Aquatics Unlimited: Articles: Moving Fish: You CAN Take Them With You
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Moving Fish:

You CAN Take 'Em With You

That we are a mobile society now goes without saying. Many families, including those with aquariums full of beloved pet fish, relocate periodically for job, family, school - or maybe even to get closer to a really good fish store!

Should you try it? If your current collection of aquarium fish has little sentimental value and can be reasonably replaced at the new location, it's certainly simpler to leave them behind. The local aquarium store may accept them, and possibly even offer a small amount of store credit that can be used for merchandise such as filters or food that are easily packed and moved. Likewise, if the move is of many hundreds of miles, the time and effort spent to move the fish may far outweigh their value. On the other hand, a move across town or to the next state is possible and may be practical if properly prepared for and carried out.

Preparation. Ideally, the aquarium(s) should be moved separately from other household belongings, so as to assure proper time and care can be given to the needs of the fish. Fish should not be fed within 24 hours of the moving time to reduce waste output in the traveling containers. Decorations can also be removed in advance to make fish catching easier; removing them just before catching fish often results in a cloudy tank in which it's difficult to see, much less catch, fish. Moving containers and a few basic necessities (see Check List) should be acquired in advance.

Containers. The ideal container for moving tropical fish is the Styrofoam box that the local fish store probably receives his fish in. These not only serve as excellent carrying containers for water and fish, but their insulating qualities protect them from rapid temperature change as well. These boxes often come with a cardboard outer wrapper, which helps support the weight and lessens the risk of cracking or breaking the "styro." Most dealers have plenty and sell styros at a reasonable price, but it's wise to make arrangements to get a few boxes in advance of the move.

Styrofoam boxes often hold water without any help, but a plastic liner bag should always be used in addition to contain water in case the styro is damaged in handling. The liner bag (should also be available at the local fish store) should be placed in the Styrofoam box, then filled about halfway with water from the aquarium.

An easier-to-carry alternative to styros is a bunch of 5 or 6 gallon plastic buckets available with lids at the local hardware store. These are best used for short trips of perhaps an hour or two, as they have no insulating ability and very limited surface area for oxygen exchange. They are rugged enough to use without liner bags, but care must be taken that they have not been contaminated with any toxic chemicals such as cleaning compounds. Even new buckets should be rinsed very thoroughly with salty (aquarium salt is best) water before use.

Water. Water should be taken from the aquarium just before fish are caught, and well before gravel is disturbed, so as to be as clean and clear as possible. Fill all the containers first, and maybe even discard a bit of the excess water before attempting to catch fish. It is far easier and less stressful to both fish and fishkeeper when fish are caught in 6" of water than in 16". Fish are netted from the tank and placed into the waiting bag or bucket. Up to about 50" worth of fish can be safely hauled for a few hours in a single box, or perhaps 15" in a 5 gallon bucket. If a liner bag is used, it should then be closed with as much air in it as possible (while still being able to close the cover), and sealed tightly with a rubber band. A collapsed bag with little air inside can result in dead fish in minutes! Buckets with fish should be no more than 2/3 full of water, to again allow some oxygen replenishment. Lids should be sealed to prevent accidental spillage, but should be opened periodically during the trip to exchange stale air for fresh.

Buckets with lids are also ideal for carrying extra aquarium water, wet gravel, and decorations to the new site. Nothing should be moved within the aquarium itself; the twisting stress on seams may cause leakage immediately, or just weaken the seal enough for a later burst.

To minimize acclimation stress, as much aquarium water as is practical should be taken to the new location. Half or more would be excellent, and 20% or so should be considered the minimum. This will reduce the amount of new water - of possibly different chemical makeup - needed, and the amount of stress the fish will experience in order to adapt. This water again should be taken before gravel is substantially disturbed. Once fish and traveling water are removed, the gravel can be stirred as with a water change, and remaining water can be discarded.

On the road. Boxes or buckets of fish should be transported in a temperature-controlled environment: in the passenger area of the car, rather than the trunk. Covering the containers with a blanket helps insulate and the resulting darkness helps to calm the fish. Fish can be checked periodically for signs of distress (gasping, hanging at surface), but resist the temptation to peek in and frighten them every five minutes. Battery operated air pumps are excellent to have on hand in case a container or two start to have problems.

Home again. At the new location, the tank should be properly set up on a suitably sturdy and level aquarium stand, then gravel added. It is probably best to use the old gravel at this time, since it is loaded with those good-guy, ammonia-eating bacteria that the tank needs. Changing to new gravel may cause the tank to go through "New Tank Syndrome." After the gravel is in place, the containers of fishless water should be added, followed by a dose of chlorine remover and an estimated amount of new tap water of about the same temperature. At least a few decorations should be added, and f possible, filters should be installed and started right away to help clear up the likely cloudiness. Extra filter cartridges or media should be on hand.

As the water begins clearing, a few fish should be added to the aquarium, and watched closely for signs of shock. It's very normal for fish to panic a bit in the new surroundings, to breathe a bit harder, and to be pale. It's not a good sign if the fish hangs at the surface or lies on its side at the bottom for more than a few seconds. If the test fish appear to be in trouble, they can be moved back into the traveling container, and tank should be checked for suitable temperature and perhaps chemistry before trying again.

What's next? After the fish are all successfully transferll successfully transferred to the aquarium, tank can be topped off with water and heater and filtration can be secured and made operational. Aquarium cover should be installed carefully, and any openings covered; fish are very prone to jumping in the next few days. Feeding should not resume for 24 hours after the move is complete, and even then, small portions should be offered until their full appetite returns. During the next week, fish should be closely watched for signs of "ich" or other infection.

Check List:

  • Styrofoam fish boxes
  • Plastic liner bags
  • Clean plastic buckets
  • Nets
  • Battery operated air pump
  • Thermometer
  • Chlorine neutralizer
  • Extra filter cartridges

Copyright © 2000 James M. Kostich
All rights reserved.

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