Everything Comes Down To Poo – Part Two

And here’s the second part.  This is the one about fish.

The description of how I got stuck in a sinkhole of poo was a bit on the icky side, no?  Well, let me bring it home for you… you know how you go to the beach and you wander aimlessly for miles, watching your toes break through that foamy part where the ocean meets the sand?  That’s all poo, baby.  Those bubbles?  Oh yeah.  Fish waste galore. We are romanticizing the sea’s sewage system, bay-bee!

We don’t know too much about the deepest parts of the ocean but we have a fairly good grasp on the hows and whys of coral reefs and tidal pools.  These are situated close to shore, where they receive ample light and access to abundant nutrition.  The source of light is self-explanatory; the availability of nutrition is slightly more complex.   If you’ve read the back issues of this blog (or taken basic biology), you know that if something dies, there’s something around to eat it, and if something poops, there’s something around to eat that.  Energy just gets moved from one form to another in the ocean, but the aquarium is a closed system so while the fundamentals are similar the conditions are different.

Skimmate - the stuff that is caught by a collection cup - from Melevsreef.  It is not coffee. Do not drink it.  It is not peanut butter.  Do not spread it on bread.

Skimmate - the stuff that is caught by a collection cup - from Melevsreef. It is not coffee. Do not drink it. It is not peanut butter. Do not spread it on bread.

Aquarium hobbyists run into problems when there is too much of something that needs to be eaten and not enough things to eat it.  If a large fish dies in an aquarium, the problem isn’t that it won’t eventually be eaten but how quickly its body can be processed by the critters whose job it is to eat leftover organic products.  If there aren’t enough of those critters and the fish begins to decompose, then there better be enough critters available to consume the ammonia.  And if that doesn’t happen, then the system is thrown out of balance.

Protein skimming is a method of mechanical water filtration that “skims” excess organic matter out of the aquarium and helps maintain the desired balance between the energy that goes into the system and the unused energy that needs to come out of the system.  Some reef aquariums don’t have a protein skimmer because the internal system is stable.  Many nano-reef hobbyists refuse to keep a skimmer on the tank because they feel that the balance created by live rock is sufficient to meet a small tank’s organic waste management requirements.  Hobbyists that keep larger tanks, however, will want to invest in a skimmer because the amount of organic material that goes into maintaining a large system tends to exceed the tank’s ability to maintain its internal balance.   We talk a lot about overstocked tanks in this hobby but I think the term is generally a misnomer  – when people say “overstocked,” they are usually referring to a tank that is out of balance because the organic matter generated by the livestock is too much.  A protein skimmer is an excellent way of bringing the balance back under control, and this can be done regardless of the number of critters living in it (now, tanks where the fish are too large for the size of the aquarium or there are too many for them to swim comfortably might make for an overstocked tank, but those are separate issues).

"My precious child, when you saw only one set of footprints, it was then that I ran screaming AAAAH WHAT IS THIS STUFF GETITOFFGETITOFF!!!"

"My precious child, when you saw only one set of footprints, it was then that I ran screaming AAAAH WHAT IS THIS STUFF GETITOFFGETITOFF!!!"

Protein skimmers and filters are equipment intended to clean water, but each applies different mechanical procedures to do so.   Filters mechanically separate pure water from impure water through a screening process that removes sediments and purifies the water through exposing it to chemical cleaners.  Skimmers take advantage of the process where organic waste bonds to water molecules, and skimmers create bubbles that carry these wastes up and out of the water and into a collection cup.  There’s tons of big sciency-words to describe why it happens, but let’s just say that most of these wastes can be trapped against the water found at the water’s edge if the conditions are right.  Efficient skimmers manufacture these conditions by whipping organic-laden water into a foam, then separating the foam from the water.  The water is then purified and returned to the aquarium, and the foam can be discarded by the hobbyist.  The foam is a hodegpodge of organic wastes including toxins, metallic organic compounds, and some nitrogen and phosphorous elements… such as poo.

The process of creating foam is similar to that which occurs when the waves beat the water against the shore.  Never going to look at the foam along the ocean’s edge the same way again, right?  Anyhow, when it rains, the organic waste at the water’s edge goes back into the sea and feeds the coral reefs and those rich little tidal pools where life begins.  In the aquarium, we don’t have many opportunities to reuse the excess waste so we simply trap and remove it before it returns to the system.

I would rather have a very good protein skimmer in my tank than a very good filtration system.  Filters are only as good as the media that is used to screen and chemically treat the water, but skimmers will trap and collect all organic matter that can be trapped and will export it from the system.  However, this is also the downside to skimmers, as these will collect all organic matter.  Some of the matter is desirable and we want in our tanks but it is removed via the skimming process.  Skimming can create serious mineral and nutrient deficiencies if the hobbyist doesn’t take steps to compensate for these losses.

This is why I’ve kept a skimmer off of the 65g since it was first set up.  The refugium was sufficient for collecting nitrogen and some other  organic wastes, and I wanted the tank to get a little more established and get some good coralline algae growth going before sticking a Bubbling Toilet on it.  I’ve also been going back and forth between two different skimmers – the Tunze DOC 9005 gets good reviews and I have a smaller model on my 30g reef, so I’m familiar with the design.  The second is the Octopus 110, which is… cheaper.  Okay?  Happy?  It’s cheaper.  But the reviews are almost as good as the Tunze models and the parts are easier to replace.  Since I’m planning to start stocking coral and the larger fish in another few weeks, it’s high time to get a skimmer in there so I need to decide soon.

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~ by KBSpangler on May 14, 2009.

3 Responses to “Everything Comes Down To Poo – Part Two”

  1. I was told the original story of ‘The Little Mermaid’ as a child. In it, the motivation for Ariel to become human is because she wanted to go to heaven, but mermaids don’t go to heaven. No, they become foam on the waves. When I was a child I thought this was a bit sad, but a rather romantic and unrealistic image.

    Now you inform me that if there was in fact such a thing as a Mermaid, that when it died it would be eaten and shat out and eventually, would yes in fact become foam on the waves.

    I’m not sure if you ruined my childhood or not with this information, but I sure learned something new today!

    • Man, that original story screwed me up. I remember reading one version where the mermaid was given one last chance but needed to kill her husband to go to heaven; she couldn’t do it so she cut herself and threw herself into the sea to bleed.

      Old European fairy tales were so emo.

  2. Never going to look at the foam along the ocean’s edge the same way again, right?

    Nah, I already knew the world was full of poo, and you know what, I don’t have a problem with that. In fact, given all the fun you can have with eczema and allergies when your immune system hasn’t got anything to do, it’s probably even kind of a good thing.

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