Frustrated, needing advice - Corals on slow decline for the past month

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Morpheosz

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Hey everyone, just started spending some time here. I've come back to reefing after ~20 year hiatus. I have a 15g mixed reef that I setup back in March. It's a Waterbox peninsula with an AI Prime HD light set mid way between the BRS recommended settings for 25% and 40%. I use a 6 stage RO filter with 0 TDS output. I started out with Instant Ocean salt mix. I do weekly 2.5 gallon water changes. Additionally I have a AI Nero 3 behind the rock work set to random 20-40% to add to circulation. I started it with established live rock from the LFS and sand and added quite a few frags over the intervening months. Additionally I now have a small pair of percula clowns and added a neon dottyback ~2 months ago.

For the first 3-4 months, everything looked amazing, happy, healthy, lots of extension, color. Then things started to fade / bleach. Even though my tank doesn't have a skimmer, I determined that my concern over nutrients and sparing feeding had likely starved the corals as the nitrates were 0. I started dosing with B-Ionic Nitrate and over the course of ~1 month most of my corals started to bounce back and get some color back. I started testing regularly and also found that my Ca and Mg were very low - 320 and 900 respectively. I tested my freshly mixed saltwater and found out the Instant Ocean was mixing up very low so I switched to Tropic Marin and started dosing Red Sea Ca and Mg for a few weeks, testing regularly to bring those params back in line. Most of the corals started looking better with one exception that I'll mention later. Once I got my levels back in line, I stopped dosing the Ca and Mg and started daily dosing of Tropic Marin All-For-Reef (recommended by LFS to maintain).

For the past month my parameters have been quite stable around:
Temp: 77.5
Salinity: 1.025
NO3: 3-5
Ca: 440-460
Mg: 1280-1320
PO4: 0
Ph: 8.0-8.1
Kh 8.6-9.0

Unfortunately, although I feel like I've done a great job getting all the vitals in line, many of my corals have started to decline again over the past month or so. About 4-6 weeks ago I decided to tweak my light settings a bit, thinking I'd bump by 5% to see if it would benefit some of my corals but in hind sight I fear that messing with the settings may have inadvertently extended the program by an hour or two a day. I have 4 euphyllias - 1 torch, 1 hammer, 1 frogspawn, and 1 hammer/frogspawn hybrid thing. 3 of them appeared to expel some of their zooxanthallae (brown stringy stuff), the 2 frogspawn quite a lot. The torch did as well but seemed to not be overly phased but the two frogspawn did a lot and they both declined quickly and look like they are on death's door for the past 2 weeks (pics below). I switched the lighting back quickly and discovered the lighting program extension. I even turned it down below where they were a bit for a week but they continue to look like hell and spit out the occasional brown streaks. I also noted the NO3 got a bit high with my dosing - 8-9ppm, so I did a water change to bring that back down to 3-5ppm. At the time I thought the combination of temporarily elevated NO3 plus elevated lights maybe made the zooxantallae go a little crazy. I hoped the corals would just spit some out and bounce back. I assumed that that very temporary situation wouldn't have done so much damage to put everything into ongoing decline.

The torch continues to look "good" but I can tell the extension isn't quite as good as it was and the hammer seems to be in slow decline as well, looking like it did when my nutrients were too low - much less extension. In addition to that, I have 3 birds nest SPS frags that have looked fantastic for months and they are starting to lose color and polyps. Lastly, I have a goniopora that has never recovered since the bleaching event. It used to extend about 3" and for the last 3 months since I brought params in line, it has never extended more than 1/2 - 1" and it's ghost white. I was hoping it would bounce back over time with solid params but it also seems in decline again with even less extension - more like 1/4" now. Lastly over the last week or so, some red slime algae has started to appear on the rocks and the sand in a bigger way than I've ever seen it (usually very little / very slow growing algae in my tank). I have one other coral I'll post pics of that also looked amazing for 6 months and has retracted and lost a bunch of tissue since the hypothetical lighting incident. It is hanging in there but the polyps haven't been out in a few weeks. I forget what this one is called - it's an LPS that looks like GSP.

In the past 2-3 weeks I've done some bigger water changes - a 30% 2 weeks ago, a 50% this weekend in the hopes of trying to address any untested water issue. I've also added a Chemipure bag temporarily, again just in case there's something in the water.

We started another 20g reef at the same time for my son back in April, he is on the same rhythm as me, uses the same make up water and salt mix, same light, suffered the same Ca / Mg issues, and implemented the same regimen to correct those issues, and his tank looks great - LPS are all happy as can be. I only mention as it tends to rule out things like the water source, salt mix, etc.

Anyhow, goes without saying that this is super frustrating and depressing watching things slowly decline without being able to put a finger on anything. I would love any advice from this wise community for further diagnostic steps or ideas on what to try!

Here is a pic of the whole tank when things were suffering low nutrients but you can see the 2 euphyllias in the middle were looking pretty good. They have looked better since before they started the decline. Pics below of their current state. This was a low point for the hammer in the upper right but it bounced back since before going back into decline. The GSP looking LPS below the frogspawn / to the right of the actual GSP is the one losing tissue and with polyps not showing for 2 weeks (pic below as well). The 3 birds nests at the top were in full color with great polyps showing here, pic below of the upper left one - it seems to be losing polyps from the center out.
1634127126098.png


Hammer before / now:
1634126510065.png
1634126912314.png


Goniopora before / now: (looked like the right, maybe not quite as bad, since July)
1634126543456.png
1634126574887.png


Torch looks like left pic now, right pic was the one time I saw it expelling brown goo (presumably algae)
1634126692186.png
1634127071440.png


That GSP looking LPS, it actually looks worse now, the polyps aren't even really visible.
1634126798226.png


The two euphyllias in the middle of the tank that are faring the worst. Both have been mostly fully retracted / limp for a week and occasional stringy stuff coming out still.
1634126885531.png
1634127023790.png
1634127442319.png


One of my birds nest, losing polyps from the center out. Again, was doing great for several months - including growing. Other birds nest seems much paler as well.
1634126973371.png
 
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Uzidaisies

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I’ve got a prime 16hd on a 14 gallon cube, and I’ve also been having a heck of a time getting my torch to stay extended. I’m running a kind of modified version of brs settings. I was running 40% for a little while but things didn’t seem to be changing much. The torch and toadstool were retracted much of the time, and some zoas have faded. I’ve been increasing the lighting and seeming to get a positive response, especially from the toadstool actually. I pushed it up to maybe ~60% brs settings, putting the uv/violet at 88% in the myAI app. It was either too much or too fast for the torch, and it spit out some algae and a third of the tentacles on one head turned white. I tuned things back down a bit, and I’m sitting about halfway between brs 40% and 70%, putting the uv/Violet at 80%. I’m still assessing whether or not this is working, but things seem to be generally ok, and not dying. I know how frustrating it is. Sometimes I want to punch this torch right in the polyps! But then I realize I’ve probably been hard on the little guy. He did get cut off of his mom shortly before I took him and threw him out there in a bright new world. He’s just a boy. I’m sorry you’re having a hard time. Maybe it’s too little light still? Although that Goni would have me suspect too much from a beginners perspective. I’m still trying to get things right without a par meter. Have you looked into renting one?
 
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Morpheosz

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Also, how high above the surface do you have the light?
About 10". I feel like my settings were working great for ~5 months. These are my settings currently (and historically) and I'm currently at a 9 hour day with 1 hour ramp on each end (7 hours full intensity).

UV, Violet: 60%
Royal, Blue: 45%
Green, Red: 4%
White: 21%

Another lighting related question for the group, should one expect to see their corals start to retract towards the end of the day before the lights start to ramp down or is that an indication of too much light? Even though I'm on the same or maybe an hour less light than I traditionally had when I thought things were fine, some of these corals that are struggling are starting to retract ~1 hour before the lights start to ramp down. I keep second guessing - do I need more light or less or it's fine and something else is wrong! It's a bit maddening.
 

Timfish

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If possible borrow, rent or buy a PAR meter so you know what your intensity actually is but at the very least I'd return the light levels to what they were originally or maybe a little lower. As mentioned above your problem in part might be low phosphates which can disrupt corals photobiology and make coarls very sensitive to bleaching with changes in either temp or light. I'd reduce water changes to aout 20% - 30% total monthly, large water changes with ultrapure water is going to just acerbate the problem with low phosphates. As far as maturing adding corals along with their microbiomes helps mature reef systems quicker and I add corals almost immediately when I set up a system. Best way to add phosphates would be to increase the number of fish and/or feed more. Here's some links you might find informative (sorry for the data overload :D ):

"Coral Reefs in the Microbial Seas" This video compliments Rohwer's book of the same title. While there is overlap bewteen his book and the video both have information not covered by the other and together give a broader view of the complex relationships found in reef ecosystems

Changing Seas - Mysterious Microbes

Nitrogen cycling in hte coral holobiont

BActeria and Sponges

Maintenance of Coral Reef Health (refferences at the end)

Optical Feedback Loop in Colorful Coral Bleaching

Richard Ross What's up with phosphate"


This link is kinda redundant as it seems the way you've set up your ssytem with corals would have added some of the same stuff as maricultured live rock.

Here's a bunch of stuff on phosphorus and nitrogen, some of hte papaers have to be bought but the abstracts will have a good synopsis of the research:

An Experimental Mesocosm for Longterm Studies of Reef Corals

Phosphate Deficiency:
Nutrient enrichment can increase the susceptibility of reef corals to bleaching:

Ultrastructural Biomarkers in Symbiotic Algae Reflect the Availability of Dissolved Inorganic Nutrients and Particulate Food to the Reef Coral Holobiont:

Phosphate deficiency promotes coral bleaching and is reflected by the ultrastructure of symbiotic dinoflagellates

Effects of phosphate on growth and skeletal density in the scleractinian coral Acropora muricata: A controlled experimental approach

High phosphate uptake requirements of the scleractinian coral Stylophora pistillata

Phosphorus metabolism of reef organisms with algal symbionts (Fig 4 below)

DIP DOP POP.jpg


Sponge symbionts and the marine P cycle

Phosphorus sequestration in the form of polyphosphate by microbial symbionts in marine sponges


Ammonium Uptake by Symbiotic and Aposymbiotic Reef Corals

Amino acids a source of nitrogen for corals

Urea a source of nitrogen for corals

Diazotrpophs a source of nitrogen for corals

Context Dependant Effects of Nutrient Loading on the Coral-Algal Mutualism (FIg 3 below)

Context‐dependent effects of nutrient loading on the coral–algal mutualism(1).png
 

Uzidaisies

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From what I understand, corals will react rather slowly to too little light, and much faster to too much light. But again, beginner. The second part I really have no idea, but if I were to guess I’d say that corals that are in tune with their circadian rhythm might expect the lights to go down soon and retract preemptively?
 
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Morpheosz

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From what I understand, corals will react rather slowly to too little light, and much faster to too much light. But again, beginner. The second part I really have no idea, but if I were to guess I’d say that corals that are in tune with their circadian rhythm might expect the lights to go down soon and retract preemptively?
That was my understanding as well - too little light and they slowly starve, too much light and they can quickly get burned by the excess O2 production of their algae.
 

Timfish

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It does take weeks to months for corals to change their fluorescing and chromo protiens if needed to lower light or higher light providing it's not too extreme a change, but they'll bleach very quickly when thier photobiology has been disrupted and lighting or temperature changes. Keep in mind these responses can not only be species specific but a coral colony may see different responses between polyps in different locations on the colony. I've seen some corals clearly follow a diel or circadian cycle as well as changes in weather independant of lighting schedule but most corals respond directly to an aquarium's lighting cycle
 
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Morpheosz

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If possible borrow, rent or buy a PAR meter so you know what your intensity actually is but at the very least I'd return the light levels to what they were originally or maybe a little lower. As mentioned above your problem in part might be low phosphates which can disrupt corals photobiology and make coarls very sensitive to bleaching with changes in either temp or light. I'd reduce water changes to aout 20% - 30% total monthly, large water changes with ultrapure water is going to just acerbate the problem with low phosphates. As far as maturing adding corals along with their microbiomes helps mature reef systems quicker and I add corals almost immediately when I set up a system. Best way to add phosphates would be to increase the number of fish and/or feed more. Here's some links you might find informative (sorry for the data overload :D ):

"Coral Reefs in the Microbial Seas" This video compliments Rohwer's book of the same title. While there is overlap bewteen his book and the video both have information not covered by the other and together give a broader view of the complex relationships found in reef ecosystems

Changing Seas - Mysterious Microbes

Nitrogen cycling in hte coral holobiont

BActeria and Sponges

Maintenance of Coral Reef Health (refferences at the end)

Optical Feedback Loop in Colorful Coral Bleaching

Richard Ross What's up with phosphate"


This link is kinda redundant as it seems the way you've set up your ssytem with corals would have added some of the same stuff as maricultured live rock.

Here's a bunch of stuff on phosphorus and nitrogen, some of hte papaers have to be bought but the abstracts will have a good synopsis of the research:

An Experimental Mesocosm for Longterm Studies of Reef Corals

Phosphate Deficiency:
Nutrient enrichment can increase the susceptibility of reef corals to bleaching:

Ultrastructural Biomarkers in Symbiotic Algae Reflect the Availability of Dissolved Inorganic Nutrients and Particulate Food to the Reef Coral Holobiont:

Phosphate deficiency promotes coral bleaching and is reflected by the ultrastructure of symbiotic dinoflagellates

Effects of phosphate on growth and skeletal density in the scleractinian coral Acropora muricata: A controlled experimental approach

High phosphate uptake requirements of the scleractinian coral Stylophora pistillata

Phosphorus metabolism of reef organisms with algal symbionts (Fig 4 below)

DIP DOP POP.jpg


Sponge symbionts and the marine P cycle

Phosphorus sequestration in the form of polyphosphate by microbial symbionts in marine sponges


Ammonium Uptake by Symbiotic and Aposymbiotic Reef Corals

Amino acids a source of nitrogen for corals

Urea a source of nitrogen for corals

Diazotrpophs a source of nitrogen for corals

Context Dependant Effects of Nutrient Loading on the Coral-Algal Mutualism (FIg 3 below)

Context‐dependent effects of nutrient loading on the coral–algal mutualism(1).png
Thanks so much for the thoughtful set of resources. That is surely a lot of quality info! I have been feeding quite a bit more over the past 2 months since I suffered low nitrates and I have added a fish (neon dottyback) and a cleaner shrimp. My 3 fish and shrimp are very healthy eaters. I was also thinking that my recent (last week or two) proliferation of dinos was potentially an indication of phosphates as well as my NO3 is still <5 PPM?
 
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Morpheosz

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I do so much appreciate people's thoughts and I will certainly focus on PO4 levels going forward but I also don't feel like that's the smoking gun here. When my NO3 were ultra low, things slowly started to decline until I corrected it and then they slowly started to correct themselves. I would imagine a lack of PO4 would be similar (and things were not only maintaining but growing prior to this "event") As mentioned before, I've been feeding much much more in the last 2 months so I have a hard time believing they are too starved for nutrients. The current decline came on very quickly and seems more like a point in time event that put me on a different path. I can't see how a PO4 deficit would cause things to be fine, often times great, for months and then go south in the matter of a week or two. Hence my decision to do some bigger water changes, etc. I also don't think the age of the tank or lack of maturity would also cause a point in time issue like this. Furthermore, the tank was stocked with live rock that came from an established tank that was taken down and sold back to the LFS. Yes, it will still take time to establish this tank regardless, but still doesn't really point to a point in time decline.

The only thing that really changed briefly was the lighting - is it conceivable that a week or so of longer photoperiod could have damaged all these corals such that they are now not able to recover and / or would go into an ongoing decline? Even ones that didn't seem immediately affected by the lighting change?
 

Timfish

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Thanks so much for the thoughtful set of resources. That is surely a lot of quality info! I have been feeding quite a bit more over the past 2 months since I suffered low nitrates and I have added a fish (neon dottyback) and a cleaner shrimp. My 3 fish and shrimp are very healthy eaters. I was also thinking that my recent (last week or two) proliferation of dinos was potentially an indication of phosphates as well as my NO3 is still <5 PPM?

When ever food webs are disrupted, by increasing food by feeding fish or corals or by something dying and going into the food webs or by something that disrupts the competition for resources, like an environmental change that causes corals to reduce feeding, ever present nuisance algaes are invariably the first to take advantage of it. The primary means of contral I use is manual removal and urchins and crabs to eat it. For anything grwoing on sand I'll gently siphon off the top layer, rinse in fresh water and return it or more commonly rinse then soak a day or so in H2O2, rinse again in tapwater then let dry for a day or so then return.

What I forgot to mention above is feeding corals is very species specific. All corals will pull dissolved organic phosphorus and dissolved inorganic phosphorus (PO4, phosphate) from the water. However when it comes to feeding live food or particualte food it can be very problematic as resaerch clearly shows species specific preferences and even "goldilocks" responses where a specific amount is required to be beneficial and more or less is detrimental.




This video on using straws to remove stuff from around corals and paper towels to remove algae glass cleaners just knock back into the water might be helpful:

Steel Straws

Paper towels for algae
 

Timfish

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I do so much appreciate people's thoughts and I will certainly focus on PO4 levels going forward but I also don't feel like that's the smoking gun here. When my NO3 were ultra low, things slowly started to decline until I corrected it and then they slowly started to correct themselves. I would imagine a lack of PO4 would be similar (and things were not only maintaining but growing prior to this "event") As mentioned before, I've been feeding much much more in the last 2 months so I have a hard time believing they are too starved for nutrients. The current decline came on very quickly and seems more like a point in time event that put me on a different path. I can't see how a PO4 deficit would cause things to be fine, often times great, for months and then go south in the matter of a week or two. Hence my decision to do some bigger water changes, etc. I also don't think the age of the tank or lack of maturity would also cause a point in time issue like this. Furthermore, the tank was stocked with live rock that came from an established tank that was taken down and sold back to the LFS. Yes, it will still take time to establish this tank regardless, but still doesn't really point to a point in time decline.

The only thing that really changed briefly was the lighting - is it conceivable that a week or so of longer photoperiod could have damaged all these corals such that they are now not able to recover and / or would go into an ongoing decline? Even ones that didn't seem immediately affected by the lighting change?

Yes, that's very reasonable and may be the case. But corals can use organic phosphorus as well as organic nitrogen and we can't test for either of those so we don't really know if corals are getting enough or as they grow if the levels needed to be increased. There's also the issue of a corals internal reserves as phospholipids can be stored for later use, again something we can't test or monitor. In the research done by Southampton posted above available they identified a minimum PO4 threshold of .03 mg/l with that level potentially going higher depending on the amount of nitrogen.
 

ariellemermaid

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If possible borrow, rent or buy a PAR meter so you know what your intensity actually is but at the very least I'd return the light levels to what they were originally or maybe a little lower. As mentioned above your problem in part might be low phosphates which can disrupt corals photobiology and make coarls very sensitive to bleaching with changes in either temp or light. I'd reduce water changes to aout 20% - 30% total monthly, large water changes with ultrapure water is going to just acerbate the problem with low phosphates. As far as maturing adding corals along with their microbiomes helps mature reef systems quicker and I add corals almost immediately when I set up a system. Best way to add phosphates would be to increase the number of fish and/or feed more. Here's some links you might find informative (sorry for the data overload :D ):

"Coral Reefs in the Microbial Seas" This video compliments Rohwer's book of the same title. While there is overlap bewteen his book and the video both have information not covered by the other and together give a broader view of the complex relationships found in reef ecosystems

Changing Seas - Mysterious Microbes

Nitrogen cycling in hte coral holobiont

BActeria and Sponges

Maintenance of Coral Reef Health (refferences at the end)

Optical Feedback Loop in Colorful Coral Bleaching

Richard Ross What's up with phosphate"


This link is kinda redundant as it seems the way you've set up your ssytem with corals would have added some of the same stuff as maricultured live rock.

Here's a bunch of stuff on phosphorus and nitrogen, some of hte papaers have to be bought but the abstracts will have a good synopsis of the research:

An Experimental Mesocosm for Longterm Studies of Reef Corals

Phosphate Deficiency:
Nutrient enrichment can increase the susceptibility of reef corals to bleaching:

Ultrastructural Biomarkers in Symbiotic Algae Reflect the Availability of Dissolved Inorganic Nutrients and Particulate Food to the Reef Coral Holobiont:

Phosphate deficiency promotes coral bleaching and is reflected by the ultrastructure of symbiotic dinoflagellates

Effects of phosphate on growth and skeletal density in the scleractinian coral Acropora muricata: A controlled experimental approach

High phosphate uptake requirements of the scleractinian coral Stylophora pistillata

Phosphorus metabolism of reef organisms with algal symbionts (Fig 4 below)

DIP DOP POP.jpg


Sponge symbionts and the marine P cycle

Phosphorus sequestration in the form of polyphosphate by microbial symbionts in marine sponges


Ammonium Uptake by Symbiotic and Aposymbiotic Reef Corals

Amino acids a source of nitrogen for corals

Urea a source of nitrogen for corals

Diazotrpophs a source of nitrogen for corals

Context Dependant Effects of Nutrient Loading on the Coral-Algal Mutualism (FIg 3 below)

Context‐dependent effects of nutrient loading on the coral–algal mutualism(1).png
I thought that second video narrator sounded familiar! Forensic files; one of my favorite narrators of all time. A little crossover between murder and people killing corals I guess. :D
 
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Morpheosz

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Are you feeding the Goniopora?
I have only been broadcast feeding the tank along with the fish periodically. I had been of the impression that with a small tank, no skimmer, that you needed to be a lot more sparing with the inputs and that feeding corals was largely optional. I'm clearly getting a different opinion over the past few months as I've seen that even without a skimmer it's not hard to get to really low nutrient levels. I fed them all directly yesterday, including the goni.
 
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Morpheosz

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I'd also read yesterday on the BRS site that dinos can appear due to low nutrients and therefore lack of competing organisms - something that was also counterintuitive to me as when the dinos appeared this past week or two I'd assumed my inputs were creeping up but I think the opposite was happening.
 

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I have only been broadcast feeding the tank along with the fish periodically. I had been of the impression that with a small tank, no skimmer, that you needed to be a lot more sparing with the inputs and that feeding corals was largely optional. I'm clearly getting a different opinion over the past few months as I've seen that even without a skimmer it's not hard to get to really low nutrient levels. I fed them all directly yesterday, including the goni.
Sorry I read your post too quick!

Not feeding goniopora = death. From what I understand they must be fed.

I also started out broadcast feeding with my goniopora - and then I watched a video of someone spot feeding.

The spot feeding works much better. Make sure you turn OFF your pumps otherwise its just a tease and they wont really get the food. Mix the Reef Roids pretty thick and then drizzle it on top of the polyps. So far this seems to be working much better for mine.

Also this cuts down on the amount of nutrients floating around in tank and creates less problems with Nitrates and Phosphates.
 
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