The Aquarist

My Angler digesting a $40 shrimp

Let me begin by noting this writing a blog is both a blessing and a burden. I love to write and share my thoughts…but the treadmill of life makes doing so on a regular basis a virtual impossibility. Courtesy of having gone to sleep early last night, it is now 6:30 am, I am wide awake and full piss and vinegar. On reflection, I suggest you pour yourself a drink…it’s going to be a long one.

Ancient though I have grown to be, I still remember my first introduction to keeping fish as pets. It began with a pair of goldfish my father bought me that were kept in a bowl that was flat on two sides and rounded on the other two. The decor consisted of a few oversized cats-eye marbles and feeding was as simple as dropping a few broken bits of wafer into the bowl and watching the fish rise to munch on it. As generosity is an inborn trait of those fortunate enough to be born into the Bonfiglio clan, I immediately endowed my goldfish with mine and over-fed them to death in short order. Hold that thought, I will return to it shortly.

As fate would have it, not long after getting fish of my own, I learned my cousin Ronnie was way ahead of me…he had an actual fish tank, populated by the rage of the day, which were live-bearing, tropical fish such as guppies, mollies and sword-tails.

For the uninitiated, I posit a few bits of background information, as that is what I do. The Earth is largely (roughly 71% of the surface) made of water. Those of you who routinely buy your drinking water in a bottle might be startled to know that 97.5% of all that water is contained in the world’s oceans, which are salt laden, and only 2.5% is what we call “fresh” water…69% of which is locked up in glaciers and the polar icecaps. I personally find that pretty amazing. We are presently a bit north of 7 billion human denizens of the Earth, accompanied by who knows how many other mammals, reptiles and insects that all need water to live. Think about that for a moment. All land-based living creatures get their fill of water from roughly 40% of 2.5% (or .8%) of the Earth’s water, which is a good reason to not piss in and otherwise contaminate our rivers and streams. That doesn’t make me an environmentalist, just rational, but I digress.

The point, as it applies to the topic de jure, is that as regards fish, some learned to live in fresh water, and the bulk learned to live in the abundant supply of salt water. As it turns out, the rivers and streams of countries located near the equator are warmer than elsewhere and give rise to an amazing number of colorful, “tropical” fishes…thus the birth of the tropical fish aquarium. I mean this as no slight to goldfish, which are also freshwater fish. They are actually in the carp family and remarkably hearty as pets. I will get back to that notion too.

I don’t know who first thought of it, or when he or she did, but it appears the notion of keeping fish is at least 4,000 years old, starting with pond kept fish, and somewhere along the line developing into setting up aquariums.

Let’s think this out a bit. An aquarium is at its roots, a container, usually in the form of a rectangular tank that is dimensioned to hold between 5 and 500 gallons of water. Stick a fish in it and you can sit in your chair and watch the fish swim about gracefully, which has a peculiarly calming effect on the human nervous system. Why? I don’t know, but I suspect it has something to do with the fish being able to navigate in three of the four dimensions, relatively gravity free, that gives us humans a sense of freedom we rarely, if ever, get to experience.

But as we watch our fish swim about, we remember, if we don’t feed it, it will die. No problem, just give it some food. Here is something fish and humans share…feed either and they defecate. At the base of that notion is our sewer system. Fish in a tank have no such luck. Their excrement turns into ammonia as it breaks down, which will suffocate them in short order. In the rivers and seas, there is an abundance of microbes that break the excrement down, from ammonia, to nitrates and ultimately into nitrates, which plants and algae then absorb and maintain a livable environment. Thus, the challenge in keeping fish as pets is to set up the aquarium so as to ensure this cycle of excrement removal is maintained in a manner that provides a constant supply of clean water for the tank. Stay tuned, this is significantly more complicated than it sounds.

I digressed just after noting my cousin Ronnie had a real aquarium. I’m talking about the late 1950’s incase you were wondering…when babies were delivered by storks, television was in black and white, contained no commercials for feminine hygiene products or shows that displayed any significant amounts of human flesh, and sex education was a parental duty, centered on a discussion of the “birds and the bees,” for reasons I never quite fully ever understood…and, apparently neither did my father, as I never actually got the lecture. Mom told me to “read books,” without specificity as to which ones. Believe it or don’t, the rage of that long gone era, vis a vis sex education, was Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Capricorn” and “Tropic off Cancer” series and Harold Robbins’ “The Carpet Baggers.” I have to laugh at the notion. Today, you get more explicit sexuality in the half-time program for the Super Bowl, but I see I have digressed yet again.

The guppies in my cousin Ronnie’s tank were a wonder to behold. Not only were they beautifully colored, the males would chase the females around the tank and engage in intercourse, right out in the open. Pregnant females would then drop their litter right out into the tank, and the newborns would promptly get eaten by the other denizens…thus the development of the baby trap, a plastic container that sat inside the aquarium, with a vee shaped insert that had a slot in it. When the pregnant female dropped her load, the fry would fall through the slot and begin to swim about, and mom couldn’t get to them to eat them. Then you removed the insert and allowed the fry to grow to be big enough to not get eaten.

Other tropical fish were egg layers, but they weren’t as interesting to the likes of me. Bottom line was shortly after getting a view of cousin Ronnie’s tank, I begged, pleaded and did chores until I had one of my own… a 5 gallon tank with black enamel framing and an incandescent light bulb in a reflector. The ecological issues were addressed by a filter that hung over the back side of the tank, that had a combination of charcoal pellets and glass wool, and was driven by a small electric pump. Now I had my own harem of free spirited guppies and spent hours watching them swim about, fornicating and reproducing. Being a serious hobbyist, I read up on all the contemporary literature and learned the key to success was to feed my fish live food, in the form of brine shrimp and blood worms. It cost me a quarter, which was big money in those days, to buy a supply of same, and my reward was a fouled tank, thanks to over-zealousness in feeding.

It became apparent to me part of the problem was that in fish-keeping, bigger is better. A 10 gallon tank is much easier to maintain than a 5 gallon tank, and a 20 gallon one is even easier. A noble notion, perhaps, but Dad was not buying, not the idea or the fish tank. I had to resort to selling my services to my neighbors to earn the money to buy my first “big” tank…an odd-ball one at that, a 12 ½ gallon one with a stand and a full hood reflector, that set me back all of 20 bucks, which was a small fortune to someone whose allowance was 50 cents a week.

What does one do with such a large aquarium? That’s right, fill it with too many fish, over-feed them and turn the tank into a cesspool in short order. Great exercise that was. Drain the tank, wash the gravel out, re-fill it, change the filtration media and start over again. Giving up the hobby never occurred to me. I did learn to keep less fish, feed them less, use a lot of live plants and do water changes.

About this time, the notion of maintaining saltwater aquariums was becoming popular, but the conventional wisdom was that they were exceedingly hard to maintain. Quite a notion to me, as I was all spent just keeping up with a fresh water one. Time for a digression.

It was my good fortune to have gotten a summer job in my senior year of high school via my dad’s position as a court officer. I was a clerk in the mental hygiene unit of the New York City Legal Aid Department, which handled representation of drug addicts, mostly heroin addicts, who were criminals in those days. It was my first exposure to lawyering and it made an impression on me, even though I was headed into college to study electrical engineering, as that is what I thought I wanted to be. Two years of calculus and discovery that engineers never get to play with the actual parts convinced me I really wanted to be TV repairman, not an engineer, but I digress.

As my engineering school was just a few blocks from the law offices of my Uncle Anthony, I took to paying him visits between classes and soon was inducted as a paid, part-time law clerk. Next thing I knew, Uncle Anthony was teaching me to do tax returns, at which I excelled. Being an entrepreneur from an early age, and my reputation as a tax-preparer having spread throughout Uncle Anthony’s office building, I soon had enough clientele to open an office of my own around the corner. Not bad for a 19 year-old. Dad helped me build out the space, I hired Mom to be a part-time secretary, and was on my way to making my first million…or so I thought.

So I’m sitting behind my desk in my own office, one summer’s day, doing my homework (I’d transferred to Pace University and was completing 4 years of accounting and taxes in 2 years) when I get a visit what would be my first mother-in-law, who is so impressed with my business acumen, that she tells me, “If you have intentions of marrying my daughter, you better get a real job.” Would that I had the opportunity to have that conversation over again…but that is not how it works in life, and besides, all rumors to the contrary notwithstanding, I’d never trade my three children for a return match.

The bottom line is that shortly after my employment counseling session with my future mother-in-law, I find myself employed in the Tax Department of the prestigious Morgan Guaranty Trust Company at 15 Broad Street in Manhattan. Three weeks into employment, flush with the remainders of my first paycheck, while on a lunchtime stroll, I spot a pet shop and return to work with a 5 gallon tank, filter, pump and fish and set it up on the work table in front of my desk. It is an immediate hit with the entire department, except for the head boss, Harold Brush, who just rolls his eyes a bit and begins to develop the notion I am going to be trouble. I didn’t disappoint in that regard, but 6 moths later Harold got his revenge…for the fish tank. Our department was going to be relocated to swank offices at 9 West 57th Street in midtown. All our belongings are getting packed into boxes and getting stickers indicating where they are to be dropped by the movers. I say to Harold, “I don’t see a sticker for the fish tank.” “That’s right,” says Harold with a cryptic smile.

I’m a lot of things, but lazy isn’t one of them. Not only am I working full time at Morgan, doing post-grad studies at night, I also still have my offices in Brooklyn, doing accounting and taxes on the side, on free nights and weekends. That’s where the Broad Street 5 gallon tank ended up, along with two, quarter-sized Angelfish. Before I turned the office over to Uncle Anthony, who needed the space, my Angelfish had grown to be 4 inches each, which didn’t leave much room to swim in that tank.

Marriage, law school, kids and divorce put me on a bit of hiatus from fish-keeping, but when I finally landed on my feet in my own apartment, and met Mo, I jumped back in with both feet. This time I set up a 50 gallon aquarium, devoted to what they call “aggressive” tropicals, Oscars, Jack Dempseys and an Alligator Gar… who liked snacking on live goldfish, which I delivered by the dozens. The kids would watch him feeding on them entranced, as he’d sort of sidle up to the goldfish then turn his head swiftly and grab them cross-wise, before flipping them down his gullet. That might sound brutal, but I tell you it was a thing of beauty to watch.

Now if you’re sentinent, you’re thinking, “Doesn’t that make a mess in the tank?” You bet your ass it does! I have proof. One day Mo comes home with a pair of red Oscars, each of which was big enough to dine on. We put them in the tank and are munching on dinner in the living room, watching them adapt to their new home. So satisfied are they, one launches himself straight up in the air and out of the tank, onto the floor. Apparently all that goldfish residue makes a shit-load of ammonia. But that’s how you learn.

When we moved to a larger apartment, and I had a well paying case going, we stopped by an aquarium and decided to take the plunge into saltwater fish. We ended up buying a 120 gallon tank with a wooden cabinet/stand and discovered how truly beautiful and expensive a marine tank is. Contrary to all reports, water maintenance is no more difficult than with fresh water tanks. That is not a lie…it is just a statement that sounds so much simpler than it really is. The fish poop issue is just as real and dangerous, and just as much work, only you can spend so much more money addressing it, as I will show you.

Just as fresh water fish have different temperments, so do saltwater fish. With marine tanks, you have the opportunity to keep corals and other invertebrates, such as anemones, sea fans, urchins, shrimp, clams, mussels and lobsters; or, you can keep fish too or just one or the other. It might surprise you to learn, much of this marine life is pretty violent. Anemones can not only move about the tank, they will attack and kill corals and small fish. Big fish, such as eels, marine Bettas and triggerfish, will eat smaller, docile fish, no matter how expensive they are. Some like to jump out of the tank, even when the water quality is perfect. How do I know? One day we are admiring the tank and I say, I don’t see my Moray eel. We look high and low, no eel. Looking lower, to the dried remains on the rug, that we though was a toy one of the kids left out, was my Moray.

That tank started with us on 78th Street and moved with us to 92nd Street, landing initially in the living room and then migrating to the basement, where our offices were located. The pressures of a big case and an intervening heart attack lead to it being moth-balled for a few years, but it didn’t keep me out of fish-keeping.

Once again, my cousin Ronnie is to blame or be credited, depending on your perspective. On a visit to his upstate home one summer, we see he has a koi pond that is both large and beautiful. Not too much later, the first koi pond is being installed in our yard. We start modestly, with a plastic, pre-fab pond that sits atop the ground and holds maybe 200 gallons of water, if that. Nice, but not the way we do things around here.

The next summer, we build a bigger one, in the driveway, in front of the garage that is too small to park either of our cars in, even if it wasn’t loaded with power tools, a refrigerator, golf clubs, Christmas decorations and every piece of wood and sheetrock we have left over from every bit of construction we’ve done.

The next summer, we sink a second pond into the yard alongside the garage and rent a jack hammer to sink the driveway pond down to 6 feet in depth. Now it holds roughly 1200 gallons of water and the water never fouls. The expensive pumps and filters we bought might have some effect on that.

One night we’re sitting in the yard, admiring the ponds with their underwater lights on, and I notice some specks in the water. Looking closer, I am amazed to discover our koi have bred. Mo calls them our grand-koi, as that is as close as we’re going to get to grandchildren for a while, or so we suspect.

Although the pond we sunk in the yard seemed to be a good idea, the damned thing kept springing a leak. As tap water is not free, and I was raised to be frugal, we dug it out, bought an expensive, thicker liner, with padding, sunk it down further and tried again. This summer, the damned thing leaked again. Instead of opting for yet another repair, we dug it out, transferred the koi and catfish to the driveway pond and built a bocci court in its place.

The koi from both ponds get along swimmingly, so to speak, and create a ruckus on the surface whenever Mo or I walk by, as they expect to be fed. As I am into being prepared for disaster, I view the larger koi as a potential food source if things go really wrong.

So last November we married off our youngest child James, who now lives with his spouse in Falls, PA. Not ones to miss an opportunity, Mo and I return from the wedding and immediately begin de-constructing James’ bedroom and turning it into an office. We did all the work ourselves and it took three months to do it, but it came out beautiful and we now both work in the sunlight.

What better way to finish off the office decor than by carrying up the old saltwater tank and stand and going back into the fray? That’s right. Two weeks ago, Mo and I schlepped up the tank, stand, pumps, filters and began anew. This time, as we are sentinent to water conditions, we also buy a refugium, which hangs off the back of the tank and uses live rock, organic mud and macro algae to digest nitrates and have a small tank on the side to hold live foods.

I will tell you drug addiction is less expensive but not nearly as entertaining or tranquilizing as this tank is. Mo and I spend hours watching the inmates, talking to them and maintaining the tank. Which brings me to the episode that prompted this diatribe.

Last week we added an angler fish, who is all of 3 inches long, if that, and so ugly, he is beautiful. Through yesterday afternoon, we never noticed him eating…not a morsel. The I received a shipment of some new stock that included a blood red shrimp about 2 inches long, that cost me 40 bucks. On arrival we began the acclimation process, by placing him in a 5 gallon bucket and starting a water drip from the tank to slowly get him to adapt to the water conditions in his new home. This is a process Mo and I have perfected over the years. It take a few hours to do it right, but we do it every time we have new arrivals.

So the acclimation process is nearing completion and Mo and I are looking down into the bucket, admiring our new addition. Then I scoop it out gently with a large metal cup, and pour him into the aquarium, where he gently settles on the bottom of the tank, next to the angler. I turn my back to dismantle the water drip and when I turn back to the tank, I notice what looks like the feelers from the shrimp, sticking out of the angler’s mouth…and the bastard looks like he just gained 50% more body weight. After Mo and I make a thorough search of the tank, we conclude the son-of-a-bitch ate the shrimp. Now he’s a hundred-dollar angler. But that’s how it is with keeping aggressive fish. We have a marine Betta who hasn’t been caught in the act yet, but who has apparently accounted for 5 or so MIA’s that renders him to be about a three hundred dollar betta. The good news is he’s almost big enough to eat.


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