Fishkeeping is a hobby which should be fun, exciting, responsible, and entertaining. One should be able to take one’s time, relax, and just enjoy the company of one’s fish in the privacy of one’s home. While fishkeeping is a perfect example of a relaxing hobby which helps us relax after the rigors of work, studies, and other pressures in life, there are occasions when fishkeeping can be a source of frustration.


The biggest frustration for a fishkeeper is when a fish suddenly gets sick or dies. Among fish hobbyists, the death of a fish which one has cared for every single day is a very sad event. In most cases, fish death is inevitable.

Of course a fish is a living thing and its life will end. I have always told other hobbyists that fish death is part of the hobby. I always joked that if you don’t want to experience the sadness of fish death, keep a pet rock and it shall be with you forever. To some extent however, fish death may be averted if you are quick in analyzing the situation, and fast in making a decision and taking the right action. Thinking on your feet may save your fish from death.

A Sample Emergency

In fishkeeping, some of the things we do successfully can become our regular fish husbandry practices. Take feeding our fish, for example. I know for a fact that some monster fish keepers buy a bag of feeder fish and dump the whole bag in the tank to enjoy the feeding frenzy that results. This is an exciting way of feeding your fish and has some advantages; for one, this can help them attain big sizes quickly.

However, this is quite risky since overfeeding monster fish can cause them to vomit. And once this happens, it spoils the water and kills the fish. If you happen to be at home when this happens, you can take action. If the water is spoiled, a water change can’t do much.

If you have aged water on hand, do a 100% water change and then clean the filter. Then they might have a chance. If you’re dealing with this situation, quick thinking and swift action is required. The best thing to do is to transfer them to another tank, and hope that they aren’t stressed out by the procedure.

Prevention Prescription

In a country where brownouts are normal, how many of us fish hobbyists have had our fish die because of power outages? Surely we have all experienced it at least once in our fishkeeping careers. Power outages are a concern for every Filipino fish hobbyist, what with an average of 22 typhoons a year and droughts rendering our hydroelectric power plants idle. Let me take this occasion to share some of the concepts I used to teach when I was a management consultant many years back.

The concept of “preventive planning” and “contingency planning” are two different things. A preventive plan is a series of actions for averting a potential problem. A contingency plan lessens the impact if the potential problem does occur. While we can’t prevent brownouts or typhoons or droughts, we can take steps to minimize their effects on our fish with contingency plans. Some steps may be taken well before brownouts happen: buying a generator and battery-operated pumps, having a reservoir of aerated water, and the light loading of fish tanks are all examples of contingency plans.

You must have these facilities once you have your first tank. Buy batteries for your battery-operated pump prior to a typhoon, because during typhoons, batteries are hard to get. When a typhoon is brewing, stop feeding your fish until after the typhoon. This helps prevent your tank water from deteriorating in case a brownout does occur.

Even if you have the right contingency plans in place, but the brownout hits you at the wrong time—say, you are not at home—think on your feet, quickly make a decision, and spring into action. Call home and ask anyone who is at home to turn on the battery pump. This simple action can save your fish.

Pressure Challenge

The biggest challenge I ever encountered which required me to think on my feet occurred in 2001, when I was the president of the Aquarium Science Association of the Philippines (ASAP) and we were holding the biggest fish event of the year: the “Save the Seas” exhibit. We were commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to do a marine exhibit that would travel around six SM malls in two months.

The exhibit called for two 10 x 2 x 2.5 (measurements in feet) tanks, each supported by a 100-gallon sump filter. These huge tanks also had two 100-gallon tanks on the sides. In all, the exhibit stretched 32 feet in length and used over a thousand gallons of seawater. In front of the tanks were light boxes where information about the fish on display was available for the viewing public. You could say this was a mini-ocean park on display.

This was a logistic nightmare for the club members. Imagine moving the setup from one mall to another. The tanks, stands, filters, lights, light boxes, sand, and support tubs required an 18-wheeler truck and about 20 hired men (not including the club members). Imaging removing 1,000 gallons of seawater and setting up again in the next venue using artificial saltwater mix.

We were determined to succeed, and doing well until we encountered a problem. During one of the lull moments when the tanks were not on display and were sitting in the warehouse, we decided to use some artificial coral clusters that we hadn’t used because these were too large to fit in the tank. For some reason, we miscalculated their sizes. We forgot that the openings of the tanks had 4-inch braces on top and we just couldn’t fit the coral clusters in. So we decided to remove the brace from one tank, put the large coral clusters in, and affix the braces. This was a Tuesday. And on Friday we set up in the next venue. This was a wrong move, and a disaster waiting to happen.

Come Friday night, as SM North EDSA closed for the day, we moved in. All four tanks were set. We put in the sand and other artificial coral clusters, filled the tank with water, mixed the artificial saltwater mix to the required salinity, and set up the filter system. At 8 in the morning, the second team of club members arrived with the fish. At 10 AM, the tanks were ready and the crowd at the food court where the exhibit was located rushed to the tanks, amazed by the beautiful fish on display.

It was a blockbuster of an exhibit, with people crowding the tanks, shoulder-to-shoulder about 4 or 5 rows deep, each trying to get a good view of the fish. I entrusted the exhibits to another person, Dennis, who would act as a liaison officer and a guide who could answer the audience’s questions. Weary and exhausted, I went home. Ten minutes from home, while driving along EDSA, I got a call from Dennis.

He reported that he heard a loud crack. There were no leaks, but upon inspection, he noticed the top brace had shattered and the front glass was showing a visible bow. I stopped along EDSA to analyze the situation. I then realized, with about a ton of water, this tank was about to explode! Visions of the tank exploding and hitting a packed crowd entered my mind. If the glass broke due to the water pressure from a 375-gallon tank, it would send sharp glass panes into people standing a foot from the tank.

It was a major disaster about to unfold and I could face involuntary manslaughter charges due to negligence! After analyzing the situation, I instructed Dennis to gather the team and SM security, get everybody out of the exhibit area, and close the exhibit. If the tank exploded, so be it. Once the exhibit was closed, they were to drain the tank and stay away from the front glass panel. Then they had to prepare the support tubs in which to transfer the fish. I then went back to the venue.

Dennis and the team had done a marvelous job. The tank did not explode, no one was hurt, and the crowd was still around, wondering when they could go back. It was time to save the fish. I approached the SM store manager, told him what had happened, and said that the danger was over. Three tanks were fine, but the one which was half-filled was not and we would pull it out when the mall closed. He asked if the half-filled tank was safe as it was. Upon inspection, we could see the pressure had been released and that the bowing of the front glass was no longer present. The team was confident the tank was safe.

The store manager then asked if we could do anything to save the exhibit; after all, the exhibit was perfect, except for being only half-filled with water. The crowd gathered around the exhibit area was eager to see the tanks. We assessed what we could do. As we could not use the filtration system (because the tank was half-filled and the overflow was way above the waterline), it was again time to think, decide, and spring into action. The store manager allowed me to use his office, and our team formulated a game plan. We began by going to Bio Research to get what we needed: large canister filters, air pumps, air hoses, air stones, etc. This brought a big smile to the saleslady’s face.

I then told her I didn’t have any money, but I would pay her the next day. After I said that, her smile dropped and she gave me the weirdest look. I told her to call her boss, Wilson Ang, and ask if I could talk to him. Luckily for us, Wilson told her to give us anything we needed. It’s so nice to have friends around, especially when you need help!

As my team worked on the filtration system, I worked on creating signanges. By around 4 in the afternoon, the filter system was all set. The undamaged tank on the left held the large fish. It was filled to the top with water and had different species of groupers, snappers, lionfish, and other fish well over 12 inches. The crowning glory was three one-meter-long Moray eels, which would peer out from the artificial coral clusters. The half-filled tank was filled with over a hundred small fish: clownfish; domino and blue damselfish; pajama cardinal fish; different species of butterfly fish; surgeon fish; batfish; and goatfish, among others.

At the upper corner of the filled tank, I posted a sign saying, “During high tide, large fish hunt in the reefs.” For the half-filled tank, the sign read, “During low tide, when the large fish are away, small fish swim about the reef.” Upon seeing this, the store manager applauded, the exhibit was reopened, and we finally went home to sleep.

In the face of adversities in aquarium keeping, one must think on one’s feet, make quick decisions, and spring into action. This can save the life of your fish, and, as in the case of the story narrated above, even save people’s lives.


This appeared in Animal Scene’s June 2015 issue.