaller fish, it may be necessary to purchase square-bottomed bags. This is important to prevent those tiny critters from getting caught in a corner. This invariably leads to high stress and death. Also, double-bag your fish to safe-guard against leaks - those fish spines can be pretty sharp! Tie them independently, turning the first one upside within the outer bag so that when you move the fish, the inner bag sits upside-down (no potential corners). And finally, I strongly encourage the use of styrofoam coolers in order to keep their water temperature stable and their environment dark. If you add stress coat to their water, use it sparingly. There is such a thing as "Too much of a good thing." The same goes for sedative drugs such as Hypno.

How To Ship Fish:

Shipping your fish is a little more complex than it is to move them across town. I will cover the topic from two perspectives: first, as if you yourslef wanted to ship fish, and second, as if you were receiving fish.

Packing Fish

This is very similar to the section just above, but let's go over it all in detail so we are sure not to miss a thing. First, prepare your fish several days in advance by fasting them - stop feeding at least two days prior to shipment. Before catching and bagging your fish, prepare two buckets of freshly treated tap water. Both should contain the proper amount of fish tranquilizer (e.g., Hypno, Trance, or Bag Buddies). These can be purchased cheaply from The Florida Tropical Fish Farms Association. Boxes, bags, and heat packs can also be purchased from them.

Catch your fish one by one and drop them in the first bucket. Here they need to relax for about ten minutes...enough time for the medication to kick in and for them to poop any remaining feces left in their bowel. Meanwhile, fill ⅓ of a bag with medicated water from the second bucket.

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Move the fish from the first bucket to your bag. Tie it up with two rubber bands, making an effort to fill the bag with as much air as possible. Now, invert the bag and put it in a second bag that is also tied off with two rubberbands. Now place the bagged fish in your shipping box.

A shipping box consists of a Styrofoam box, which is enclosed by a cardboard box. Place newspaper in the bottom to absorb any residual water that may be on the outside of the bags. Once all your fish are bagged and loaded in the box, place a piece of newspaper over the bags and then open and shake your heat packs to activate them. (Heat packs are only needed during the winter months.) Now tape them to the inside lid of your Styrofoam box. Two heat packs will suffice. Heat packs that are guaranteed to produce heat for at least 24 hours are recommended, even if the trip is expected to take less - you never know what trouble they may encounter in route. You want to put the heat packs on the top of the lid...yes, I know heat rises...because you're not trying to heat the fish; the heat packs are just to create a heat barrier. You don't want cold air coming in. The reason for the newspaper is to keep the heat packs from directly touching any of the bags.

Place the Styrofoam lid on the box, taping the sides with packing tape to prevent air exchange, and then tape up the cardboard box. Note, you won't want to activate the heat packs until the last possible moment. If you are shipping freight with Southwest Airlines, Delta Airlines, or Continental, etc., they require that you have your box open for inspection at the airport an hour or two prior to departure. So don't activate your heat packs until you close it up at the airport (and don't forget your packing tape). Airborne Express does not require inspection of your box upon pickup.

A few comments about carriers: Airborne Express is good, price-wise, if you have a small shipment. They will pick up your delivery at your doorstep, but ship overnight. In other words, shipments usually take 24 hours. Oh, I almost forgot, you can only ship to other people with an Airborne Express account. The airlines are most economical when you have several boxes to ship. They ship fast, with the pre-existing flight schedule being their only limiting time factor. They do require your box to be there two hours prior to departure as well as proof of identification. Either way, these carriers will provide you an airbill number that you can give to the recipient to track, even hours before they take your package.

Receiving a shipment

You should receive an airbill number from the sender that will allow you to track and claim your package. Unless you are shipping via UPS or Airborne Express, you'll need to travel to the airport to pick up your fish.

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Call the airline's freight office to make sure the fish arrived before you leave to get them; otherwise you might end up waiting around. With today's airport chaos, you can never be certain your fish made their flight or that it didn't get cancelled until you call for confirmation of arrival. You will need identification to retrieve your fish as well as a check, if the package was sent collect.

As stated below, when unpacking your fish, do NOT add the water in the bags to your tank. If they were shipped with tranquilizer, this drug could damage your biological filtration. Inspect your fish and alert the sender to any irregularities or deaths. Deaths are rare, but do occur. Retailers will usually credit your account any losses, but may require proof of the loss.

Acclimating Your Fish:

Let's first assume you've just brought your fish home from your LFS or online, then we'll address how best to acclimate your fishies if you've moved. I won't discuss the use of quarantine tanks here, but I should state that I strongly encourage you use them for new fish. You'll thank me later if you do!

Settling In New Fish:

The first thing you'll need to do once you get home is to turn off the lights to the aquarium, if you didn't think to do this before you left. This will calm the fish's soon-to-be tankmates, and they'll be less likely to intimidate the new arrival. It will also serve to calm your new fish, thus reducing the stress.

Next, you'll need to "float" your fish. This involves placing the plastic bag containing your fish in the tank it will eventually live in. Float your fish for about 15 or 20 minutes.

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This is important as it allows the water temperature in the bag to gradually adjust to that of the tank. This practice prevents your fish from experiencing any temperature shock when introduced into the tank.

After your fish has floated for a suitable length of time, you'll then need to "drip" it. Dripping involves adding small amounts of the aquarium water to the bag until about half of the water in the bag is from your aquarium. This allows the pH and GH of the water in the bag to gradually adjust to that in the tank. This practice also has the purpose of reducing the stress your fish will experience upon introduction. If the fish has been shipped, my method for floating is the same, but dripping is a bit different. Typically, they'll come drugged with Hypno or Bag Buddies. I feel its important to flush as much of this sedative out of their system as possible before putting them with other fish. I unfortunately learned the hard way: a drugged fish is a sleepy fish and becomes an easy target of predation or aggression. What I do then, after floating the bag, is cut the bag and gently release the fish and its water into a bucket. I will then "drip" the fish in this bucket. Using a bucket permits me to add much more water from the aquarium than the bag would otherwise permit.

After putting your fish to bed and floating & dripping your new one, you're now ready to add your fish. Whatever you do, do NOT add the water from the bag to the aquarium, especially if the fish was drugged.

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These drugs can damage your biological filtration. Furthermore, you don't want the ammonia-polluted water this fish has been sitting in because you don't know what viruses or bacteria its previous tank may have harbored. (This is why you want a quarantine tank.) Gently net the fish out of the bag and then release the fish into the tank.

I would discourage you from feeding your fishes that first day. Rarely have I ever witnessed a new fish that ate right away. It usually takes a day or two (and maybe longer) before they feel comfortable enough to resume eating. Don't be alarmed if they don't eat the next day, unless you see white, stringy feces. They can survive for weeks without eating. Reduce the amount you feed them at first and gradually bring it back to its original quantity. With the addition of a new fish, your biological filtration will be overloaded just by the mere presence of another breathing, and consequently, ammonia-producing fish. By feeding smaller amounts initially, you will give your nitrifying bacteria time to catch up and adapt to the new load.

Fish On The Move:

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The same principles apply here, except you don't need a quarantine tank and your tank will probably not have had an opportunity to cycle. If your tank is newly established, you can use a brand-spanking new product by MarineLand called BIO-Spira to instantly jump start your aquarium. This product is not like your old biological starters. This one actually works! Notwithstanding, feed your fish sparingly for the first few weeks, and keep an eye on the ammonia and nitrite levels, performing 25% weekly water changes.
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