The Skeptical Fishkeeper
Laura Muha is an award-winning journalist with 20 years
experience writing about science
and health. She is a co-author
of T.F.H. Publications’ Super
Simple Guide to Landscaping
your Garden Pond and the
upcoming Super Simple Guide
to Breeding Freshwater
Aquarium Fish, and her articles
appear regularly in national
magazines and newspapers. She
has been keeping fish seriously
for four years and finds herself
obsessed with the science (or the
lack thereof) behind the hobby.
She can be reached at skeptical_
The idea for this month’s column
came to me last summer at a
small-town fair, as I watched
my 7-year-old nephew make a
beeline for the “Win a Goldfish!” booth.
The object of the game was to land a ping-pong ball in any of a bunch of fishbowls
clustered on a table, and if you succeeded
you got to take the fish in that bowl home.
Animal-rights activists have been trying to
ban this fairground staple for years, but that’s
not an issue I want to get into here. Suffice to
say that their arguments were lost on a small
boy who’s been passionate about fish since he
was a toddler, and who already has two tanks
of his own. In his eyes, the game presented a
wonderful opportunity to add to his beloved
collection without having to spend his hard-earned allowance to do it.
The problem that didn’t occur to Ben, but
definitely occurred to me, was that neither of
the tanks he had at home was a quarantine
tank. So if he were to win a fish, it would be
swimming around with his established fish a
mere hour or two later. And that, I tried to tell
my brother (Ben’s dad), was a bad idea.
“Fish can carry lots of diseases,” I
explained, as Ben lobbed a ping-pong ball at
Clink! It bounced off the rim of one of
them and tumbled to the floor.
“Even if they look fine, the stress of being
moved from one environment to another can
bring out a latent problem, so before you add
a new one to an established tank you really
should quarantine it,” I said.
Clink!—another ball ricocheted off
“Otherwise, you could wind up infecting
all of your other fish.”
My brother nodded, probably less because
I’d impressed upon him the importance of
quarantining than because he saw it as yet
another reason to make sure the fish mania
didn’t get out of control in his house the way
it has in mine.
“Ben—” he started to say. But just then
my nephew took aim, a determined look
in his eye. He flicked his wrist and, as if in
slow motion, the ball arced through the air
and, plunk!, landed in a bowl containing a
“Yay!” Ben shouted.
He had himself a fish, and I had myself
Judging from discussions I’ve had with
other fishkeepers and debates I’ve seen on
Internet fish sites, many hobbyists view
quarantining new fish the way they do eating
right. They know it’s something they should
do, but, all too often, don’t.
For some, it’s because they’re too impatient
to wait out a quarantine period; they want
that new fish in their tank now! For others,
it’s an unwillingness to invest money and
time in a tank they’re not going to use
regularly. Some hobbyists seem to think the
concept of quarantine is overblown; a disease
outbreak, they believe, is something that
happens to other people’s tanks, never their
own. And of course there’s the unexpected
acquisition—the fish that, say, your nephew
wins at the fair, or the species we’ve been
searching for that suddenly appears in our
local fish shop. If we don’t buy it now, we
rationalize, who knows when we’ll find it
again—and, besides, it looks healthy. So why
not take our chances?