Re:Lost a Seahorse

#3820
Pete Giwojna
Guest

Dear jomo:

I’m very sorry to hear about the trouble you had with your shipment of Mustangs — all my condolences on the loss of your female. It’s unfortunate you haven’t received a response to your earlier e-mails as of yet, but I know Ocean Rider sometimes gets backed up on their e-mails, and when you have an urgent problem such as this, your best bet is to post on this forum, in which case your message will received a prompt reply. Or better yet, feel free to contact me at my e-mail address ([email protected]) and your correspondent will receive my immediate personal attention.

It’s clear from your description that the seahorse was experiencing long-distance shipping stress as a result of exposure to high ammonia levels in the shipping bag. That’s uncommon, but it does happen from time to time. In most such cases, the usual outcome is that the seahorse makes a full recovery once it has been removed from the polluted shipping water and transferred to the main tank with good water quality and no ammonia or nitrite. On very rare occasions, in extreme cases, it is sometimes necessary to intervene in order to save the seahorse, as we’ll discuss in more detail later in this post.

That’s why it’s so important to avoid drip acclimating the seahorses after their long trip from Hawaii, and to follow the acclimation instructions closely so that the new arrivals can be transferred into the new aquarium within 20-30 minutes of opening the shipping bags. (Which I assume you did, jomo, since the male seahorse that arrived in the same shipment is doing well.)

As you know, acclimating seahorses that have been in the shipping bag for a day or two following long-distance shipping calls for a somewhat different acclimation protocol. The painstaking drip-acclimation process works very well for specimens that were obtained locally and bagged up with pure oxygen at their LFS for the short trip home because there isn’t time for significant levels of ammonia or carbon dioxide (CO2) to build up in the bags before acclimation is begun. But drip-acclimating specimens that have been en route for 24 hours or more can be disastrous and may well result in the death of the specimens while they are still in the shipping bag. Allow me explain.

Acclimating newly arrived livestock properly their extended cross-country journey is not like acclimating the new specimens you bring home after a quick trip back from your local fish store. The long distances and prolonged transit times involved make proper care of the new arrivals once they finally reach you a far more urgent matter. The reason for this is that all the while the seahorses are en route, they are excreting wastes and respiring in the dark shipping box — consuming oxygen (O2) and giving off carbon dioxide (CO2). That means two things: deadly ammonia is steadily building up in the shipping bag and the pH is steadily dropping, making the water more acidic.

This downward pH shift is actually helpful in that ammonia is less toxic at low pH and becomes much more toxic at higher pH. This is because ammonia exists in water in an equilibrium between two different forms — a nontoxic ionized form usually referred to as ammonium (NH4+) and an un-ionized form (NH3), which is highly toxic. Ammonium (NH4+) is completely harmless to fishes since the ionized ammonia molecule cannot cross the cell membrane and enter their cells. Note that only difference between harmless NH4+ and deadly NH3 is the addition of a hydrogen ion (H+), which converts toxic ammonia to nontoxic ammonium. At low pH, the extra hydrogen ions (H+) of acidic water are readily available to attach to the ammonia molecule, converting most of the ammonia to ammonium: NH3 + H+ —> NH4+. But at high pH, under alkaline conditions, exactly the opposite occurs. At high pH, the abundance of hydroxide ions (OH-) in alkaline water strips the extra hydrogen ion (H+) away from ammonium, rapidly converting most of it to deadly ammonia: OH- + NH4+ —> NH3 + H20. In other words, the higher (more alkaline) the pH, the more ammonia is present in the dangerous un-ionized form (NH3), which easily crosses cell membranes and enters the body.

This should make it easier to understand exactly what is happening in the shipping bag. As the seahorses breathe, consuming O2 and giving of CO2, the pH of the water drops and more of the ammonia (NH3) they produce is assimilated into harmless ammonium (NH4+). So the decrease in pH that occurs during long-distance shipping is actually protecting the new arrivals somewhat — until we open the shipping bag! Once the shipping bag is opened, CO2 begins offgassing from the bag water and fresh O2 begins entering the water, and as the pH begins to rise in response and return to normal, the ammonia in the water becomes increasingly poisonous. And when we begin to add alkaline water with a pH of 8.0-8.4 from the main tank to the shipping bag, we are accelerating the pH shift and converting ever more of the ammonium (NH4+) to deadly ammonia (NH3). The suddenly high concentration of ammonia in the water quickly diffuses into the seahorse’s cells, and acclimating the new arrivals becomes a race against ammonia poisoning just that quickly.

Acclimating farm-raised seahorses properly is therefore the art of achieving the proper balance between two conflicting needs: the need to get them out of the toxic shipping water as quickly as possible and the need to allow them to adjust to tank conditions as gradually as is practical. Drip acclimating the seahorses over a period of hours would expose them to dangerous ammonia levels for an extended period with harmful results, and adding an airline or otherwise aerating the seahorses in the shipping bag while they are acclimating, which likewise increase the levels of ammonia they were exposed to. If all goes well, it’s therefore important for the acclimation process to take no more than 20-30 minutes before your Ocean Riders are released into the main tank.

Whereas drip acclimating is definitely the way to go when you bring home delicate invertebrates that are highly sensitive to water quality from your LFS, such as live corals, starfish, and decorative shrimp, it would actually be quite counterproductive for seahorses that have just arrived all the way from Hawaii. So you did very well to get the ailing seahorse out of the shipping bag and into your aquarium as soon as possible, jomo.

The most obvious symptoms of ammonia poisoning are a loss of equilibrium, hyperexcitability, increased respiration and oxygen uptake, and increased heart rate. At extreme ammonia levels, fish may experience convulsions, coma, and death. Seahorses exposed to less extreme ammonia levels will struggle to breathe. They will be lethargic and exhibit rapid respiration. They may appear disoriented, periodically detaching from their hitching posts only to sink to the bottom.

With proper treatment, ammonia exposure and nitrite poisoning is completely reversible providing the seahorses weren’t exposed to toxic levels for too long. In severe cases, it may be necessary to treat the affected seahorse(s) with methylene blue in a hospital tank. Commonly known as “meth blue” or simply “blue,” this is a wonderful medication for reversing the toxic effects of ammonia and nitrite poisoning. Methylene blue transports oxygen and aids breathing. It facilitates oxygen transport, helping fish breathe more easily by converting methemoglobin to hemoglobin — the normal oxygen carrying component of fish blood, thus allowing more oxygen to be carried through the bloodstream. This makes it very useful for treating gill infections, low oxygen levels, or anytime your seahorses are breathing rapidly and experiencing respiratory distress. It is the drug of choice for treating hypoxic emergencies of any kind with your fish. However, methylene blue will destroy nitrifying bacteria so it should only be used in a hospital tank (if used in an established aquarium, it will impair the biological filtration and the tank may need to be cycled all over again).

For future reference, jomo, providing you can obtain the Kordon brand of Methylene Blue (available at most well-stocked local fish stores), their suggested treatment protocol for ammonia/nitrite poisoning is as follows:

As an aid in reversal of nitrite (NO2-) or cyanide (CN-) poisoning of marine and freshwater aquarium fishes:

(a) Remove carbon filter and continue to operate with mechanical filter media throughout the treatment period.
(b) Add 1 teaspoon of 2.303% Methylene Blue per 10 gallons of water. This produces a concentration of 3 ppm. Continue the treatment for 3 to 5 days.
(c) Make a water change as noted and replace the filter carbon at the conclusion of the treatment.

See the following link for more information on treating with Kordon’s Methylene Blue:

Click here: KPD-28 Methylene Blue
http://www.novalek.com/kpd28.htm

If you can’t get the Kordon brand of methylene blue, then just follow the directions that come with whichever brand you can obtain.

Since your seahorse was struggling as a result of shipping stress from the moment it arrived and ultimately failed to recover, you should be entitled to a replacement, jomo. Please send an e-mail to me at [email protected] explaining exactly what has happened, and I will forward it directly to Carol with my recommendation that your female Mustang be replaced.

Best of luck with your male Mustang, jomo.

Respectfully,
Pete Giwojna


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