Re:my horses are on their way :)

Pete Giwojna

Dear mom:

Thanks for getting back to me promptly. Your readings indicate that an ammonia spike has occurred and that is what is ailing your new seahorses.

Any ammonia level above 0.05 mg/L or ppm is a cause for concern and can be harmful to fish and invertebrates, and the ammonia level in your 20-gallon aquarium (0.5-1.0 ppm) is 10 to 20 times higher than the acceptable level. Ammonia spikes such as this are such a common problem for newly established aquariums that when fish become ill as a result it is commonly known in the aquarium trade as "new tank syndrome."

In other words, your seahorses are indeed suffering from ammonia poisoning, mom, and your quick thinking in transferring them into the 55-gallon aquarium probably saved their lives. The ammonia level in the 55 gallon tank isn’t great — 0.25 ppm is still 5 times the acceptable level of ammonia at which harmful effects begin to occur, but that’s a heck of a lot better than the conditions in the small 20-gallon setup, and the 55 gallon tank will be more resistant to high ammonia spikes because of its large water volume.

Be sure to pick up some methylene blue from your local fish store as we discussed in my previous post, since it is probably going to be needed before this crisis is over. As you know, it can reverse the effects of ammonia poisoning and nitrite toxicity if the affected fish are not too far gone.

The other thing you need to do as soon as possible is to go to a well-stocked fish store and obtain some marine Bio-Spira and add it to your aquarium according to instructions. Bio-Spira is a product offered by Marineland which contains the live bacteria necessary to convert ammonia and nitrite into harmless nitrate. It is available for both freshwater and marine aquariums, so of course be sure to get the Bio-Spira for saltwater. Call around until you find a fish store in your area that has it available. Just use it as explained below and it should help get the ammonia level in your 55 gallon aquarium back down to where you want it:

BIO-Spira is a "live" bacteria culture that is sold refrigerated and must be kept refrigerated until used. It can not be overdosed. Repeated dosing of your aquarium with ammonia removing liquids (such as BIO-Safe, Amquel, Ammo-lock and Aqua-Safe) can inhibit the beneficial action of BIO-Spira. Ammonia removing liquids should only be used to initially treat tap water. It is normal to have a small amount of ammonia or nitrate during the first few days after set-up. These concentrations are not harmful and will quickly drop to zero with proper use of BIO-Spira.

Shake well before each use. Use 1 ounce (29.6 ml) of BIO-Spira per 30 gallons of water. BIO-Spira cannot be overdosed. Keep refrigerated. Be sure to shut off any UV sterilizers and remove medication by means of a water change or activated carbon.

Be sure to get the marine BioSpira for saltwater aquariums, mom. If you can obtain some precured live rock from your local fish store and add it to the 55 gallon aquarium that will also help by providing additional biological filtration ability to the tank.

With regard to the pH, it can be raised in by obtaining one of the commercially made products designed to adjust the pH upwards in saltwater aquariums and using it according to the instructions. Such a product should be available from any good LFS that handles marine fishes and invertebrates; they typically include sodium bicarbonate as their primary active ingredient and are often marketed under names such as "pH Up" or something similar. If you wish, ordinary baking soda (bicarbonate) from your kitchen will work just as well for elevating the pH.

However, mom, in your case I wouldn’t attempt to raise the pH right now since the relatively low pH is helping to protect the seahorses from the harmful effects of the ammonia. Remember, 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.

In short, mom, adjusting the pH upwards at this time would only make the ammonia more toxic to the seahorses. Wait until you get the ammonia problem under control before you worry about gradually adjusting the aquarium pH.

Best of luck weathering this crisis and getting your aquarium’s back on track, mom. Be sure to go to your local fish store as soon as feasible to obtain some methylene blue, marine BioSpira, and hopefully some precured live rock. The BioSpira and live rock can go in your 55-gallon aquarium immediately, but if it becomes necessary to use the methylene blue, it should only be used as a dip or in a hospital tank, as we discussed in my previous post.

Pete Giwojna

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