Cultivating a saltwater fish tank is a bit like making a souffle — impressive if you pull it off, but delicate and easy to screw up. Still, it's easy to see why this hobby remains popular. At its best, a reef tank (with fish, coral and invertebrates such as starfish or anemones) is a miniature, mostly self-sustaining ecosystem of unparalleled tranquility and beauty.
For aquaculturists who feel up to the challenge, Aquatic Specialties (2019 33rd St., Kenner, 504-443-1576; www.aquaticspecialties.com) store manager Suzy Valladares offers basic information about setting up a saltwater fish tank at home.
Do a little world-building. Before doing anything else, make some decisions about what's going to live in your tank. Valladares says there are three main setups: fish-only, fish with invertebrates or a full reef tank.
Reef tanks featuring coral create a dramatic effect but are the most challenging and expensive to maintain. Coral requires a light setup that cycles on and off and varies its intensity. Fish-only tanks don't require as much investment in lighting and generally are less expensive to maintain.
You also should ask questions about the kind of fish you plan to buy. Some species don't get along with others, and if you have more than one of the same type of fish, there's a possibility of breeding. Some fish will become aggressive and nip fingers if they've laid eggs in a small tank.
New saltwater tank owners often like clownfish, because they're hardy and familiar from the movie Finding Nemo. Damsels are another durable species, but Valladares warns they're "mean as all get-out."
Size matters. For budding aficionados (a-fish-ionados?), Valladares recommends a 65- to 75-gallon tank. In smaller tanks, it's harder to balance the pH, ammonia, nitrite and nitrate levels that are the components of a healthy environment.
"[In a smaller tank] you don't have as much give room," she explains. "If something dies in the tank and you don't notice it, it's going to spike ammonia faster than it would in a big tank."
Also, consider tank size relative to what fish you plan to buy. A casual rule of thumb is five gallons of water for every inch of fish. Valladares says the space is necessary because saltwater is more dense, so it doesn't hold as much oxygen as fresh water.
Set a budget. "If you say, 'I want to set up a cheap saltwater tank,' that's kind of an oxymoron, because there isn't any such thing," Valladares cautions. Prepare for the hobby's associated costs, and make adjustments based on what's humane for the fish — some popular species, such as blue hippo tangs, require a large tank to stay healthy.
Captive-bred or -raised fish are more expensive livestock options, because it takes time and money to raise them from the fry stage. Serious hobbyists tend to prefer them because they're more eco-friendly. (Captive-bred fish also can be hardier because aquarium life seems normal to them, Valladares says.)
It's also important to budget time to manage your tank. Test your tank's ammonia, nitrite and pH levels weekly, and expect to spend between half an hour to an hour each week (depending on the size of your tank) changing the water, cleaning the glass and doing other maintenance.
Be patient. Setting up a functional tank takes time. Valladares says it can take as long as six weeks before a tank has finished "cycling" and is ready for coral. During these weeks, bacteria from "live sand" and "live rock" develop to help make the tank safe for living creatures; these bacteria ultimately eat the ammonia produced by fish that's poisonous to them in large quantities.
Also, tank cultivation is an inexact science. Even if you're on top of your measurements and diligent about cleaning, unpredictable things can happen.
"We are taking things from the ocean ... and we're cramming it in a box," Valladares says. "Even if you do everything perfectly ... there may be a death without an explanation."
So, start slow, and don't beat yourself up if a fish meets an untimely demise. And maybe don't give anything a name for the first few weeks.