The Saga of Our Aquarium Fish and How They Died

When I decided to resuscitate my childhood aquarium hobby for the benefit of my young children, I failed to realize how tangibly I was bringing death into our living room. This reboot started out much better than before, though more expensive, because as an adult I have better funding and no mommy to tell me, “No.”

I spent months searching for a stable aquarium stand of an appropriate height; I wanted my toddlers to be able to inspect the fish easily and safely. I struggled over the decision between a glass or acrylic tank because acrylic tanks were safer but had largely gone out of style and availability. Eventually, I settled for glass, reminding myself that my eight siblings broke bones, split lips, and nearly hacked off fingers, but never once broke an aquarium.

From there, the decisions were smaller and more arbitrary: Would I use gravel or substrate? Did I want artificial or live plants? Which heater was least likely to malfunction and boil the fish? I made up my mind and placed my Amazon order because going into an actual pet shop to buy your aquarium in 2017 is passé and because I’m an introvert married to an introvert with tiny introverted babies—we don’t leave the house much.

The packages arrived one after another in a deluge that seemed to drive the mailman a little closer to postal every day, though if there was a shred of karma, I had to break all that cardboard down for recycling after unpacking everything. Still, out of the chaos came an orderly twenty gallon aquarium settled against a wall with black substrate, lush live plants, and driftwood.

All I had to do then was wait for the water levels to stabilize through a process that is called the nitrogen cycle, which I think of as some kind of water witchcraft. If you believe science, decomposing matter turns to ammonia, which bacteria eat and turn to nitrite, which other bacteria eat and turn into nitrate, which plants then use. Basically, it takes about a month for the poop-eating bacteria to build up, and in the meantime the spiking chemical levels can kill fish. Naturally, I didn’t wait a month.

Now I had decided not to name the fish. As someone who has been both an aquarium hobbyist, including a stint in a pet shop, and an avid hunter and fisherman for much of my life, I have seen more animals die in pet shops and aquariums than in the field. I am rational to a fault, as my wife likes to state, so I wasn’t going to get attached to any of our fish, or so I thought.

I started out with three otocinclus catfish: tiny, hyperactive algae eaters who darted around the tank searching for food before growing lethargic and slowly and quite naturally disappeared because there wasn’t very much algae in the new tank. While a popular choice for hobbyists because it doesn’t attack other fish or grow to absurd lengths like other algae eaters, the otocinclus catfish is rather delicate and notably deficient when it comes to the spiritual discipline of fasting.

I also added a group of five amano shrimp, which I liked more than their better known and cheaper relatives the ghost shrimp because they were larger, about an inch long with an adult size of two inches. I figured they would be less likely to be eaten by the fish—a point that became ironic later. The shrimp didn’t appear to mind my partially cycled tank. They disappeared for a few days at a time because they were molting, which meant they were growing and liked their new home.

Several days later, I added a group of guppies. There was an orange guppy, an orange and blue guppy, a yellow guppy, and a dark blue guppy because I wanted diversity. The school began a long standing battle for the alpha position that looked like an endless game of tag.

At this point, I thought I was done adding fish until I was sure the aquarium had built up a sufficient bacteria level. However, when I discovered a rare pair of blue ram cichlids, I caved and brought them home. They were a beautiful and lively addition, typically swimming together except when the male got a little frisky some nights, though the female typically just blew off his advances.

The tank looked perfect. The cichlids provided a level of sophistication, dancing through the water in concert. The shrimp scurried around the tank like a custodial crew and grew at a prodigious rate. Meanwhile the guppies earned a collective name, the frat boys, because they liked to party all night and were always chasing tale.

Then tragedy stuck. Unlike guppies and amano shrimp, blue ram cichlids don’t handle fluctuations caused by the nitrogen cycle. Even though I was making partial water changes every few days to ease the process, one night the nitrate levels jumped. I made an emergency partial water change when I noticed that the cichlids were acting lethargic and their gills movement was labored. In the morning, they were dead—the only casualties of “new tank syndrome.” From then on, I referred to the unfortunate pair as Romeo and Juliet.

Shortly afterward the water stabilized, and I was ready to buy fish again. I added a male and two female swordtails and a male blue ram cichlid, which I named Romeo 2.0. Days later, I added three more guppies. This brought me close to the maximum capacity for my tank, and I stopped buying fish.

The shrimp molting had gotten out of hand. They quickly reached their adult size and began to show aggression, doggy paddling to the surface of the tank to snatch flakes when I fed the fish. Apparently, the other guppies were racist because the dark blue guppy took to hiding from the group, and its health began to deteriorate. I was worried what kind of behavior my children were going to learn from these discriminatory guppies. Should I purge the tank and start over?

Then the shrimp, which I feel the need to emphasize are transparent and not white, attacked the dark blue guppy. I was horrified. I quickly netted the guppy, but it was clear that while still alive, he would soon be a goner. Rather than returning him to the tank where he would be picked clean and give the shrimp a taste for flesh, I sent him down the porcelain slip and slide.

As so often happens, tragedy was followed by new life. One of the female swordtails was pregnant, and I sequestered her away in a floating plastic maternity ward just in time. The next morning, the female was skinny and had jumped out of the container and back into the tank with the other fish. In the plastic container there were over a dozen tiny fry.

About this same time, I caught the shrimp attacking the lone surviving otocinclus catfish. I disposed of the body, and pondered the situation. The shrimp had clearly become predatory. I wasn’t sure what course to take, so I made sure that I was feeding the shrimp abundantly and decided to give them one more chance. A week later, however, I came home from work and discovered that the shrimp had struck again and eviscerated the young mother swordtail.

This was the final offense. I had bought an aquarium so my children could see the beauty of nature, not watch shrimp trap and kill their tank mates. I spent the next hour capturing every single shrimp and plopping it into the toilet. Yes, I believe in the death sentence and using the water chair when it is for the safety of society.

I hoped that these actions would break the deathly curse that had settled upon my aquarium, but I was wrong. As it turned out, disease and not racism had led to the dark blue guppy’s death. Just as the dark blue guppy had gradually become antisocial, lethargic, and anorexic, other guppies began to manifest the same symptoms, one after another until only four guppies remained—two diseased and two healthy. In an act of desperation, I flushed the sick guppies, and the plague stopped. I had ended two lives but saved two others.

At the same time, the baby swordtails were growing at a stunted rate. I suspected that their confinement in the plastic container was inhibiting their growth, and when I changed their water, sometimes a fry would get caught in part of the container and die. The number of living fry was quickly dwindling, so finally I decided to let them loose in the tank and hope they could survive among all the plants. Apparently this was a stupid plan because Romeo 2.0 decided to hunt down every single fry. At least their mother wasn’t around to witness their fate.

By this point, my aquarium population had dwindled from three otocinclus catfish, seven guppies, five shrimp, three swordtails, and two blue ram cichlids to two guppies, two swordtails, and one blue ram cichlid. I prayed fervently for the safety of my fish, but as the good book says, the grave never says, “Enough.”

One morning as I was preparing for work, my wife hollered something linguistically garbled but clearly urgent from inside the house. I sprinted inside to discover the male swordtail laying stunned on the living room floor. He had apparently jumped out of the silver dollar sized feeding hole in the tank lid right in front of my nine month son, Levi.

My wife, Abigail, had entered the room and seen something orange hanging out of Levi’s mouth, the fish’s tail. Abby freaked, and Levi spit the fish out. When I saw the swordtail on the ground, I scooped it up and deposited it back in the aquarium where it drifted, stunned with its scales battered and the tip of its tail missing, which was probably in Levi’s stomach.

After all the death in our tank, I expected this unfortunate fish, which we named Jonah, to die, but surprisingly he recovered. Jonah’s scales healed, his tail began to regrow, and he continued to eat. I was relieved. Despite my son’s craving for fish, doubtless learned from the despicable example set by the shrimp, Jonah recovered.

Three weeks later, however, I noticed something on the floor. It was Jonah in dried, jerky form. This was a blow, relief followed by crushing disappointment. It was then that I realized my mistake. I had assumed that the swordtail mishap was a matter of chance, an energetic jump with a poorly judged trajectory. I had focused on Jonah’s physical recovery but overlooked his mental health. I failed to recognize the act as a suicide attempt and never thought to get Jonah the counseling he needed.

If there was a silver lining to this story, it is that I recognized how I had misjudged my son. Levi hadn’t attempted to eat the swordtail. Levi had intervened in the only way he knew how. He sacrificially gave his very mouth to keep the swordtail moist, even though it brought mine and his mother’s condemnation. Levi was a hero.

After these events, we have gone several days without aquatic event. With only four fish left, I sense that this season of survivor may finally be coming to a close. I could buy more fish, but for now my heart and my budget cannot handle any more.

Like many sojourners in this world, I find myself trying to make sense of the tragedy that takes place in this world and my living room. In the last few months, I’ve been forced to question my stances on both capital punishment and euthanasia. I’m left wondering if I have been a force for good or destruction in this world and what kind of example I am setting for my children.

I could try to present some deep spiritual truth or some proverbial wisdom, but instead I will point out the obvious. Fish reproduce at an incredible rate. They have dozen, hundreds, or even thousands of fry. This occurs for one simple reason: most fish never live to adulthood or die quietly in their sleep. When the aquarium hobbyist sets for himself the noble goal of ushering all of his fish into golden senior years, he is playing against the odds.

Also, he may become a well-intentioned murderer.

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