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Ammonia Poisoning in Aquarium Fish

Ammonia poisoning is undoubtedly one of the leading causes of death in aquarium fish. It is important to know the causes and effects of ammonia toxicity so that the aquarist can recognize and take swift action.

Ammonia is always present in our aquaria. In a healthy, cycled tank nitrosomas bacteria oxidize the ammonia quickly. Elevated ammonia levels occur when the levels of bacteria are insufficient to process the amount of ammonia produced. Severely elevated ammonia can be due to a new tank, cleaning a filter with chlorinated water, treatment with certain antibiotics, excess food, a dead fish going unnoticed. 

Levels of ammonia as low as .25 Parts Per Million (PPM) can cause damage and distress, and ammonia levels of 1 PPM will cause damage, even if the fish don't show any symptoms. Higher than 1 PPM or extended exposure to elevated levels cause irreversible damage and shorten the life of the fish. 

Ammonia toxicity starts at the gills. The fish start gasping or hovering at the surface and the gills will look red. 

Continued exposure irritates the skin. The fish will start flashing and flicking and may seem agitated. You may notice a milky appearance to the fish because of increased slime production or the fish may get very dark. At this point the gill tissue will start to die off and you may notice shreds of gill tissue. The gills may look grey or pale. 

Further exposure and the ammonia invade the entire system. The fish will stop eating and move less and less. Eventually they will stay at the bottom. The fins may be burned away at this point. 

As elevated ammonia continues, their tissues will be damaged. If you see red streaks or bloody places on their body and fins, there is internal damage to internal organs and brain. If it goes on long enough, the fish will start to bleed internally and may develop dropsy as the organs start to shut down. 

Suggested Treatments

  • 50% or more water change Immediately.
  • Keep ammonia levels below 1 PPM.
  • Discontinue or reduce feeding.
  • Lower Ph to below 7 - slowly.
  • Use Amquel or Prime or some other ammonia neutralizing product (Be careful with Amquel if you have soft water - it can crash your pH)

Amquel and other such products are temporary stop gap measures only and no substitute for water changes.

You have often heard me preach at the pulpit of fishless cycling. Many new hobbyists consider the choice to cycle fishlessly or with fish to be simply that - a choice. Any aquarist, who understands how corrosive ammonia is and how badly it affects their fish, will not willingly make the choice to subject their fish to a cycling a tank again.

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How Do Corals Reproduce?

coral spawning
Many species of stony coral spawn in mass synchronized events, releasing millions of eggs and sperm into the water at the same time. Click the image for a larger view. (Photo: Emma Hickerson)

Corals can reproduce asexually and sexually. In asexual reproduction, new clonal polyps bud off from parent polyps to expand or begin new colonies (Sumich, 1996). This occurs when the parent polyp reaches a certain size and divides. This process continues throughout the animal’s life (Barnes and Hughes, 1999).

About three-quarters of all stony corals produce male and/or female gametes. Most of these species are broadcast spawners, releasing massive numbers of eggs and sperm into the water to distribute their offspring over a broad geographic area (Veron, 2000). The eggs and sperm join to form free-floating, or planktonic, larvae called planulae. Large numbers of planulae are produced to compensate for the many hazards, such as predators, that they encounter as they are carried by water currents. The time between planulae formation and settlement is a period of exceptionally high mortality among corals (Barnes and Hughes, 1999). video icon View video of coral spawning.

coral spawning
Here, a coral releases sperm into the water. Click the image for a larger view. (Photo: Brenden Holland)

Along many reefs, spawning occurs as a mass synchronized event, when all the coral species in an area release their eggs and sperm at about the same time. The timing of a broadcast spawning event is very important because males and female corals cannot move into reproductive contact with each other. Because colonies may be separated by wide distances, this release must be both precisely and broadly timed, and usually occurs in response to multiple environmental cues (Veron, 2000).

The long-term control of spawning may be related to temperature, day length and/or rate of temperature change (either increasing or decreasing). The short-term (getting ready to spawn) control is usually based on lunar cues. The final release, or spawn, is usually based on the time of sunset (Veron, 2000).

brain coral closeup
This close-up photo shows rows of individual brain coral polyps in different stages of releasing their eggs. Click the image for a larger view. (Photo: Burek)

Planulae swim upward toward the light (exhibiting positive phototaxis), entering the surface waters and being transported by the current. After floating at the surface, the planulae swim back down to the bottom, where, if conditions are favorable, they will settle (Barnes and Hughes, 1999). Once the planulae settle, they metamorphose into polyps and form colonies that increase in size. In most species, the larvae settle within two days, although some will swim for up to three weeks, and in one known instance, two months (Jones and Endean, 1973).

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Plant Profile: Baby Tears vs Pearl Grass

Baby Tears and Pearl Grass

L: Baby Tears (M. umbrosum)
R: Pearl Grass (H. micranthemoides)

“Baby Tears” vs. “Pearl Grass”

The two most common “Baby Tears” available to aquarists are Hemianthus micranthemoides (also called “Dwarf Baby Tears” or Pearl Grass) and Micranthemum umbrosum (the species most often known as Baby Tears, also called “Giant Baby Tears”). The main difference between these two plants is in the leaf shape. M. umbrosum (“Baby Tears”, from here on out) generally has round, almost completely circular leaves. H. micranthemoides (“Pearl Grass”, for the rest of this blog) has elongated leaves, more tear-dropped or elliptical in shape.


Both of these plants have almost identical care and can usually be used interchangeably but there are some small differences here too. Baby Tears is usually easier to care for and tends to grow a bit faster than Pearl Grass, but Pearl Grass is a better foreground plant that will stay shorter and have smaller leaves under high light. Baby Tears tends to be taller and bushier but either can be pruned and trimmed to maintain a height or growth pattern. Both plants can be grown in bunches or on a surface like driftwood, rock or a plastic mat to form a thicker carpet; use fishing line or string to hold it in place under the roots start to attach.


A thick mat of Glossostigma in an aquarium

A thick mat of Glossostigma in an aquarium

Glossostigma: A Third Look-alike


Another plant, Glossostigma elatinoides (usually shortened to “Glosso”) is also very close to Baby Tears and Pearl Grass in appearance and is sometimes confused with these two plants. It has pairs of small, round leaves that are somewhat in between Baby Tears and Pearl Grass in shape, a rounded teardrop but with the widest and roundest part of the leaf at the end rather than by the stem. They stay short and small under very high light but the leaves will become bigger and taller under lower light. This plant can also be planted in the same way by attaching it to a hard surface or planting each stalk individually until it begins to spread on its own.


Oct 2016 UPDATE: Recent publications have listed that the Pearl Grass found in the aquarium trade may correctly be Hemianthus glomeratus, not H. micranthemoides. Though these two plants are very similar, they have some slight differences in native range and in the flowers. H. micranthemoides may actually be essentially extinct and it is thought that the Pearl Grass known to aquarists in the recent hobby is likely H. glomeratus.


(Baby Tears image by Alex Popovkin, Bahia, Brazil from Brazil (Micranthemum umbrosum (J.F. Gmel.) S.F. Blake) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Source: - The Fish Blog/Eileen Daub

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Please Click Here To Take Action Now

The House Ocean, Marine Resources, & Hawaiian Affairs Committee of the Hawaii Legislature plans to debate and vote on three bills that directly target the aquarium trade. Animal rights activists have targeted the marine aquarium trade in Hawaii and think that they have a friendly enough legislature to push through their agenda.  Many of these proposals start from an assumption that the fishing associated with the pet industry is hurting the local population of native species that is completely dis-proven by science. 

Since the animal rights community has a long history of never letting facts or reason get in the way of an emotional argument, we need to make our voices heard. And we have little time as all comments need to be sent by 5 p.m. HST (10 p.m. EST) on Tuesday, Feb. 10th. 


The proposed bills in question are:

  1. HB 606 - Establishes a 10-year moratorium on the taking of aquarium fish. This is the practical equivalent of outlawing the entire aquarium fishing industry.
  2. HB 873 - Prohibits the sale of aquatic life for aquarium purposes use "taken from any of the waters within the jurisdiction of the State". This bill is nearly identical to SB322 in the Senate.
  3. HB 883 - Mandates collection, shipping, and holding practices that would make it impossible to care for fish in a humane manner. 
    1. "Cruel treatment" means:

i.Surfacing at a rate resulting in physical damage to the body tissue;

ii. Piercing or deflating the swim bladder;

iii. Cutting the fin or spine;

iv. Withholding food for more than twenty-four hours; or

v.Holding fish or aquatic life in less than one gallon of water, per each specimen, within any container.

Where things stand:

The House Ocean, Marine Resources, & Hawaiian Affairs Committee will debate and vote on these bills next Wednesday, the 11th of February.  Any of these bills could devastate the aquarium trade in Hawaii.  Two of them would immediately shut the entire industry down while the third would massively increase costs and fish mortality.  We at PIJAC, in close cooperation with our local members, are helping to unify the voices against these proposals.  It is essential that Hawaii's legislators understand the huge impact that these proposals could have on the local economy (a concern that means nothing to the animal rights zealots). 

What should you do:

Use our Legislative Action Center and send a message to the members of the House Ocean, Marine Resources, & Hawaiian Affairs Committee.  We need to speak with a unified voice and overwhelming numbers to counter the emotionally charged propaganda pushed by the animal rights activists. Take action before the deadline on February 10th--your voice and your opinions matter!


Contact your friends, family, coworkers, employees and anyone you do business with, and get them to weigh in on these bills before the 5 p.m. HST (10 p.m. EST) deadline on Tuesday, Feb. 10th.

Also, please watch for further communications from PIJAC, as we will be reaching out and asking for a rapid and overwhelming response should it appear that any of these proposals are gaining traction. 

To keep informed on any upcoming committee hearings or amendments for this legislation, save this communication and follow this Alert on our website!

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check for the latest news and info on what you can do to impact

legislation important to pets and your business.

Copyright 2015 © Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council. All rights reserved.

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New Fish Arrived!

New Fish Arrived!

  • Copperband Butterfly
  • Royal Gramma
  • Green Chromis
  • African Squamapinnins
  • Desjardini Sailfin
  • Pearly Jawfish
  • Tank Raised Platinum Clowns
  • Red Formia Starfish
  • Sand Sifting Starfish
  • Blue and Red leg hermit crabs
  • Blood Shrimp
  • Peppermint Shrimp
  •  and Pistol Shrimp
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TODAY ONLY! Used Tanks .50 Cents a gallon!

We have a number of used tanks that would make for great QT tanks, Frag tanks or sumps and will be blowing them out today for .50 cents a gallon. 

First come first serve. 

20 gallon tall's

30 gallon's

55 gallon's

We also have a limited number of stands, and even a  nice oak stand and canopy. 

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