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Should I Get A Protein Skimmer?
Yes, please! Although seahorses can certainly be kept successfully without the use of a protein skimmer, I recommend including a good skimmer for best results. As a rule, seahorses are messy feeders, particularly when scarfing down enriched frozen Mysis. Ample evidence of this is revealed every time they scarf one up. As they snick up a shrimp with their slurp-gun snouts, water is passed over their gills and expelled forcibly (it is this very process that generates the powerful suction they use to slurp up their prey). As the jet of water is ejected through their gills, it carries a cloud of macerated particles and debris with it. It is a startling sight the first time you observe this phenomenon, for it brings a fire-breathing dragon to mind. As one young hobbyist matter-of-factly described it, "My seahorse blows smoke out of its ears when he eats." I'll be darned if that's not exactly what it looks like, too!
The majority of the undesirable metabolites, organic wastes and excess nutrients that accumulate in our aquariums and degrade water quality are "surface-active," meaning they are attracted to and collect near the surface of a gas-liquid interface (Fenner, 2003). Skimmers take advantage of this fact by using a column of very fine air bubbles mixed with aquarium water to trap dissolved organics and remove them from our systems. This air-water mixture is lighter than the surrounding aquarium and rises up the column of the skimmer until the foam eventually spills into a special collection cup atop the skimmer, which can be removed and emptied as needed. Proteins and other organic molecules, waste products, uneaten food and excess nutrients, and a host of other undesirable compounds stick to the surface of the bubbles and are carried away along with the foam and removed from the aquarium (Fenner, 2003a). As a result of this process, these purification devices are typically known as foam separators, foam fractionators, air-strippers, or simply protein skimmers.
In my experience, nothing improves water quality like a good protein skimmer. They provides many benefits for a seahorse setup, including efficient nutrient export, reducing the effective bioload, and increasing both the Redox potential and dissolved oxygen levels in the water (Fenner, 2003a). They do a tremendous job of removing excess organics from the aquarium, including phenols, albumin, dissolved organic acids, and chromophoric (color causing) compounds (Fenner, 2003a). Their ability to remove dissolved wastes BEFORE they have a chance to break down and degrade water quality makes them indispensable for controlling nuisance algae. A good protein skimmer is an invaluable piece of equipment for keeping your nitrates low and your water quality high when feeding a whole herd of these sloppy eaters in a closed-system aquarium.