The secret to successful reef tank maintenance can be summed up in one short sentence: Everything is essential. Leaving out one key element will inevitably lead to failure for the hobbyist and lost customers for the pet store.
The reef tank is rife with peril. There are some hard lessons to learn when it comes to keeping corals, and there are many factors to consider. Too little light will kill corals, but so will too much light. Too little food will kill corals, but too much food may pollute the environment and kill corals. Fish can kill corals. High-water temperature can kill corals. Algae blooms and red slime can take over reef tanks. Some invertebrates will clean corals, while others will eat them. The list goes on and on.
Shops carrying live corals must make every effort to do two things well. First, retailers should be able to show people what a good mixed-reef environment should look like. Secondly, they should keep the store’s reef livestock alive and in good health so it can be sold. Both of these goals can be achieved in very different ways.
Retailers should have a display that mixes coral species to demonstrate how to maintain such an ambitious setup, but corals that are for sale should be segregated. By segregating the different livestock types, a retailer shows people what it takes to maintain these specific animals.
Stock LPS, SPS, gorgonian and soft corals in separate sales tanks. Speaking in broad terms, phyto-feeders, zoo-feeders, high-light corals, low-light corals, high-current animals and low-current animals should be segregated. Clams should have their own tank, with nothing else in the environment except cleaner shrimp. Obviously, individual species of all these animals have husbandry requirements that are unique, so a retailer will have to find a middle ground to accommodate the diversity of care.
When you do this with a reef tank, all that is required to be successful is figuring out a single set of parameters. That’s much easier than trying to force numerous types of animals to live in harmony–something they would never do in nature.
Display Reef Tanks
Since not all customers can be dissuaded from mixing species in a single environment, retailers must try to modify a display to support a wide variety of animals. This display reef tank must be spectacular–nothing less will do. Getting it right will require time and effort. Daily attention will be mandatory, and all live elements entering the ecosystem must be quarantined for a lengthy health check.
Every type of coral a retailer wants to sell should be represented in the store’s reef display aquariums. Be ready to tell people what it takes to be successful in this mixed environment. They don’t want to hear how difficult it is; they want to know how to do it in spite of the problems.
The most common mistake is keeping too many fish in a reef tank. The best choice is to have a bare minimum–just enough to make things interesting, without causing problems. Having a lot of fish to feed is bound to cause water-quality problems at some point.
Finally, there are some basic items every aquatics retailer should have in stock at all times. The most critical products are those that get used up. These include UV-bulbs, T-5 bulbs, halide bulbs, phosphate removers, nitrate reducers, Kalkwasser beads, marine salt, buffers for pH and KH, chemicals for test kits and test kits in general, reef-safe ich medications, Aiptasia killers, red slime removers, phyto-foods for corals, zoo-foods for corals, live bacteria for starting new tanks, reef additives (such as calcium, magnesium, iodine, etc.), live sand and live feeder items (fish, shrimp, copepods and macro-algae).
The list is actually endless, and a retailer will only learn where to draw the line with years of trial and error.
Edward C. Taylor has been in the pet industry for over 30 years as a retailer, live fish importer and wholesaler, and fish-hatchery manager.