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Shipping Fish
by Eric Glab


They say that there is more than one way to skin a cat; I believe that is very true ofthe fish keeping hobby as well. This article discusses what I believe is the most successful way to ship fish but, there may be others who disagree with me, that's fine. However, I have shipped a thousand fish this way and it works almost all of the time.

I have read that in the early days of tropical fish transportation for the John G. Shedd aquarium, here in Chicago, Illinois, fish losses were cut tremendously after the shippers figured out not to feed the fish during the trip. All fish must be properly "cleaned out" before shipping. You "clean out" a fish by not feeding it for a designated amount of time. This time varies from species to species and the size of fish must be taken into consideration as well. Some cichlids require just a couple days of no food before their trip while others (like adult frontosa) may require over a week! By starving the fish, we are able to reduce the amount of waste that will be excreted in the bag during the shipment. Fish waste is quickly converted to ammonia in the bag, subsequently leading to stress or even death.

When you purchase fish from your local shop, they will put aquarium water in the bag with the fish. This is perfectly acceptable for short trips. This has its faults for longer trips. Aquarium water in an established aquarium should have no ammonia due to the nitrifying bacteria in the filter. Once the water is taken from the aquarium and put into a bag, the filter is taken out of the equation. Dissolved organics that are present in the tank water begin forming ammonia as soon as they enter our plastic bag for shipping. For this reason I do not use tank water for shipments. Instead I use treated tap water. Since I do regular water changes, my tap water is very close in hardness and pH to my aquariums. Since there is almost no dissolved organics in treated tap water, it makes a great start to a long trip.

The biggest killer of fish is derived from stress. In order to reduce stress, I like to use a fish tranquilizer under the brand name Hypno or Trance. When used properly this substance will sedate a fish by causing it's metabolism to slow down. If used in small doses, Hypno will cause the fish to be less jumpy, larger doses will slow breathing and other involuntary actions. Overdosing can ultimately kill the fish, however if the directions are followed, Hypno works without any problems. For this reason, I highly recommend using Hypno when shipping fish that requires more than several hours of bag time. It is important not to add water that contains Hypno to the aquarium as it can damage the biological filtration.

Bottled oxygen is not necessary when shipping fish if you pack lightly and the shipment is not delayed. It does buy the fish more time if problems in shipping arise. Oxygen tanks and their valves can be purchased at your local welding store. Always be careful with any pressurized gas as improperly handled tanks can kill.

The container of choice for shipping is the tried and true plastic bag. Doubling up bags is always recommended for thinner bags, as fish spines can be sharp. Don't skimp on quality bags, they are worth the extra couple cents. Bags are placed in a Styrofoam box that is surrounded by cardboard and then sealed with heavy duty-tape. Thus ensuring a warm environment for the fish.

During the coldest winter months up here in the north part of the U.S., heat packs may have to be used. These chemical bags are activated by shaking them a few times. There are different strengths and different time lengths that these heat packets last. Experimentation with different brands and amounts will produce the best results later. You can go overboard. No one wants a shipment of fish soup!

Shipping same day service through the local airport is the fastest way to move fish. Typically the airline requires you call ahead in order to reserve space on a flight and receive an airbill number. They usually require you to have your box at their facility an hour or two before the flight. The amount of time depends on the airlines and service with two hours being typical. DO NOT cut this close, your fish will not make the flight. Add one hour to whatever time they tell you in order to be safe. Usually your flight is not guaranteed unless you pay extra for it. This may or may not be worth the money. Your box must be open for inspection at the airport and you must have proof of identification. Don't forget to bring you I.D. and packing tape.

The most frustrating problem that can arise when shipping fish is dealing with the airlines. If you have flown recently, you know that many flights are delayed or even cancelled. This is where the frustration sets in for both the shipper and shipee. Make sure the shipee is called with the flight number AND the airbill number. That way he can anticipate any delays. The best plan is to not go to the airport to pick up your box until you have confirmed that the fish have arrived. Most airlines require one to two hours of time after the flight has touched down to get your cargo ready anyway. By waiting till you have confirmation, you may save yourself hours of waiting at an airport. Remind the shipee to have his I.D. with him in order to make his pickup. The airlines require I.D. for confirmation of signature. Always pack the fish so they can live much longer in the box then you anticipate the shipping time will be; better safe than sorry.

I have not shipped fish via some of the major delivery services like Federal Express and UPS. I was told that some carriers will not ship live tropical fish due to the risk of it's contents leaking and damaging other packages. The cost can be higher to ship overnight with one of these carriers than shipping same day air freight via the airlines. Why take the risk when you don't have to.

Shipping fish can be a very rewarding experience for you and the person expecting your fish. I highly recommend it to expanding you horizons in this great hobby.
 
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