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October 30, 2011

Raising Saltwater Aquaria – The Building Blocks – Part 1

We have been raising clown fish for a couple of years now, in that time there is a great deal of information that we have learned. There is always more to learn, I’m no marine biologist. But we have raised a good number of hatches to maturity, along the way we have had some serious heartbreaks. Losing an entire hatch in the period of a couple of hours, can break your spirit and make you want to give up, we have been unable to raise any tomato clowns, despite repeated attempts.

One issue that I find frustrating is that information around raising fish comes in three varieties:

  1. Technical Marine Information
  2. Group Discussions
  3. Tidbits of useful information

this situation can make it incredibly hard to determine the best approach to a problem, the situation becomes critical when you discover that you have a hatch of eggs ready to go and you have no idea how to save them.

So this set of articles is my attempt to show you what we have learned along the way, I’ll try to be as clear as possible and provide pictures if something doesn’t make sense with words alone. I’ll assume that you already know how to maintain a saltwater tank, and that everything is stable. And that you have been able to maintain a healthy set of clown fish, or other marine life for more than a year without incident.

To set the foundation, let’s focus on two areas: Water, and Supplies.


It should go without saying that a well seasoned supply of Saltwater is needed in order to raise any type of Saltwater life, my suggestion is however much you have today, double it. Let me be perfectly clear here, you will use more Saltwater than you thought possible while changing tanks and keeping everything running. Personally I keep two 55 Gallon drums full at all times, I pull from one, while filling and seasoning the other. And as much as possible I try to keep them both full at all times.

For a tank that holds the parents, be they clown fish, peppermints, or anything else. You should be supplementing with Iodide on weekly bases, Strontium as well. Iodide is especially important for clownfish that are laying, it helps them create strong hatches. And if there’s anything else that I have learned, the stronger the eggs they lay, the better your chances of getting them to maturity will be.

I cannot stress enough how important water quality is, if you are raising any type of clown fish you will need to closely monitor Nitrates, Nitrites and Ammonia. You can measure other parameters if you wish, but those three are the keys to success.

Water changes are the way of life when raising any sea creatures, I’ll share a number of things that I have learned. But expect to be doing water changes at least every other day, especially for the first couple weeks of a hatch. There are ways to make this task easier, but it must be done, the more time you spend obsessing about the quality of your water, the more chance of success you will have.

One thing that you cannot overlook is vacuuming the tanks of young fry, it is essential that when changing water that you vacuum up any detritus on the bottom of the tank, especially food. If given a chance, it will begin to decompose and a healthy tank of fry will go from livable to toxic in a matter of hours, leaving you with a batch of dead fry.

I won’t sugar coat any of this for you, vacuuming fry tanks sucks. It’s tedious, thankless work, and if you don’t have the patience for it, then don’t raise fry. Because if you get lazy, or burned on even one night, it can and will kill your babies. Just ask me how I know.


I’m going to give you my preferences here, we have limited space, so we have learned to be careful what we use for raising fish. I’ll tell you what you should use and why, and then what I use and my reasons for doing so.

5 Gallon Buckets You cannot, and I mean CANNOT have enough of these, they are a lifesaver in a pinch. We collect them from all the salt we use for our water, but I’m sure if you talk to your local fish store, or other hobbyist you can get a good stack of them. Wash them out if needed with a little bleach, let them air dry and keep them clean and ready for emergency use.

Fry Tanks This is an area that you will not get a strong opinion on, I’ll give the list of what I use, and what I would be using if I had room:

  • 5 Gallon Tanks
  • I use these for new fry, they are small and require A LOT of attention, water can go back QUICKLY in these. But they are easy to clean, and small enough I can move them around if needed. I also can feed less food and get a more concentrated feeding than a bigger tank, and vacuuming them is so much quicker. I paint the underside of these with white paint (use the Krylon Plastic paint), this way you can actually see the detritus on the bottom of the tank, DO NOT raise fry without this step. Trust me on this one.

  • 15 Gallon Tanks
  • These are my workhorses, I use them for growout when larvae reach the fry or juvenile stage. I also use these to grow out juveniles to a size that I can sell them to the local fish shops. Paint the underside of these with white paint (use the Krylon Plastic paint), this way you can actually see the detritus on the bottom of the tank, DO NOT raise fry without this step. Again trust me on this one.

  • Black Feeding Troughs
  • These come in different sizes, this is what most professionals use when raising fry, I don’t have room or this is what I would go to. I’m considering moving to the oval ones at some point and see how they work. Make sure you get black ones.

  • Black Foam Board
  • Fry of all type are photo-tropic, meaning they are attracted to light, a tank with open sides will cause them to swim against the glass and die of starvation. To counter this you can use garbage bags or anything black, but through trial and error we have found that black foam board, some velro dots, and a good sharp knife will create a set of boards that can be attached to the outside of a fry tank.

  • Air Hose
  • You can’t have enough, I like the black kind because it doesn’t foul. I keep a roll on hand at all times, if you can get it in bulk, I would not hesitate. It’s a good investment.

  • Air Fittings
  • Splitters, Valves, and T’s. Buy all that you can get your hands on, I still run out when putting together an emergency tank.

  • Air Pumps
  • I keep two kinds around, the big double output models, and a bunch of the cheap little ones. In fact right now I’m out of pumps again, so next time I’m at the fish shop…

  • Air Stones
  • Buy the bulk packs, trust me. Do not get the wooden ones, use the little blue stone ones, also the square blocks work best for fry tanks.

  • Plastic Tubing
  • This is the stiff clear tubing they sell at fish stores, grab a handful, trust me you’ll be using lots of this stuff.

  • Egg Crate
  • We have cats, and because they are curious, little fish interest them. Go to home depot in the lighting center and buy two sheets of egg crate. You can cut it to fit any tank easily and it makes maintenance easy.

  • Zip Ties
  • Buy a box and you’ll be all set.

  • Low Wattage Light
  • I like these:

    They clamp on the tank, are relatively cheap and work great. You can also do these from home depot:

    stick a small full spectrum bulb in and your all set, no more than 15 watts for fry tanks please. I use these for all my brine and macro tanks (more about those later).

  • Thermometer
  • I’m going to go a little nuts on this one, you CANNOT have enough of these. Please buy extras, and always, always, ALWAYS, keep a mercury based one around to validate the digital ones. Personally we use the cheapest ones we can find, I don’t like the stickers, one that attaches to the glass is fine. You must be able to check it easily, which is why I do the digital ones, a helpful hint is do not get the digital ones wet. Ask me how I know, we lost a whole tank because of that, put them somewhere they will not get wet, and validate them once in a while with a good mercury floater.

  • Heater
  • I keep a collection of the cheapest 10 gallon ones I can find, when they go on sale I buy extras. Each fry tank needs one, you cannot have a tank changing temperature, it must stay consistent. You can use the little non-adjustables, but not for fry tanks. I use those for macro algae and food tanks. DO NOT buy the black ones that are all sealed, I have had them blow out a tank, I’ll post pics sometime of that disaster. Just buy the little standard glass ones, and take care of them, they always work for me.

  • Electrical Tape
  • The black type, it’s saltwater safe and used to cover heater lights, if you skip this step your fry will cook as soon as the heater light comes on. One roll will last you a lifetime.

  • Timers
  • I keep a number of the cheap dial ones around, you can hook them to a strip if you are using low wattage bulbs, they make your life easier.

There is more, I’ll add to the list as I go along. It seems overwhelming at first, but we have learned to keep a collection of items on hand. We can build an emergency tank in under 5 minutes, and I have used that not only for fry, or when we get calls, but for sick fish as well. The first time you have a spare on hand, you will understand why I’m so rabid about this topic. We didn’t build everything out at once, it took time, but it can save your sanity.

Next I’ll talk about building tanks, what we do and why, and then get into growing out food.


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