Moving large cichlids: how to make it as painless as possible.

Posted in About Fish

Submitted by scrivz

Moving fish is always a hassle, but moving large cichlids is an especially complicated task due to their size, bioload, and the sheer size of the tanks they are kept in. Couple this with the fact that these cichlids, if well cared for, can live for many years, and many of us cichlid owners will run into the conundrum of having to move a fish or two that will not simply fit into a five gallon bucket. While I do not have this down to an exact science, I would like to share my experiences with my most recent move of my two large cichlids, an oscar and a salvini, with the hope that others can use and improve upon my methods for moving these bruisers of the aquarium world.

For some background, the setup that I was forced to move was a 75g glass aquarium housing an oscar and a salvini. It was filtered with two Emperor 400’s, a Rena Filstar XP3 canister, and a powerhead-driven sponge filter, and was heated with a 250W Stealth heater

If you do not run sponge filters in your tank, you will want to add them to your established tank at least a few weeks before the move so they can become properly seeded with bacteria to fight the buildup of toxic ammonia and nitrite during the move. I was already running a large sponge filter in my tank to help deal with the numerous weather-related power outages we experience in northern Minnesota, so I had a seeded sponge ready to go.

Another thought if you are planning a longer move is to decrease feedings in the two weeks prior to the move, slowly tapering them off such that the fish aren’t fed for a couple of days prior to leaving. This may seem cruel to those that religiously feed their fish daily, but most large cichlids can easily handle a week without food with no sequelae, and if you are running minimal filtration during the move the reduced feeding will minimize the waste produced by the fish during this time.

The basic steps of this process are as follows: 1) move fish and canister/sponge filter to temporary holding container, 2) drain and empty tank, 3) move tank, and 4) move fish. Since I only had to move across town this was a fairly easy prospect for me, but I think the methods used can be adapted to a long-distance move without too much difficulty.

I began by filling my temporary tub, a Rubbermaid Brute 44g trash can, with temperature-matched tap water and the appropriate amount of dechlorinator. Note: the Brute is recommended here because of its exceptional weight capacity, but if you trust another container to hold the water then it should work just as well. I then drained my tank until there was just enough water that my cichlids were still submerged, but not so much that they could easily evade capture.

Now, as many of you have learned through keeping large cichlids, catching these fish is not an easy task. They are too big for most aquarium nets and quite strong when they want to be. I used the t-shirt method of catching the fish, as it seemed to be the least stressful to all parties involved. Simply take a t-shirt, rinse it well to be sure there is no residual detergent on it from the last time you laundered it, and tie off the head and arm holes. I used a piece of cord to tie off the neck and simply tied a knot in each sleeve, but in the past I’ve also used zip ties to close each of the three holes. To protect the slime coat of the fish, be sure the shirt is thoroughly saturated with tank water prior to catching your fish with it.

Before moving your fish, move your sponge filter (and whatever you use to drive it with) to the tub. I moved my canister filter to the tub for extra filtration and water movement while I tore the tank down.

To catch your fish, hold the shirt open with both hands and slowly corner the fish such that is presented with a t-shirt “cave” to swim into. When it is inside the shirt, lift the fish and shirt out of the water while supporting the weight of the fish with your other hand. Now is an excellent time to get a very quick measurement of your fish if you are at all curious about their true length. Do not keep your fish out of the water longer than necessary, but a quick measure and photograph is possible at this time. Take care not to let your fish flop onto the floor.

Now, simply place the fish-containing shirt in your temporary tub and help your fish find its way out of the shirt. Your fish are now in the tub and your tank is nearly empty. Drain it, clean it if necessary, and empty it of substrate and décor. With the canister and/or sponge filters running on the tub, your fish should be able to live comfortably enough for a fair amount of time.

While tearing down the tank to prepare it for transport, you can keep the 44g Brute nearly full to maximize the comfort of your fish. I kept about 35-40 gallons of water in it while I was putzing around with cleaning and moving the tank. Keeping this much water in the container allowed me to run a canister filter while the fish were waiting to be moved. If you keep less water in the container, you may be restricted to running only the sponge filter.

If you are moving across town (or a similar short distance) you can easily move the tank, get it set up and running, then return to move the fish. If you are moving a longer distance, you can move the tank and fish at the same time, but it will require a power source such as an inverter or batteries to power your filter(s). To move the Brute, drain the water with a siphon, Python, or hose until you and a friend can lift the container with the fish in it. Remember, water weighs over eight pounds per gallon, so even if you only have ten gallons of water in the tub it will have significant weight. You’re going to have to lift this container into a truck, so be mindful of the weight factor for the sake of your back. Once drained down to the desire level, the Brute (with fish) can be moved to your vehicle. Lift with your legs, not with your back.

For a shorter move, the fish will likely be fine in the 10 or so gallons of water that are left in the container. For a longer move, you may want to refill the container with dechlorinated water at this point and hook up the filters. An inverter can be used to power the canister filter and the powerhead or air pump you use to drive your sponge filter, or you can purchase a battery-powered air pump to drive your sponge filter if you choose to only use a sponge. If you are moving a long distance in cooler weather, you may consider plugging a heater into your inverter as well.

Nitrifying bacteria die if they dry out, so take care to keep the biomedia wet during the move. Canister filters can simply be left with water in them for a short move, but HOBs and biowheels need to be kept wet somehow. A cooler or bucket works great for this. Additionally, the bacteria tend to do better with some aeration, especially if the filters will sit idle for a long period of time, so a battery-powered air pump with a bubble disc is something to consider. For longer moves you will need to feed your nitrifying bacteria some ammonia to prevent a die-off. You can use forms of ammonia that would be used to cycle a tank; urine is one form of ammonia that will be readily available during a long drive. Google “fishless cycle” for other sources if you aren't comfortable urinating into a container with your biomedia.

Now, tear down the tank.

Move the tank.

Setup the tank, being sure to level it and leave enough room between it and the wall for any overflow boxes, HOB filters, etc. Refill, matching temperature and being sure to dechlorinate. It’s not a bad idea to test the tap water at your new place to see if it’s fairly similar to the parameters of your old tap water. If they are similar, acclimation will be less of an issue. If they are significantly different you will need to have a longer, more gradual acclimation period for your fish to get used to the new water.

While it’s refilling is a good time to add your substrate and décor. (Kmuda Note: I like to add the substrate and decor before refilling)

 Acclimate and add fish.

If water parameters are different, be sure to acclimate your fish properly. Use the t-shirt method to catch the fish once again and place them in the tank. Move the filters and heater, and you’re in business. Monitor parameters closely for the first few days for the presence of a mini-cycle. Using this method I experienced no cycle at all, but it’s always a danger that you should be prepared to catch.

Hopefully this information can be used by some to help with a difficult move. Adapt these methods to your unique situation, and improve upon them as you go. Good luck with the move.