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Old 03-23-2012, 11:38 AM   #1
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Fish dying in SW tank

I've had a few fish deaths recently and I'm worried about it. Here's all the details:

Tank: 150G SW tank, FOWLR for now. Cycled using pure ammonia in November 2009. There's a 20G sump and a 20G refugium for a total of about 180G in the system. There are about 250 pounds of LR in the system that I use for biological filtration. Also, a month or so ago I added a Tunze protein skimmer into the sump which seems to be working OK. If you need more details, there's a link in my signature to my fish blog, and the "tank specs" page contains a bunch of information.

Livestock:

Before - 5 damsels, 3 tangs, 4 Bangai Cardinals, 1 Cave Goby, 1 firefish goby, 1 bi-color blenny, 1 mandarin, 20 or so Nassarius snails, 1 Royal Gramma.

Over the past 6 months the cardinals have gone from 4 to 2. I can't be exactly sure when, since when they breed it's typical for them to hide on the rocks for a few weeks without me seeing them at all. Their behavior during this time can be pretty aggressive, so I chalked these up to aggression.

From March 9-15 I went on vacation. When I came back, I couldn't find the Bi-color Blenny. Since then, I've lost the Firefish Goby, the mandarin, the cave goby, and possibly the Royal Gramma. I haven't noticed any signs of sickness or anything from any of these fish, but I haven't been around my tank nearly as much as I should recently because of all the travel.

What's been going on:

I'll start with measurements that I took last night:
Ammonia: 0
Nitrite: 0
pH: 8.2
Specific Gravity: about 1.023 (refractometer)
Temperature: 80-90F (more explanation below)
Nitrate: about 200 ppm

So the red flags are temperature and nitrates, obviously. I should explain what's going on here. Over the past few weeks I had slacked on making my water changes. I eventually wanted to get my nitrates down to zero, so when I got back from vacation (last weekend) I put together about 60 gallons for a large water change -- this would be the first of many water changes.

Unfortunately, one of my trash cans failed and dumped 40 gallons of saltwater on my carpet/laminate floor. This sucks, but my homeowner's insurance covers it. So, no water change yet, but instead I've had fans and dehumidifiers running in my house for about a week (they are gone as of last night). The temperature in that room was about 95 degrees during that time. Between the unseasonably warm weather and one of my heaters which I suspect is going crazy (and is now unplugged), the temperature has been fluctuating between 80 and 90 degrees over the past couple of weeks. It's possible that this could be part of the problem.

Also, because of the increased temp. I've been topping off the tank a lot more than normal recently, which means possible fluctuations in Specific Gravity (though I can't see it being that significant). I try to keep it between 1.023 and 1.025 at all times, and that measurement (1.023) was made after a top-off of maybe 5 gallons (I had to travel for work this week. I got back last night and topped it off (and found some dead fish)).

So, nitrates, temperature/SG are the suspect things here.

There's one other issue that I don't think is related, but it might be. Two of the tangs have been sort of recently competing for dominance. It looks like they got in a bit of a fight while I was gone, and one of them (Buzz) looks like he got the worse end of things. He's acting like he just got put in his place, and it looks like he just got beat up a bit, but I didn't want to rule out that it's related to the rest of the problems. The best picture I could get is here:

http://www.adamhorton.com/files/buzz.jpg

It's not the best picture in the world, and he really doesn't want to show me his other side, which looks a bit worse. If this is aggression then I'll feel better, but if this is a disease, then he's the only one with symptoms.

Could all this be explained by temperature/nitrates/aggression? Or is there something else that could be wrong here? I really don't want the answer to be "start from scratch", but I'm afraid that it is. Any help or ideas would be appreciated. Thanks.
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Old 03-23-2012, 12:20 PM   #2
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It's definitely the nitrates/temp. Just get the grates down from pwcs and keep the temp~80. Then get some fish!!!!!
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Old 03-23-2012, 12:23 PM   #3
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Well looks like you hit the nail on the head. Temp and nitrates are ridiculously off the charts! =/

1) Temp: How is the water temperature now that you removed the suspect heater? What is the ambient temp in the room now?

2) Nitrates: 200ppm is just asking for fish death. What have your nitrates been historically? With a skimmer, the amount of rock you have, and what seems like a decent bioload your trates shouldn't be that high. What is your feeding schedule like? How much are you feeding each time?
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Old 03-23-2012, 12:48 PM   #4
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Thanks for your quick replies. I feel better knowing that nobody has told me to start from scratch yet

1. Temperature: I just got home last night from travel and turned on the A/C, so last night when I looked it was 88F, but the room temp was 90 or so and still going down. I expect the room temp to be down to 78 when I get home tonight, so I will continue to monitor the temp. Sorry I don't have anything more accurate, but things are just starting to settle down outside the fish tank...

As for what was going on with the heater, I noticed the temp was warm when I was feeding one night (my hand was above the water and I thought it seemed warm). I ended up taking a week or so to figure out which one it was (I have three small heaters) so between all of that business, the temp fluctuated between 80 and 90F.

2. Historically, with 20G water changes every other week, the nitrates never got higher than 40-80 ppm. I've only added the skimmer recently, and I'd say it's still sort of "warming up". It produces a decent amount of nasty skimmate, but not a whole bunch. I usually feed once a day, what they will eat in 2 minutes, but as much as I've been away recently (past two weeks) I'd say it's been about every other day, the same amount, on average.

There are a couple of theories I have as to why the nitrates are so high right now.

a) Obviously I've slacked recently on water changes. Between vacation, my most recent delay, and the slacking before that, I'd say it's been at least a month since the last water change. Even though they're usually small, I'm sure this is a contributing factor.

b) When one fish dies, the snails waste no time in taking care of the body before I can take the fish out (especially when I'm out of town). I imagine that with plenty of biological filtration available, this all gets converted to nitrates, which could lead to a spike.

c) I've heard that Chaeto algae can possibly leech nitrates back into a system, like when you trim it while it's still in the tank or something... well with all of this evaporation happening, the water level in the refugium has been getting lower than usual, which resulted in some of my chaeto getting stuck on top of the rock and kind of dried out. Maybe it leeched some nitrates back into the system?

Anyways, since I'm home this weekend I'll be purchasing some smaller trash cans to hold my water, storing them OUTSIDE until they're all ready, and making as large of a water change as I can. I'm wanting to get my nitrates down to zero anyways because I want to start getting corals for this tank.

Again, thanks for the help. If there are any more thoughts I'd certainly like to know. Do the marks in the picture look like anything more than aggression?
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Old 03-24-2012, 12:16 AM   #5
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wow I've had some high nitrates but thats crazy. What test kit are use using, is it fairly new or old. How long has the tank been set up.
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Old 03-24-2012, 12:22 AM   #6
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When was your last water change and how much was it?
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Old 03-24-2012, 12:33 AM   #7
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I'd check your PH again as well. Normally, a rise in nitrate causes a drop in PH. What was the PH reading before this incident?
It sounds like the life in your refugium isn't doing it's job at the moment. You may want to check into that as well. You may need some more macro algaes to keep up with the volume of nitrates being produced.
The lose of any or even all of these smaller fish (sans the tangs if they are large fish) in such a large volume of water should not have spoiled the system. Not to the degree the readings are. You reallly need to address the system then the fish. IMO
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Old 03-24-2012, 02:16 PM   #8
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I'm using an API test kit, which I trust. I had to dilute the sample before I could get any real reading at all. The tank was cycled in November 2009 and has been running smoothly ever since. I did move in December 2010, but I didn't have any problems related to that.

The last water change was roughly a month ago, and at that point it was 20 gallons every other week.

pH is relatively stable at 8.2 and has been throughout as far as I can tell. The chaeto ball in my refugium has basically died, so yes, I need to get new macro algae. I'm thinking of getting something else, my LFS sells caulerpa, but I need to look into that.

I'm doing at least one large (60 gallon) water change this weekend, and I'll be doing them as often as I can until the nitrate readings get to 40-60 (and hopefully down to zero).
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Old 03-24-2012, 02:47 PM   #9
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I would invest in a chiller or at least leave the A/C on in that room. I would also be doing large water changes to bring down the nitrates. If your algae died, I doubt the addition of more algae would do anything positive. Not until you get the parameters closer to "reasonably safe". Otherwise the new algae will just die and add to the problem.
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Old 03-24-2012, 05:35 PM   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by mr_X View Post
I would invest in a chiller or at least leave the A/C on in that room. I would also be doing large water changes to bring down the nitrates. If your algae died, I doubt the addition of more algae would do anything positive. Not until you get the parameters closer to "reasonably safe". Otherwise the new algae will just die and add to the problem.

Ditto!!
Good point Doug. I failed to mention the order to address things
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