LFS Fish “Treatment” & The “Sudden” Need for Quarantine

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photo by @Dreadnaught

So why is everyone pushing quarantining these days? I do not need to quarantine, my LFS treats fish in copper? I have done this for years without any problems, why now this push? These are common questions I imagine plague many people new to reefing and seasoned veterans of the hobby alike. So what is the deal, anyway?

I do not need to intricately discuss the importance of quarantining, or how to do it. It’s been covered very well in other articles. I do, however, want to address the reason that there are so many quarantine and preventative-treatment cheerleaders throughout Reef2Reef and the reefing community.

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photo by @Thraciandrummer

Why You Should NEVER Trust An LFS To Quarantine:

Simply put, it’s not economically feasible. LFS, online retailers, and the distribution system are not set up to properly handle disease. Retailers and distributors have several tanks, but they share water with several others for ease of maintenance and to take advantage of economies of scale (assigning costs to a higher volume of fish, thus decreasing the price of each individual fish sold). In addition, several fish are housed together. Due to the sheer number of fish moving in and out of these tanks at various steps from collection to arrival in our homes, the odds of them being exposed to these parasites and infections are VERY high.

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Photo by @Sistawolf
Adding to the confusion, we can see fish that are seemingly healthy at our LFS, or even WYSIWYG online retailers. They are often kept in levels of copper (not fully therapeutic) which can and often do mask symptoms, making it difficult and deceiving when choosing fish for your tank. This effectively provides people a false sense of security. Later, I will discuss what would need to happen at the LFS/retailer level and specifically why this is not possible, but first let’s discuss why this is “suddenly” such a concern.

What Changed? Why Is This Suddenly Such a Big Problem?

I feel that I can honestly say that some 99.9% of all fish purchased from LFS and online retailers are either afflicted with or are carriers of marine ich, velvet, brooklynella, flukes, internal parasites, or infections. Commonly, fish are afflicted by several of these ailments simultaneously. To some degree, this was probably always the case but as time has gone on, people have demanded lower prices for their fish (as consumers do in any competitive industry). This pressure has led the distribution system and LFS to find more ways to cut costs, or risk going out of business. How many of us have seen our favorite LFS/Retailer go out of business over the past 5-10 years? Unfortunately, husbandry has suffered as a result of this pressure. More deadly parasites such as marine velvet are also every bit as common now as marine ich.

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photo of tang with parasites by @ExpensiveHobby

In addition, our knowledge has grown. We now better understand the life cycle of these parasites. For example, it was “common knowledge” in the past that “all marine tanks had ich” and “stress causes ich”. We have since learned that ich is actually an organism, and it cannot be “caused” by anything other than reproduction any more than you can “cause” your own offspring with an event other than reproduction. Thus, we’ve learned not only is it possible to completely eradicate these parasites and infections from home aquaria, but we’ve also learned how to manage some of them. There are “Ich Management” threads and articles to be found as well.

Ich management is still practiced by some -- I spent a decade utilizing it myself. Unfortunately, things changed and my losses continued to increase. I quickly learned that my livestock choices were very limited to fish that have the capability of building a resistance/immunity to ich. In addition, I lost fish I shouldn’t have, blaming “a weakened fish” from the start. I have far less of that now, with proper QT and treatment. With the growth of velvet, however, “Ich Management” is a far riskier prospect because there is no way to be sure you will not add other parasites that the vast majority of fish will not be able to defend themselves from as they did ich.

The myths that ich is a stress-induced “disease” (rather than an organism/parasite) are also prevalent because of what people witness. For example, a tank fill of fish that have never been quarantined that do not show obvious symptoms of ich can suddenly become dangerously affected with a stress event “trigger”. Things such as heater malfunctions, power outages, tank re-arrangements, tank moves, and a plethora of other things can seemingly “cause” these fish to “get ich” (show obvious symptoms of ich) and even succumb. Once the parasite has become prolific enough through the fish’s compromised immune systems and the sheer numbers of parasites now in the tank as a result, it can become a deadly problem and do so suddenly. Prior, the fish fought off say 95-99% of the parasites so they could not complete their life cycle en masse.

So What Would Need To Happen to Properly Treat Fish at LFS Level?

An LFS/retailer would have to hold on to fish for at least 30 days with Humblefish’s protocol, or keep a single fish (or batch of fish) in a closed system (a single tank) in therapeutic levels of copper or CP for a full 30 days, with 14 days observation afterward. Copper levels would require daily testing to ensure that they did not dip below the therapeutic range, or the needed 30 day clock would restart because the parasite would be able to complete its life cycle. In addition, after each batch of fish, the LFS would have to completely sterilize each individual quarantine after all of the fish from the last batch were sold, and start over. As we know, they’d need to somehow seed each new quarantine with bacteria to kick start the nitrogen cycle and do large water changes to prevent ammonia from killing the next batch until this occurred -- for every batch. This is exponentially more large water changes and cost. Factor in the cost of all of the medications, individual plumbing and filtration, test kits, personnel/salaries to complete all of these tasks, the opportunity cost of having tanks/systems tied up until the last batch has sold, and the inability to sell a fish for 30-45 days upon arrival at a minimum – you discover why this does not happen. To name a few more costs/challenges, you would have to be sure to properly sterilize equipment, or have designated nets/equipment for each tank. Individual tanks must be placed 10 feet away from one another to prevent aerosol transmission of ich. If an employee dips his or her arm in one tank, and then in to another before properly sterilizing the entire arm and letting it dry, it undermines the entire process (I have learned this the hard way many times). We are also not factoring in that every day a fish remains at an LFS increases the risk of “shrinkage” (fish losses, in this case). So if they typically sell a fish in an average of 5-10 days and it takes 30-45 days to even get the fish available for sale, the risks of fish dying increases significantly (you cannot sell a dead fish). So now, you have to account for that in your pricing, as well.

So, in short, costs grow by several orders of magnitude (so fish prices would likely AT LEAST double), but now you also bring in less revenue. I’ve oversimplified several things to discuss this, and I’ve left a lot of things out so as not to bore. To summarize, do not expect or trust any LFS or retailer to properly quarantine and treat your fish so that they are safe to dump directly in to your tank. They cannot logistically and economically do so and remain profitable. The only person I know that has a chance would be our very own Humblefish, as he is working on his own idea to do just this very thing. He’s spent years planning and researching, and it won’t be an easy road. He intricately knows and understands the life cycles of these parasites, and what treatments are needed, what order they need to be administered, and how to do this effectively. Still, many of these issues will create bottlenecks to account for.

Happy Reefing!

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photo of healthy powder blue tang by @Triggreef
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About author
Jason has been keeping saltwater fish and reef since 2004. It began with a job at a pet store that quickly turned to an obsession. He has made every mistake in the book and within 6 months had four aquariums and has maintained no fewer than three over the years at any given time.

A tang, angel, wrasse expert and difficult to keep fish enthusiast, he consistently pushes the limits to learn more about fish. His prized fish include a pair of Achilles tangs and a pair of Red Sea Regal Angelfish. Jason also frequents the disease thread as he has learned a lot over the years he hopes to share. Jason spent the first 10 years in this hobby practicing "ich management" techniques which he no longer recommends.

Outside of this hobby, Jason is a Ford fanatic with, you guessed it, 4 Fords in his garage. He works in the finance industry, specifically in the unique position of setting up wealthy Americans with reverse mortgages as financial tools. He has two children; a boy and a girl, and is an Indiana University (Kelley School of Business) and Butler University MBA graduate.

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