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Related FAQs: Brackish System Set-Up, Brackish Aquarium Components, FAQs on Brackish Salty Water, Brackish Aquariums In General

Related Articles: Brackish Aquariums In General, Brackish System Components, Brackish without the salt; Do all 'brackish water fish' really need brackish water? by Neale Monks, Brackish Livestock Groups, Brackish System Maintenance

/The Conscientious Brackish Aquarist Series

Brackish Aquarium Set-Up 


By Bob Fenner


    For most folks, pursuing brackish water is not their initial foray in aquarium keeping. Brackish systems have much in common with all captive aquatic systems. A water-holding "box" with viewing panels, a need for filtration, aeration, circulation. Some folks utilize specialized lighting, though most systems do fine with NO (Normal Output) fluorescents.

    As with other aspects of "partially marine" systems, brackish water set-up has more in common with putting together marine aquariums. More gear, more time, more patience... Here we'll detail in step by step fashion, all that is needed to generally set-up a brackish system.

A Plan:

    In writing, make a list of what you consider to be everything you will be putting together for your new brackish set-up... including maintenance tools and materials, even livestock. I like to make this a "chart" of sorts with columns across to list prices from different sources, notes, and alternate choices.


    Know where you're placing this tank and gear? Out of drafts, direct sunlight... in a setting where you can enjoy your new biotope. Not too high if you're going to be mainly sitting down... nor too low if in a walkway setting.

Stands, Tank Supports:   

    Do check the floor support, assure yourself the area is level, planar and strong enough to support the weight (about ten pounds per gallon) of the total system. The same rules apply as for other aquatic set-ups here. You can shim stands or strong furniture, distribute the weight with wood paneling or boards under its feet... but do use a carpenter's level, or a thin layer of water in the tank to assure that the supporting structure is flat and level.

Putting It All Together: For a Trial Run

    Trust me here. Much more often than not, you'll have everything you need to charge full speed ahead, but it is not just a good idea, but a superlative one to place the tank, filter gear, lighting, heater (not substrate, yet), fill the system with plain old tap water, and let it run for a day or two to make sure... you have everything you need, and that it works... and unfortunately, because it does happen, to assure the system does not leak.

A Day or Two Later: Substrate

    If using something other than tap water (plus salts) drain the tank, or at least drain it part way, to accommodate the substrate (if non-living) you intend to employ. As most folks use a natural gravel, including types made up of soluble carbonates, it's a good practice to rinse/wash the gravel in small batches (five, ten pounds) in a plastic "pickle bucket" (I know some folks use colanders, don't get caught! Or screens of various sorts here... I like to swish the gravel about by hand, running a garden hose on full, pouring out dust, dirt...). Place this material by just pouring it into the tank. Don't be overly concerned about placement or cloudiness at this point.

    Of course, issues like whether you'll be using a "dead space" under your gravel to make this bed a plenum, or growing varieties of plants that call for smaller grain sizes, greater depth of substrate, mixing in clay soil for same... all need to be worked out in advance, planned for. These more specialized scenarios call for draining the tank entirely, in-placing the materials and carefully refilling (with a plate or plastic container to save the bottom work from being upset).

    Do take care to unplug your heater/s if/when you're draining the tank... I have broken at least a dozen from "forgetting" to do this...

Then... The Salts:

    Salts as in plural. Though other authors suggest you can use sodium chloride alone (table, ice-cream, kosher, rock... salt), it is far better for your livestock to utilize a "for marine aquarium" synthetic, or even blend in a clean source of natural seawater with your tap. About how much to put in? For now, about one quarter as much as for the rated mix volume, or alternatively one unit volume of real seawater per three units of freshwater. Here again, don't be concerned that the salt doesn't all dissolve immediately or that the water is partly clouded. Hook up all your gear, including the lights, and turn it all on!

Then... Nothing:

    Yes, nada, zip, zero... let a good week go by to have the system "settle in"... the sanitizer in the tap water and other undesirable materials therein complex... "Patience is a virtue"... Visit fish stores, read fish magazines, books, review your stocking plan. Wait.

Finally Some Life: Microbes

    So, a good week has gone by, all seems to be in working order... what's next? Initiating biological filtration of course. There are many paths you can take here: old substrate, the muck that has been siphoned out of same, used filter media, "bacteria in a bottle" products, live rock and/or sand... Whatever means or combination thereof, this is the time and place for it. No need in most cases to add a source of ammonia in the way of foods, sacrificial livestock... Introduce the beneficial microbes and some live rock (as with marine systems), and chart your ammonia, nitrite, nitrates along with testing as the next few to several days go by.

    It may take a few weeks for nitrogen cycling to become established in a new brackish system... or become immediately established with no detected ammonia or nitrite concentrations occurring. Only your efforts at microbe-stocking, testing and time will/can tell.

Livestocking: Finally

    As with freshwater and marine systems what life you're going to place likely has an "order of introduction" that is non-random. Some types of life should go in first (most plants, hardier, less-territorial fishes), with more aggressive fishes and touchier invertebrates being put into the system at later dates.

    Though most all brackish water organisms are notably tough, smaller species and individuals like blennies, gobies and such are best put in ahead of Scats, Monos, Pufferfishes... even Archerfishes to gain awareness of hiding spaces and novel foods before more rambunctious tankmates are placed.


    This simplified A, B, C list of brackish water system set-up presumes an understanding of basic aquarium gear and practices. It is my intent only to emphasize the order of operations, and stress certain points... the considerable benefits of a written Plan, Practice Set-Up and Operation, need for Patience (ah, wish we could package this in a bottle), and procedures for establishing nutrient cycling... more akin to marine aquarium keeping than you considered?

Bibliography/Further Reading:


Anon. 1975. Tanks with brackish or mixed water. Aquarium Digest Intl. 3:4, 75.

Anon. 1981. Where water worlds mingle. Aquariums Australia 2:1, 89.

Burgstaller, B.J. 1978. The brackish system. FAMA 8/78.

Castro, Alfred D. 1996. Fishes for the brackish aquarium. AFM 6/96.

Dawes, John. 1989. Bolstering sales of brackish water fish. Brackish water fish are undersold in most pet stores, even though some of the commoner aquarium specimens are brackish species. Pets Supplies Marketing. 7/89.

Gibbs, Max. 1995. The brackish aquarium. FAMA 4/95.

Gos, Michael W. 1977. The brackish aquarium. TFH 10/77.

Gos, Michael W. 1980. The brackish system, part 1: Setting up. FAMA 11/80, part 2: Inhabitants 12/80.

Monks, Neale. 2001. Giving into temptation. A personal top ten of brackish-water fish. TFH 9/01.

Taylor, Edward C. 1982. Keeping a brackish aquarium. TFH 5/82, part 2: livestock. 6/82

Taylor, Edward C. 1996. Creating a brackish-water biotope. Pet Business 11/96.

Volkart, Bill. 1989. The brackish aquarium: Part 1, setting up. TFH 6/89.

Volkart, Bill. 1989. The brackish aquarium: Part 2, plants. TFH 7/89.

Volkart, Bill. 1989. The brackish aquarium: Part 3, the fishes. TFH 8/89.

Wickham, Mike. 2001. A pinch of salt. Brackish aquariums offer a new wrinkle to fishkeeping. AFM 10/01

Wolf, Jim 1998. Fish on the brink. Odyssey, bulletin of MASLA. www.masla.com

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