Guidelines for Design

Creating an aquarium involves bringing together diverse elements, both living and nonliving, and integrating them into a functioning system. An aquarium is not a true ecosystem, of course, but does tend to exhibit many of the characteristics of natural ecosystems. A simplistic example is the formation of an aquarium food web. Even in the absence of added food, an aquarium contains producers, consumers, and degraders, whose lives depend, at least to some extent, upon each other. Algae growing on a rock harbors small crustaceans that are eaten by a fish, which in turn excretes waste that is broken down by other organisms, ultimately producing nitrate that fertilizes another round of algae growth.

Years ago, aquarium literature often made mention of the ideal, balanced aquarium, in which this cycle of production, consumption, degradation, and reuptake proceeded indefinitely in the absence of external influences such as feeding or water changes. Few, if any, aquarists achieved this ideal, not because it is impossible to accomplish, but rather because it takes a huge volume of water and a great many plants to support a small population of fish. Setting up a one-hundred-gallon aquarium to house a few one-inch fish seemed like wasted effort.

In fact, modern filtration systems are designed and deployed with one primary goal: to increase the number of fish that can be housed in a given volume of water. The aquarium remains balanced only so long as the filter system properly functions. The implication of this simple principle is obvious: Effort must be expended on a continuous basis to keep the aquarium functioning properly. It will not "take care of itself." If we make the mistake of beginning with a collection of species having widely divergent needs, we compound the problem because providing for one of them may simultaneously work against the interests of another. The aquarium, in effect, is constantly teetering on the brink of disaster. Eventually, a tipping point is reached, and the impending disaster becomes reality. Too often, this is the experience of the home aquarist. Therefore, the first priority for good aquarium design is to emulate conditions that favor a natural balance:

• A relatively large volume of water

• Control of waterborne pollutants

• A relatively small number of fish

Beginners often find the huge variety of saltwater aquarium fishes, invertebrates, and seaweeds, each with its peculiarities and special needs, extremely daunting. The possibilities seem endless. Indeed, they almost are. If we were to try to list all possible combinations of just twenty kinds of fishes and invertebrates, for example, we would end up with more than a million billion aquarium designs.

Fortunately, ways can be found to sort out all of this diversity. By applying a simple set of guidelines, the process of designing a successful aquarium can be greatly simplified. Here are the guidelines I have developed over the years:

• Focus on a single biotope. A biotope is a small geographic area, such as a lagoon, with characteristic kinds of life. Reef biotopes can be characterized by a variety of factors. They can vary with respect to the water depth, substrate, current, and so forth. Aquariums featuring fish and plants from only one biotope are far more likely to remain free of problems than those cobbled together with species from a diversity of biotopes.

• Focus on one or a few fish species. Hundreds of species of saltwater fishes are collected or raised for the aquarium. No individual aquarist is likely to see them all, much less have the opportunity to keep them in a tank at home. Smaller tanks are likely to fare better with only one species, while a large tank devoted to only one species is truly stunning. For most aquarium displays, though, the ideal community of inhabitants comfortably occupies the middle ground between monotonous and chaotic. Regardless of how many species you wish to exhibit, allow at least 20 gallons of water for each individual fish.

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