Re:live rock

Pete Giwojna

Dear Mike:

The only prep I do for live rock in a seahorse tank is to purchase it pre-cured and then debug it to drive out unwanted hitchhikers before I placed it in the aquarium.

There are a few ways you can debug your live rock to eradicate the bristleworms and other pests and unwanted hitchhikers without unduly harming most of the desirable life and beneficial bacteria it houses. For example, a hypersaline dip should work, or you could treat it with a hyposaline bath instead, and sometimes the old Club Soda trick can be the quickest, easiest way to go about it. I’d be happy to run through those live rock "debugging" procedures for you.

The hypersaline dips are pretty self explanatory. Just get yourself a nice big plastic bucket or Rubbermaid tub or styrofoam cooler/shipping box, fill it halfway with extra salty water, submerge the piece of live rock (LR) you want to cleanse of unwanted hitchhikers and give it a good soak. Pests like stomotopods (mantis shrimp), pistol shrimp, predacious crabs and bristleworms won’t like the suddenly change from normal-strength saltwater to the hypersaline bucket water and will bale out of their hidey holes in the live rock in a hurry in search of conditions more to their liking.

There are no hard and fast rules about how salty the dipping water should be or how long the dips should last, but it’s a good idea to use tap water for the dips (don’t detoxify it or adjust the pH — the bigger the shock, the quicker the pests will abandon the live rock, so a little chlorine in the water is a good thing). In general, adjusting the salinity in the dipping container to a specific gravity of around 1.042 (55-ppt salinity) is a good place to start. The saltier the water, the quicker the critters will bug out and the more thorough this debugging procedure will be.

A hyposaline bath accomplishes the same thing but uses reduced salinity to irritate the mobile pests and drive them out of the live rock, rather than extra salty water. Estefano recommends 50% normal strength saltwater and 50% RO/DI water for this method, and he notes that an immersion time of up to 45 minutes should drive out even the most stubborn pests.

Place something in the bottom of the bucket to keep the live rock elevated above the bottom (pvc pipe, a couple of bricks, plastic eggcrate from a light fixture — anything along those lines will suffice) and plunk the live rock directly into the hypersaline or hyposaline water. The mobile pests it harbors will soon crawl, slither or drop off the live rock, and, when you remove the LR afterwards, the unwanted hitchhikers will be left behind in the dipping container.

The Club Soda trick is a similar technique that relies on carbonated water to flush out mobile pests rather than hypersalinity. Simply remove the live rock to an empty bucket and flush out the hidey holes thoroughly with a generous amount of straight, undiluted Club Soda. The carbonation in the Club Soda means the hitchhikers will be immersed in CO2, deprived of oxygen, and subjected to a drastic pH shift all at once. They’ll bail out of the rock in a big hurry! You can then rinse the live rock in a bucket of saltwater you have prepared in advance, to remove any lingering traces of the Club Soda, and return it to the aquarium immediately. Problem solved.

This method works well for surgical strikes in which you are flushing out a particular pest whose hidey hole you have already located. If you want to cleanse your live rock of unwanted hitchhikers in general, place the live rock in a bucket with just enough saltwater to cover the rock and then add a full 2-liter bottle of Club Soda (Liisa Coit, personal communication). Pour the Club Soda slowly over the surface of the rock, concentrating in particular on any cavities or crevices. This will drive out any mobile pests hiding in the rock, including crabs, mantis shrimp, pistol shrimp, and bristleworms, in a matter of moments.

Afterwards the live rock is rinsed in saltwater to remove the residual Club Soda, and is ready to be returned to the aquarium. (Any desirable critters that may have been driven out of the live rock — Gammarus, pods or snails, for example — can be netted out of the delousing bucket and returned to the aquarium as well, none the worse for wear.) Too much Club Soda can be deadly to microfauna such as gammarids and copepods, so if you want to recover and revive the ‘pods, use more saltwater in the bucket and less Club Soda until you achieve the desired results.

After the pre-cured live rock has been debugged, you place it in the aquarium to create attractive arrangements with interesting ledges, caves, arches and overhangs, and proceed just as Estefano described in his post above. After that, it’s just a matter of time — waiting for the new aquarium to cycle and a thriving population of the beneficial nitrifying bacteria that carry out the nitrogen cycle to develop in order to establish the biological filtration in the tank.

Best of luck setting up your new 30-gallon aquarium with live rock and live sand, Mike!

Happy Trails!
Pete Giwojna

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