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Readers’ tanks: Graham Smith

The following article is devoted to Readers’ tanks: Graham Smith. On a quest to find out more about the proper care of Tropheus, I visited fishkeeper Graham Smith. I first met Graham about two years ago, and after a few conversations on Tanganyika cichlids, I knew we were on the same wavelength.

Readers' tanks: Graham Smith

Keeping Tropheus properly is a bit of a grey area, and after being shown the young fish from his spawnings, I thought it was time for a visit. Graham has kept fish for 30 years or so, from goldfish and community species right through to brackish, marines and Koi.

He admits that the bug bit early, and his hobby has grown from keeping just one 45cm/18″ tank to his converting his garage into a fish-house. This has seven main tanks and half a dozen breeding and grow-out tanks for raising young. They range in size from 30cm/1′ long to over 6’/1.8m.

He has lots of Tanganyikan cichlids, some Lake Victoria cichlids and Japanese Koi. His favourite fish at the moment (apart from his Tropheus) are some fine specimens of Benthochromis tricoti. Tracking down some of the rarer Tanganyikan cichlids isn’t easy, and Graham relies on a combination of specialist retailers and mail-order suppliers.

Tank set-up

On entering Graham’s fish-house, I noticed several similarities between his three main Tropheus tanks. They are 120 x 45 x 38cm/48″ x 18″ x 15″, 120 x 45 x 45cm/48″ x 18″ x 18″ and 120 x 45 x 60cm/48″ x 18″ x 24″, with volumes ranging from 213-340 l./47-75 gal.). The largest Tropheus tank was specially made with a greater width than it is tall to provide maximum floor space.

Then there is the huge amount of filtration on each tank. The smaller tank is fitted with two external filters packed with biological media and an internal Biolife filter. The two larger ones are fitted with large external filters and home-made trickle filters, and all three tanks are heavily aerated to boot. Heater thermostats are set at 27C/80F in each tank, a temperature Graham says is optimum for Tropheus.

The substrates differ dramatically in the tanks. One has fine, black sand whereas the other two have coral sand. Graham likes the look of the coral sand, which also helps to buffer pH and hardness in tanks that are heavily biologically filtered. It does not appear to matterwhat colour the substrate is as fish colouring and behaviour was the same in all three tanks.

With regard to rock formations, there appeared to be a distinct formula. Three small pyramids constructed from ocean rock were placed in each tank, one each at both rear corners and one in the middle. These piles help protect the young, he said. If you have just one long reef along the back of the tank, he’s noticed that the fish are more aggressive.

With these distinct piles, three dominant males can take up residence in a tank instead of just the one. If you mix Tropheus species in the same tank, you may even have two dominant males from different species on the same pile.
I have read about this technique, and it certainly seems to work well in practice.

In the largest tank, Graham had two species living together in the same tank. This raised the question of hybridisation. The species are T. duboisi and T. sp. “Kiriza” (Kaiser II)
Graham told me that there are six main species of Tropheus in the lake, and from those six stem 13 lineages and 123 variants. The six are T. moori (from Mpulungu); T. duboisi; T. annectens; T. polli; T. brichardi and T. kasabae. As they are quite different, Graham says you are safe to mix them along with
T. sp.”Black”, T. sp.’Red’, or T. sp.”Ikola” without risk of hybrids. The key is to keep colouration different. However, if in any doubt, then don’t mix them.

Fish number is also important in any Tropheus community. Fifteen or more from each species is the ideal, with 10 fish from each species an absolute minimum. This helps spread aggression.

Looking after the fish

Water quality is of paramount importance, not only in the tank, but also when it comes from the source. Graham filters his tapwater through a home-made filter and then lets it stand for 24 hours with the addition of strong aeration. He tests the pH regularly, which leaves the tap at 7.6.

After a day of strong aeration, this rises to 8.4. Instead of usual dechlorination practices, he filters the water through an air-powered filter containing polyfilter, which also removes other nasties.

The water is then brought to temperature and added straight to the tank. No other buffers or salts are added. Weekly maintenance sees 40-50% water changes, which means that even nitrate is kept at or near zero.

Another grey area is feeding. Graham feeds his in the morning with a good quality spirulina flake. He also offers a special food that he makes up himself, a home-made frozen vegetable-based food (see Graham’s veggie mix, far right). Bloodworm is a definite no, no.

This frozen food is fed every evening along with occasional feeds of cyclops and mysis. Graham says that any food offered to Tropheus must be slowly digested.

Uniquely, Graham adds Montmorrillonite clay powder for Koi to their food and straight to the tanks. He explains that being algae grazers, Tropheus would take up similar sediments as they graze in the wild. Besides, he says it aids digestion and provides them essential minerals. He also adds garlic to their foods as an attractant and immunostimulant.

Dealing with bloat

Bloat is probably the No. 1 killer. Graham feels its primary cause is stress. Disease or diet might also play a part in causing it.

The most likely time for bloat to appear is in transit. If fish arrive in foul water, they get stressed and their immune response is lowered.

Once home, there are a few steps to help reduce stress. These include stocking in numbers of 10 or more; ensuring highly efficient filtration and not exposing the fish to ammonia, nitrite or nitrate.
In cases of bullying, the victim should be removed to another tank for a chance to recover, while the hyper-aggressive fish should be removed permanently.
Bloat is not infectious, says Graham, and if spotted early can be cured.

Symptoms include loss of appetite, heavy breathing and stringy, sometimes bloody faeces. He says that they don’t always swell up either. He takes his medication regime seriously and has developed another method for treating fish.

You don’t need to isolate the sick fish, but instead you should treat the whole tank with Metronidazole – a medication that is available via your vet, who may need to visit your home before prescribing it.

Graham adds 125mg to 10 gal. of water along with Kusuri Sabbactisun, an anti-bacterial treatment. The water is left for three days, followed by a 40% water change, and then he repeats the treatment for another three days. On day seven, he carries out a 50% water change. Metronidazole has little or no impact on water quality and filtration, and he says that Pimafix by API may be a good Sabbactisun alternative.

Sexing and breeding

There are external sexual differences between adult fish, says Graham. I could see straight away that mature fish have different head profiles. On males, a prominent snout appears, making the head look concave when viewed side on. Females and juvenile fish have a convex profile.

However, he added that these differences could not be relied upon. Better to sex the fish by examining the vent. The female’s vent is more horizontal and wider than the male’s when both are compared. This makes sense as female fish release large eggs several millimeters across.

If you notice that one of your females is carrying, Graham says you should place her in a small breeding tank with somewhere for her to hide after about two weeks.

The breeding tank should have identical water to the main tank and use air-powered filtration. She will hold the brood for 28 days, and release anywhere from 2-20 fry. Graham’s largest brood was 14.

If, however, several females are carrying, don’t remove too many because if the number of fish in the main tank falls below 10 individuals, aggression may increase.

Once the female has spat the fry out and is no longer retrieving them into her mouth, she can be returned to the main tank. The best time to do this is at night, when the fish are asleep. You could even black the tank out for a further two days. Fry can then be moved to larger accommodation and grown on.

This article was first published in the April 2005 issue of Practical Fishkeeping magazine.

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