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Saltwater Fish Keeping Was an Adventure - Paul Baldassano

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Chad

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Saltwater fish keeping in the seventies and eighties was an adventure. It all started in 1971 when Peter Wilkens published his book in Germany titled "Saltwater Aquarium for Tropical Marine Invertebrates" (unfortunately it was not translated to English until the mid 80s). Very few stores sold saltwater fish and if they did, it was just Blue Devils, Dominoes and Sergeant Majors. The places that did offer salt water had just one small tank of saltwater fish and a huge sign outside that read "We have Salt Water". If you had never seen saltwater tropical fish before, the sight of a blue devil was awe inspiring.The animals came out before any of the devices to keep them alive arrived. Powerheads were mainly for fresh water and none of them were submersible. They were designed to sit on top of under gravel lift tubes, and the first ones were made out of aluminum. That is not something you want to see in a freshwater tank, much less saltwater. There were also no GFCIs so we would have to unplug the powerheads before we put our hands in the water. The lighting was not much better. You had a choice of those long skinny incandescent lamps or fluorescent lamps which you had to push in the button and hold it until it lit. The first canopies to hold these lamps were metal, so after a few nasty shocks we learned to turn the lights on with a stick.By the eighties we had plastic powerheads but most of them were not yet submersible.Sanders sold a skimmer in the seventies but it was only about 12" high and was a counter current skimmer, meaning it worked with an air stone. The only air pump available to push enough air into it was a piston pump. The piston pumps cost more than the skimmers and they used a leather piston which had to be oiled about once a week. Some of the oil always managed to find its way into the water and the motors for these pumps were made very badly causing them to overheat. I always fitted them with a fan. Of course, I always managed to stick my hand into the fan blades. The pumps were also noisy and had to be placed in a closet or insulated box which made them even hotter.The fish were amazing. A person was looking at my tank once and asked me how I got the paint to stick on the fish. He was referring to a percula clownfish, and he was serious! One big problem was getting a healthy fish because there was no such thing. All of the fish had ich. If it were not for copper, there would be no saltwater fish hobby. The fish were shipped, sold and kept in copper treated water. We bought copper like we buy artificial saltwater today. We thought ich was just a part of life.Another bane of hobbyists was cyanide collected fish. Cyanide is a poison that was very commonly used to collect fish. The cyanide procedure called "blue stoning" was accomplished by squirting the chemical around a coral head causing the stunned fish to leave their hiding places and become lethargic so that they could just be hand caught and put into containers. Many of these fish lived for a long enough time to be shipped to retailers to be sold - the rest died. Unfortunately, even the ones that lived for a few weeks died soon after for no outward reasons. There was an article written about it in a 1974 issue of TFH (Tropical Fish Hobbyist) magazine. The chemical was banned in the Philippines in 1980 although it is still being used in some areas. Things stayed like that into the eighties when something drastic happened in the hobby which changed everything. The German government banned the importation of all butterflies and angelfish to appease environmentalists in that country. With those beautiful animals banned, people started to try to keep corals, which were legal to import. The Berlin Aquarium Society was instrumental in introducing high intensity lighting and the discovery of what supplements were needed to keep these unusual creatures alive.Also created by the Germans was the first HQI bulb which was 6,000K - it could keep corals alive but its color left much to be desired. Luckily they also came out with an actinic o3 lamp in the 420 nm range which offset the awful color of the high intensity lamps available. Actinic lamps were borrowed from hospitals, where they were used to cure infants of jaundice.In the US we still had no live or even dead rock. All tanks were decorated with dead coral skeletons, which were not cheap. When the nice white dead coral would get a little green tinge, we would remove them to soak overnight in Clorox. The tanks were filtered with under gravel filters and maybe a canister filter filled with floss and maybe some carbon. Now we all know that anemones can't survive in a tank with copper so we had a rough time there for a while. We had to get the copper out of the water along with the ich so we could keep anemones. It was not easy and we lost loads of fish. A blue devil was about $7.00 then, which is about $30.00 today. We eventually learned that if we fed the fish something besides flakes and we cultivated some bacteria while letting some algae grow, we could get the fish into a state of health where we could eliminate the copper.Of course any new fish had to be quarantined in copper treated water for a month or so.You have to remember this was way before internets or even computers. Very, very few people kept saltwater fish and the stores that did stock them had no knowledge of them whatsoever. The only magazine available was "The Marine Aquarist", and it was hard to come by and had limited information. Most of the foods available were designed for freshwater and even artificial saltwater was scarce. I first used "Lampert Kay's Marine Magic". It came in a small green box and was also not real cheap. Luckily for me, I lived near the sea and could at least collect water.Gradually more animals became available - coral banded shrimp and arrow crabs were starting to be common, as were yellow tangs. There were many fish for sale that even now we have a hard time keeping - fish like Moorish Idols (I had a few of them in the eighties), shrimpfish, clingfish and orange spotted filefish. Tanks then were fish only and many of those animals had a tough time in a reef - they had almost no chance in a fish only especially with the foods we had available.Corals were also frequently offered for sale. Going to an aquarium store was always a great day as you never knew what new animal they would have that you never saw before. By the nineties we had submersible powerheads, larger skimmers, powerful air pumps and other means to purify the water. Wet dry filters were state of the art and a variety of systems were replacing under gravel filters. We had the natural system which was invented by Lee Chin Eng in the sixties, the Jaubert system, and then we had plenums, pushed by Bob Goemans, the sterile system and then deep sand beds used by many people today.To me reefing was much more challenging in the seventies and eighties, although it was also more nerve wracking. You had to really take your time with any new animals you purchased because of the lack of information or just wrong information. We even considered ourselves lucky if we could get aiptasia anemones to live. Today I feel we have too much information, most of it conflicting. Much of the information in this hobby was created in Germany. Eventually it got translated to English but by the time that happened, a lot of the information was already outdated. Today millions of people enjoy this wonderful and educational hobby. The animals are easier to keep now but I feel there is a lot more that we don't know. -written by Paul Baldassano (Paul B)

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