Re:Feeding question…

Pete Giwojna

Dear Barbie:

Excellent! A 56-gallon tall aquarium system should make a wonderful setup for seahorses. It will have the superior height that is so important for seahorses as well as sufficient water volume to provide good stability and a very comfortable margin for error. Base rock and artificial corals will work just fine, Barbie — when it comes to corals and gorgonians, seahorses cannot seem to tell the difference between lifelike fates and the real thing.

In short, it sounds like you’re off to a good start, Barbie, and the best advice I can give you at this point is to recommend that you complete the Ocean Rider seahorse training program while your new 56-gallon tank is cycling. The training program is a crash course on seahorse keeping that will teach you everything you need to know to tackle your first seahorses with conference. It is quite comprehensive and covers everything from optimizing your aquarium to create ideal conditions for seahorses to cycling a new aquarium to feeding seahorses properly, compatible tank mates for your ponies, courtship and breeding, raising the babies, water chemistry and aquarium maintenance, and disease prevention and control.

It’s a correspondence course consisting of 10 separate lessons that is conducted entirely via e-mail, Barbie, and of course it is completely free of charge. I wrote the training course for Ocean Rider and I administer it on their behalf, so if you decide to give it a try, I will be providing you with detailed information on all of the subjects mentioned above and then answering any questions you may have about the material at present so that everything is crystal clear. If you decide to participate in the training course, I will be working with you personally until your new aquarium is up and running, completely cycled and well-established, ready to receive your new seahorses, regardless of how long that may take.

So if you would like to give the free training program a try, Barbie, just contact me off list at the following e-mail address with a brief message that includes your full name (first and last), which I need for my records: [email protected]

As soon as we have established e-mail communication, I will enroll you in the training program, send you the first lesson right away, and answer any and all questions and concerns you may have as we proceed. In short, the training course will teach you everything you need to know about the care and keeping of seahorses and make sure that you get started off on the right foot.

Regarding your question about quarantining the seahorses, Barbie, it is a very sensible policy to quarantine all new marine fish before you introduce them to your main tank, but it is not at all necessary if you will be purchasing Ocean Riders from when you’re ready to stock your new tank. That’s because Ocean Rider is the only High-Health aquaculture facility in existence and their seahorses are guaranteed to be free of specific pathogens and parasites. So, no — there is no need to quarantine Mustangs or Sunbursts or any of the other Ocean Rider seahorses, particularly if they are the first fish in the aquarium.

This is what I normally advise home hobbyists with regard to quarantining new arrivals, Barbie:

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… the first rule of successful seahorse keeping is therefore to avoid delicate wild-caught seahorses like the plague. The hobbyist can prevent a number of disease problems simply by stocking his or her system with High Health captive-bred seahorses from the beginning.

High-Health Seahorses

One of the greatest advantages of Ocean Rider seahorses is that they are all born and raised at a High Health aquaculture facility. Many hobbyists may not be fully aware of what that means or why it is so important. High Health certification is very difficult to achieve and very expensive to maintain, which is why Ocean Rider is the one and only seahorse farm to be awarded High Health status. In order to earn High Health Certification, an aquacultural facility must first prove that it enforces a strict biosecurity program with rigorous quarantine protocols, and that at no stage in the breeding and rearing process are its livestock ever exposed to open systems or wild-caught seahorses. Secondly, it must withstand intense scrutiny by outside agencies — in this case, primarily from the Controlling State Aquatic Veterinary industry. The monitoring done by these Aquatic Health Specialists includes regular sampling of Ocean Rider livestock for complete necroscopic examinations. Periodically, OR seahorses are selected at random by the State Controlling Vet, euthanized, and autopsied. Their internal organs are examined, tissue sections are taken (multi-organ histopathology), and examined microscopically, along with other laboratory analyses. Only then can Ocean Rider seahorses be certified free of specific pathogen and parasites.

There is a reason that Ocean Rider is the only High-Health seahorse farm in the world and that is because high health certification is very difficult and expensive to attain. It is very costly in terms of the time, energy, resources, and the increased size of the aquaculture facility it requires to meet the demanding high-health standards. You must provide a biosecure area for each species you are working with, follow very rigorous quarantine protocols, and periodically sacrifice a portion of the healthy, mature seahorses you have raised for so many months — just when they are ready to go to market — for complete necroscopic examinations in order to make certain they are free of pathogens and parasites. All of which makes achieving and maintaining High-Health Certification a very expensive proposition. Ocean Rider does it to assure that they are providing the best possible livestock for hobbyists. As always, their primary concerns are not profits but the health and welfare of their seahorses and the benefits cultured seahorses provide in terms of conserving wild populations.

This assures that when you purchase livestock from Ocean Rider, you will be receiving healthy, well-fed seahorses in peak condition that have been handled by professional breeders and mariculturists right up until they are shipped to your doorstep.

However, if you will be trying your luck with wild-caught seahorses, or purchasing ponies from a source other than Ocean Rider, it’s very important to examine the seahorses closely before you make a purchase in order to make sure they are not carrying a disease or suffering from any health problems.

Here are the warning signs and symptoms to check for when you’re giving a seahorse at your local fish store (LFS) a visual inspection, as outlined in the "Sygnathid Husbandry Manual for Public Aquariums, 2005 Manual":

<Open quote>
Physical Examination — Visual Assessment

When performing an initial physical exam, the posture and buoyancy of the seahorse should be closely scrutinized. A seahorse bobbing at the surface is abnormally and positively buoyant. Buoyant animals will often struggle to maneuver deeper into the water column. They should be evaluated for air entrapment problems such as air in the brood pouch (males) or hyperinflated swim bladders. If the tail is extended outward caudodorsally or ‘scorpion-style,’ examine the subcutis of the tail for gas bubbles (subcutaneous emphysema). Subcutaneous emphysema of tail segment also appears to be a condition restricted to males.

Just as abnormal is a seahorse that is lying horizontally at the tank bottom for extended time periods. This may be an indication of generalized weakness or it may indicate negative buoyancy associated with swim bladder disease or fluid accumulation in the brood pouch or the coelomic cavity.

Evaluate the seahorse’s feeding response. Seahorses normally forage almost constantly during daylight hours. An individual that consistently refuses appropriately sized live food is behaving very abnormally and should receive nutritional support to meet its caloric needs.

The rate and pattern of breathing should also be evaluated. Rapid breathing and ‘coughing’
(expulsion of water in a forceful manner through the opercular opening or the mouth) suggest gill disease [or gill parasites].

The entire body surface including the fins should be examined for hemorrhagic regions,
erosions, ulcerations, excessive body mucus, unusual spots, lumps or bumps as well as the presence of subcutaneous gas bubbles. Evaluate both eyes for evidence of periorbital edema, exophthalmia, and any testicular or corneal opacities. Since seahorses are visual predators, maintaining normal vision is absolutely essential to successful foraging. The tube snout is also very important to normal feeding activity. It is utilized like a pipette to literally suck prey out of the water column.

Evaluate the tube snout for evidence of edema, erosions, and successful protraction/retraction of the small, anterior, drawbridge-like segment of the lower jaw. Close evaluation of the tail tip for erosive/necrotic lesions should also be performed.

Finally, the anal region should be closely evaluated for redness, swelling, or tissue prolapse. For closer evaluation it may require getting the seahorse in hand. If this is the case, wear non-powdered latex gloves to prevent injury to the integument of the animal.
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If the seahorse passes this visual examination, and is eating well and behaving normally, with none of the red flags or warning signs discussed above, only then should you consider taking him home. That’s a quick checklist you can use to determine if the seahorses at your LFS appear to be healthy or not before you make a purchase.

The Quarantine Tank

Once you have found healthy specimens with none of the symptoms or problems outlined above and make your purchase, it is equally important to quarantine the new seahorses before you introduce them to your main tank! A potential problem when obtaining seahorses from your LFS is that they are typically maintained in aquaria that share a common filtration system with all of the other fish tanks in the store. Of course, those other fish tanks house a wide selection of wild fish that have been collected from all around the world, and any pathogens or parasites those wild fishes may have been carrying can be transmitted through the common water supply to the seahorses. That makes fish from your LFS potential disease vectors for a whole laundry list of disease organisms and makes it mandatory to quarantine such specimens before they are introduced to your display tank.

In its simplest form, quarantining aquarium fish simply involves introducing them to a quarantine tank (normally with the same aquarium parameters as the tank they will be eventually going in) all by themselves for a period of several weeks to assure that they aren’t carrying any diseases. The idea is that any health problems the wild fish have will manifest themselves in isolation during this quarantine period, and they can then be treated with the appropriate medications without affecting the health of the rest of the fishes in your display tank. While they are in quarantine, some hobbyists will also treat wild fish prophylactically for internal parasites using praziquantel or metronidazole, and for any external parasites they may possibly be carrying using formalin bath(s) and/or freshwater dips.

A bare-bottomed aquarium of at least 10 gallons (the bigger the better) will suffice for a Quarantine Tank (QT). Ideally, the hospital tank should have one or more foam filters for biofiltration along with a small external filter, which can easily be removed from the tank during treatment, if necessary, but which can hold activated carbon or polyfilter pads when it’s time to pull the meds out. No aquarium reflector is necessary. Ambient room light will suffice. (Bright lights can breakdown and inactivate certain medications and the fish in quarantine will be more comfortable and feel more secure under relatively dim lighting.)

For seahorses, it’s important for your quarantine tank/hospital tank to include enough hitching posts so that the ponies won’t feel vulnerable or exposed during their stay in quarantine. Aquarium safe, inert plastic plants or homemade hitching posts fashioned from polypropylene rope or twine that has been unraveled and anchored at one end work well for this if you’re short on such decorations.

Cycling the sponge filters is important because otherwise the only way to maintain water quality is by making partial water changes every day or two throughout the treatment period. Breaking in the biological filtration will eliminate the need for such frequent water changes and assure that the quarantine period is less stressful for the fish by eliminating transient spikes in the ammonia and/or nitrite levels.

Be sure to avoid sponge filters with weighted bottoms or other metal components since they will rust when exposed to saltwater. Sooner or later this will cause problems in a marine aquarium. Select a sponge filter that has no metal parts and is safe for use in saltwater. The proper units will have suction cups to anchor them in place rather than a weighted bottom.

Once your quarantine tank is up and running, new arrivals from your LFS that pass the preliminary visual screening should then be in isolated quarantine tanks for a minimum of 30 days. Marine fish and seahorses should be quarantined for 4-6 weeks as explained above. The only exceptions are High-Health seahorses obtained directly from Ocean Rider (, which are guaranteed to be free of specific pathogens and parasites. There is no need to quarantine high-health seahorses before they are introduced to the main tank, which simplifies things for the home hobbyist. The Ocean Rider aquaculture facility provides multi-generational captive-bred-and-raised seahorses that have now reached a high level of domestication and are very well adapted to aquarium life.
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Okay, Barbie, those are my thoughts on quarantining new arrivals. Suffice it to say that there is no need to quarantine Ocean Riders at any time whether or not they are the first and only inhabitants of a new tank.

Just contact me off list ([email protected]) if you want to participate in the training program, and we’ll get started right away.

Best of luck preparing your 56-gallon aquarium for seahorses, Barbie!

Happy Trails!
Pete Giwojna

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