A Philosophy of Sorts, On All Things Reef.
By Tim Hayes
[Editors note: We are glad to present an episode of
Tim Haye's "Reef Ramblings", which is published regularly in the UK based
"Practical Fishkeeping". Tim's entertaining and insightful bits of wisdom
come from years of experience as a hobbyist and aquarium author/journalist as
well as from running his own aquarium related business,
Midland Reefs. Enjoy!]
Welcome to an occasional series of incoherent ramblings on all things reef. Here
at Midland Reefs we put the emphasis on what is often called the natural method
of reef keeping, this encompasses methods such as the Berlin System, Deep Sand
Beds, Mud System,
and Zonal Gradients. I'd prefer to call it the "natural approach" to reef
By natural approach we mean systems that rely on live rock, live sand, and
living reef organisms; not necessarily all together but probably in varying
degrees of combination, usually supported by protein skimming plus good water
flow and lighting appropriate to the corals kept.
I feel that the importance of maintaining a large selection of diverse life
forms cannot be understated. With a well-balanced population of animals of all
sizes, from the microscopic to the potentially tank filling, the aquarists role
can be reduced to feeding, cleaning the front glass, maintaining water quality
through regular water changes, maintaining the equipment required to provide the
appropriate environment, and enjoying observing his or her charges.
I'll be coming back to these tasks at greater length at some time in the future.
In my introductory statement where I refer to protein skimming note the use of
the words "usually supported". I'm not over keen on protein skimming, I believe
there is a fashionable trend of more and more efficient skimmers leading to the
potential for over skimming. However, I'm convinced that the protein
skimmer is a very useful tool for those new to the hobby; the capacity of a
protein skimmer to adapt rapidly to a change in load can make for a great
insurance policy for your tank! I'm currently making little or no use of
skimmers in my farm tanks or personal aquaria, but it must be remembered that I
have very light levels of fish stocking.
It was interesting to note that of the 50 aquaria featured in Mike Paletta’s
recent book Ultimate Marine Aquariums there were eight systems that didn’t use
protein skimming (nine, if you include the smallest tank, which, because of pump
problems, was described as being essentially skimmer-less). All of them were
reef tanks and they ranged in size from the smallest at about 260 litres (69
gallons) up to the largest two at about 2700 litres (715 gallons). Four of the
tanks were about 1200x600x600 (48”x24”x24”) and two were about 1800x600x600
(72”x24”x24”). Fish stocking levels varied from low at one fish per 120 litres
(27gallons) up to one fish per 20 litres (4.5 gallons) with the average being
approximately one fish per 62 litres (14 gallons).
My standard recommendation on stocking for a reef is somewhat conservative, at
2.5 cms (1”) per 22.25 litres (5 gallons) for the first twelve months. I haven’t
really been able to assess how many centimetres of fish all these aquaria are
supporting, but the tank with the second lowest stocking level – one fish per 96
litres (25 gallons), 28 fish in about 2700 litres (715 gallons) would seem to
have a high stocking level in view of the species being kept. These include a
Clown Surgeon (up to 38cm/15in), a Copperbanded butterfly (up to 20cm/8in),
Sailfin Tang (up to 40cm/16in), at least a couple of Yellow Tangs (up to
20cm/8in), and a reference is made to “numerous Tangs and Angelfishes”. So by my
reckoning most, if not all, of these tanks are overstocked!
Incidentally, it has occurred to me that in many cases the main positive effect
of running a protein skimmer may be the oxygenation of the water in the
aquarium, rather than what is being removed from the water. And it’s also worth
considering that the argument for skimming – that it replicates the naturally
occurring phenomenon of organic foam being washed up on the shore, may be
spurious. This foam is not being permanently removed from the sea; it gets blown
back by wind and washed back by rain.
Please don’t think I’m saying get rid of your protein skimmers. What I want to
do is make you think about the ways we keep our tanks and the reasons we use
certain bits of equipment. Question why some things, in this case protein
skimmers, become unconditionally accepted, even though the hobby is progressing
and changing all the time.
After a discussion with Des Ong of Underworld (the UK distributors for “Miracle
Mud”) last year about mud systems, deep sand beds, and protein skimming I'm
making moves towards higher fish stocking levels in skimmer-less natural
(non-mud) systems by way of experiment - I'll let you know how I get on!
I invited PFK readers to get in touch with me on this topic, and hoped that the
editor would allow us some extra space to open up discussion on subjects like
this within the pages of PFK.
I recently had the pleasure of a trip to Germany in the company of a few other
aquarists to visit the AquaMedic factory. This was an interesting and enjoyable
experience that allowed us (UK aquarists) to talk at length with the guys who
design and make the products we use. It gave us the opportunity to talk over the
differences between marine keeping in the UK and other areas of Europe and to
suggest how some of their range could be altered to be more appropriate to the
way we maintain our tanks in the UK. We were listened to very politely, told why
some things couldn’t be changed, and then much to our delight were told “Yes,
that’s a good idea, we see your problems with this or with that, and yes we’ll
change so and so to suit the UK market”. As we talked more it became clear that
the people at AquaMedic are aquarists in their own right, and that part of their
philosophy was to design and build equipment to overcome problems that they’d
experienced themselves. They were more than happy to help aquarists in a
different country by applying the same procedure where ever possible.
We were given a comprehensive tour of the factory. In the lighting department we
saw lighting units being hand assembled in small batches, in another area of the
factory aquaria were being final assembled and checked before being packed up
for dispatch. Some of the equipment produced at the Aqua Medic factory is
destined for the aquaculture trade. This goes back to the origins of the
company. And as one would expect there are areas devoted to the testing of
equipment. Surprisingly, we were given access to products still under
development, but details of those items will have to stay under wraps for the
It was really great to talk to a company run by people who were more interested
in taking a long-term view of the hobby, and investing for the future in
projects that won’t bring a return for years to come, rather than an
accountant-run company just interested in the bottom line. Some of the changes
being made to products for the UK will cost them money in the short term, but
Aqua Medic see this as money well spent.
I’d like to thank Phil Jones and Scott Arnold of Aqua Medic UK for giving me the
opportunity to visit their German head office and to thank all their German
colleagues for their hospitality during the trip.