How to care for saltwater fish
Is it very difficult to maintain a saltwater tank? It is true that many aquarists steer clear of them because they are concerned about saltwater tank maintenance. It doesn’t have to be difficult or time consuming to maintain a healthy marine tank, so let’s talk about how to care for saltwater fish without stress by following a good maintenance routine.
Saltwater Aquarium Care: Responsibilities of Saltwater Fish Owners
Starting up a saltwater tank is definitely not a decision to make on a whim. Saltwater fish are difficult to keep because they have specific requirements in terms of water quality and pH, and small deviations can often be fatal. Here are the three main responsibilities of owning a saltwater tank:
Research is essential!
The ideal water parameters for your saltwater aquarium will vary depending on the type of fish and/or corals you have. You will need to identify the species you would like to conserve and investigate if they suit your level of experience. You can’t do too much research, so take your time and ask for advice from a variety of sources.
Do you have time for care and maintenance?
The key to having a healthy saltwater fish tank is to follow a regular routine and perform your daily, weekly and monthly maintenance tasks on schedule. The time commitment isn’t huge, around 20-30 minutes a day, and maybe a few hours a month, but you can’t delay or skip your routine without putting your tank’s health at risk.
Greater financial investment
You can expect to spend at least a few hundred dollars on equipment to set up a marine tank, and possibly quite a bit more for premium brands or larger aquariums. Marine animals are also substantially more expensive than freshwater fish. If something goes wrong in your saltwater tank, it could cost a lot to replace your fish.
Maintenance Routines for Healthy Saltwater Fish Tanks
Once you’ve researched and invested in your ideal setup, the critical component to having a healthy saltwater tank is designing your maintenance routines and adjusting them as needed. The amount of time it will take to care for your saltwater aquarium will vary over the years as your tank matures.
New saltwater aquariums, like freshwater tanks, require time to establish colonies of healthy bacteria that can break down ammonia into safer forms. It’s usually a good idea to do weekly water changes for the first few months and test the water often to catch problems before they harm your fish.
As your tank matures, you may not need to test or change the water as often, but instead spend more time cleaning salt from equipment (salt drag) or removing algae from decor. Every hobbyist eventually develops their own routines, so take the schedule below as a suggestion and modify as needed.
You should get into the habit of monitoring your fish and checking your gear every day, as this is a great way to spot potential problems before they become catastrophic. I do my morning and evening health checks while feeding my fish, examining their color and behavior while looking for signs of injury or disease.
Once a day I check the temperature of the water and measure the specific gravity with a refractometer or hydrometer, and then replace the evaporated water with warm fresh water. As the water evaporates from your tank, the salt is left behind, so adding fresh water every day restores the salinity to the proper level.
Other daily aquarium tasks include:
- Check that your heater, filters, protein skimmer, lights, and pumps are working properly.
- Empty and rinse the cup in your protein skimmer to avoid a messy overflow.
Once a week, I set aside an hour or so to test my aquarium water quality and to clean some of the equipment in the tank. Small Nano Tanks and new saltwater setups may also require partial weekly water changes, so make sure you have a batch of saltwater mixed or collected and ready to go.
You should be diligent in testing your water’s ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, phosphate and pH levels at least once a week for the first few months, and also calcium levels if you have a reef tank. Saltwater species are much less tolerant of variation in water quality, so testing can alert you that it’s time for a water change.
Other weekly equipment maintenance tasks:
- Rinse pre-filter sponges and mechanical filter pads in a bucket of aquarium water to prevent clogging. Don’t use tap water as it will kill any good bacteria living on the sponges or pads!
- Wipe off any salt carryover from the outside of your filters, protein skimmer, hood/cover, and light fixtures with a damp cloth.
- Use a magnetic or stick scraper to remove problem algae from the sides of your aquarium.
Bi-weekly or monthly assignments
How often should you change the water in a saltwater tank? It really depends on the size of the tank, the number of fish you have, and the types of filtration systems you’re using, but in general, you’ll need to do a partial water change every two weeks to once a month for a mature tank. I normally change about 10% every two weeks.
Biweekly cleaning is an ideal schedule for most tanks
It is less stressful for marine fish to do smaller, more frequent water changes, because they don’t like it when water quality changes suddenly. Gradual changes in water parameters are safer and less stressful. Therefore, it is better to do a 10% water change every week or two weeks than a 25% change once a month.
If you’re wondering how to clean a saltwater tank, it’s like cleaning a freshwater facility; use a bucket and siphon to suck up the gravel and remove debris from the substrate. You can use the water discarded in the bucket to rinse your filter pads or scrub stubborn algae off your decor.
Other monthly and bi-monthly aquarium maintenance tasks:
- Replace the pads and chemical media in your filters on a day when you are NOT doing a water change!
- Remember, saltwater fish are especially sensitive to changes in water quality, so replace the filter media the day before or after a water change to give your fish time to adjust to the new conditions.
- Check your pumps and tubes from your filters and protein skimmers to make sure they don’t have a buildup of debris or calcium deposits that could cause flow problems or a leak.
- You can use bottle cleaner and some white vinegar to remove any residue inside the tubes or replace old or bent tubes with new tubes.
- Clean your aquarium light fixture and polish any reflective surfaces or acrylic shields they may have to ensure that the maximum amount of light reaches the tank’s occupants. This is critical for reef tanks, as corals require certain light spectra for photosynthesis.
While saltwater aquariums require more work than freshwater setups, they aren’t really any more difficult to maintain, just a bit more involved. It is much more efficient to follow a set routine for daily, weekly and monthly aquarium maintenance. That way you can stop problems dead in their tracks and you won’t be behind on caring for your tank.