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How to Acclimate Saltwater Fish

Fish are thought to be the easiest pets to look after. Any aquarium owner can testify, that looking after fish is not as easy as it looks. Along with feeding and cleaning the tank, there are certain steps to be followed to add new fish to an existing aquarium. Scroll below to learn how to acclimate fish from a saltwater source to your aquarium.
PetPonder Staff
Acclimate - to adapt or respond in a behavioral or physiological manner to changes in the adjoining environment.

Adjusting to a new environment is never easy, especially for a fish. Fish are very delicate organisms and are affected by the temperature of the water, the amount of salt (salinity) present in the water and the acidic or pH levels of the water, amongst other factors. To understand what a fish might go through with a change in water conditions, imagine living all your life in sunny California and suddenly being dumped in Alaska. You cannot just dump a fish from one source of water to another, the fish needs to adjust to the water in your aquarium, irrespective of whether it is a freshwater or saltwater fish. Two techniques on how to acclimate saltwater fish to an aquarium are listed below.

Initial Steps
  • House your new saltwater fish in a separate tank or quarantine aquarium. Do not add new fish to your populated and established aquarium for at least 2 weeks.
  • In a quarantine tank, you can observe the new fish for signs of disease or parasites and protect your old fish from such external harm.
  • The acclimation procedure should be followed carefully and slowly. Be patient. Read all the steps involved before performing any action.
  • Never pour the water that came with the fish, either shipping water or water from the saltwater source, directly into your quarantine aquarium. Even fish from a pet store must be acclimatized.
  • The fish may not move or will lie flat on its side for a while. Do not panic or try to touch it. It is not dead, it just needs time to adjust to its new living habitat. Once it is acclimatized to the aquarium's water, the fish will slowly revive itself.
  • Turn off the lights in the aquarium. Dim the lights in the room where the aquarium is kept. Do not open the fish's shipping bag or container in a well-lit room, as the sudden light can cause trauma to the fish.
  • Do not place airstones in the shipping bag. This will increase the pH levels in the bag very quickly and you could end up killing the fish.
  • Be careful with stinging or venomous fish or any fish species that are likely to release a poisonous gas or sting. Such fish get traumatized if shifted or disturbed and they may sting or attack other fish in the bag. Try to use smaller, separate containers for their acclimation and be cautious when handling them.
  • After the fish have been transferred to the quarantine tank, keep the aquarium's lights off for 4 hours. A fish adjusts easier to new surroundings in low light conditions.
How to Acclimate Saltwater Fish Using a Measuring Cup
  1. Be very slow and steady with the following steps. Do not rush with the filling and pouring out of water. This method should take at least 1 hour to complete.
  2. Catch the shipping bag with the fish in it by the fastening clip. Gently float the bag in the aquarium for 15 minutes. Try not to move the bag, just catch it such that it will float.
  3. After 15 minutes, while still holding the bag in the tank, cut open its top just below the clip. Now fold the open edges of the bag backwards and then inwards to form a lip.
  4. The bag should be folded such that an air pocket is formed in the lip. It should float on the surface of the tank's water.
  5. Using a measuring cap, add ½ cup of water to the open bag. Catch the bag as you fill it, then release it to float.
  6. After 4 minutes, fill the bag once again with ½ cup of tank water. Keep refilling the bag after 4 minute intervals, until the bag is full.
  7. Then gently take the bag out of the tank and tip it over a sink. Pour out half of the bag's water. Lower the bag once again into the aquarium.
  8. Perform steps 5-7 once again, i.e., fill the bag with ½ cup of aquarium water, after 4 minute intervals, until the bag is full. Then empty out half the water from the bag.
  9. Now float the bag on the aquarium's surface and use a net to scoop out the fish from the bag, releasing them into the aquarium.
  10. Immediately remove the shipping bag from the tank and throw it. Do not tip the bag directly into the aquarium to release the fish. The shipping bag's water must never enter the aquarium.
How to Acclimate Saltwater Fish - Drip Method
  1. This is a specialized acclimation technique used for extremely sensitive fish. You will need a clean, large bucket, at least 3-5 gallons deep. You will also require clear airline tubing. It should be long enough to stretch between the tank and the bucket with ease.
  2. Place the bucket close to the aquarium, such that the tubing will reach it. The bucket should be kept at a height lower than that of the aquarium.
  3. Depending on the amount of water in the shipping bags and the number of fish, the bucket should be of sufficient depth for the fish to swim in comfortably. Gently pour the contents of the bag, both water and fish into the bucket. Do not add any additional water from a tap or the aquarium.
  4. Prop the bucket, tilted at a 45 degree angle, so that the fish are completely submerged. You may need to wedge or fix it in a tilted position. The water in the bucket should be such that, even as you add the fish and water from the bag, the water level is high enough for the fish to swim in.
  5. You must set up a siphon drip between the bucket and the tank, using the tubing. The water should be siphoned from your aquarium and allowed to drip into the bucket. You will need to monitor the entire process of water flow and regulate the water as needed.
  6. The water from the aquarium must drip slowly but steadily. It should drip at a consistent rate, for example, 2-4 drips per second. You can tie knots in the tubing or use a control valve (non-metal) to adjust the flow of water.
  7. The volume of water in the bucket will steadily increase. When it is nearly double, you should scoop out the water with a cup and throw it. Reduce the volume by half.
  8. Begin the drip again and let the volume double in the bucket once more. You should let the water drip and then drain it by half for 1 hour. Using a net, scoop out your fish from the bucket and release them into the aquarium.
If you need to acclimatize different aquatic species, such as invertebrates (shrimp), keep in mind that their salinity levels and pH needs vary from that of freshwater fish. The drip method is more suited for such aquatic organisms and you will need separate buckets for each species. With corals, sponges and anemones, the measuring cup method should be followed. Acclimation is a tricky but necessary process for any aquarium owner, seeking to add new fish to a tank. Remember to be patient and precise.
Black plastic bucket
New fish in plastic bag being acclimatized