Stop the Uglies!

How to beat the uglies!!

Are you starting up a new tank or are you about to embark on your first journey into the exciting world of saltwater aquariums? There are multiple great threads on the forum that will answer every cycling question you can possibly ask. There is vast information on utilizing a fishless or fish in cycle, what is the best bacteria, how to create/provide the ammonia. But time and time again I see threads about the uglies, and the general consensus I see repeated over and again is “The uglies are a fact of life, just wait them out”. Another common theme both on Reef2Reef and many social media platforms, are the number of hobbyists new to reefing who are ready to throw in the towel, because they spent a lot of $$ for a glass bowl filled with yuck!!

So is “being a fact of life or natural part of the process” fact, fiction, or maybe a little of both. And is there anything that can be done to make this issue easier, less impactful, or eliminate it completely.

A few years ago, after a very long separation from the hobby, we were finally at a place where we had the time and resources to set up a new tank. We dove right in with a pair of tanks. A Red Sea xl 350 and an xl 525.  When I first got into the hobby in the early 90’s, what I call true live rock was readily available and like most everything quite a bit less expensive than it is today. Without having this option, I went a different route and was able to pick up some “wet rock” from a couple of LFS 2 1/2 hours away. I was also able to latch onto some old used Tonga rock. Using the wet rock, a name brand bagged live sand, bottled bacteria, scrubbed Tonga, RODI water and foggy memories from the past, we launched right in using the fish in cycle.

Maybe it was dumb luck, or maybe accidental luck, but I will be the first to admit that many of the choices I made were not geared around the uglies, as they were something that I didn’t remember from my first tanks. However I did have a must have fish, namely a Mandarin Goby, (truly a dragonet). Knowing that they required an established tank, I did some research and determined that I could possibly be successful getting one much earlier by adding copepods regularly. I added our first mandarin and also added clowns and an anemone within the first 30 days all of which are still with us today. I was very consistent with tank maintenance and water changes, but I somehow avoided a diatom bloom in either tank probably due to the copepods I began adding during the cycle. At the time I didn’t know that they had any effect as CUC, but just to feed the mandarin. My LFS said I shouldn’t get snails etc right away as they would starve, unless I was willing to feed them, they recommended that I wait until algae was present before buying them. However because I live so far from the nearest saltwater LFS I chose to get some Mexican turbos and a few hermits to start with, and got some sinking algae wafers to make sure I didn’t starve them. I can’t say that my experience was perfect or that I kept a pristine aquarium, but based on what happened to the 525 when I split it into an S1000 I did much better with the original setups than I did with the 525 after the reset. I largely attribute this to my adding the copepods into the aquariums regularly to maintain a food source for the mandarins. And quite possibly our struggles with the 525 after the reset came from disrupting the sand bed, adding uncured rock, and I focused my attention on the new S1000 over the 525 initially.

Today I know so much more than I did when we reentered the hobby and have a lot more personal experience and knowledge. A lot of the knowledge I have accumulated came from the Reef2Reef forum. What I can say, is in my experience it is way better to get ahead of the game than try to play catch up.

So here is the proactive approach I would take to starting a new tank, and why. First start with as much biodiversity as you can get. If possible obtain some established live rock from a fellow hobbyist or retailer if possible, or get ocean cultured live rock. Unless you are planning a bare bottom, use a quality live sand, or even ocean cultured if that is still available vs. a dry lifeless sand. I won’t endorse brands, those I mention are because I used them, not that I think they are the best. Use RODI water and stay on top of maintenance as you go along. Once you settle on a cycle method, you can start planning your attack. This is where you can start to take actions that will actually lessen or eliminate the ugly phase.

Don’t run lights to start, the light just provides for algae to get a foot hold before you even introduce any livestock into the tank. Fish don’t need a light source, although long term they will be happier and do better with a light cycle mimicking nature. Bringing up the point that what we all strive to do is bring a piece of nature into our lives, so it is safe to assume that the more closely we mirror nature the more successful our tanks should be.

If doing a fishless cycle get your bottled bacteria and dose the tank according to label instructions, and add surfactant free ammonia daily to maintain the 2.0-2.5 level, until you see it drop to 0 in that 24 hour period 2 or three days in a row, at this point you can do a major water change and add copepods, amphipods and start dosing live phytoplankton.

If doing a fish in cycle do everything the same except don’t add ammonia. Dose a live bacteria product of your choice as directed and dose daily for at least two weeks. I always use an ammonia alert badge along with physical ammonia testing as I can see at a glance if the disc is changing color letting me know I need to test and maybe take action. Have plenty of mixed water for immediate water changes if you have an ammonia spike. With this method you can add pods a lot sooner. Even on day 1 if you wish. You can also dose phytoplankton starting on day one. I would probably hold off until week 2 for both of you are less experienced or this is your first tank though, just to afford yourself a little cushion or insurance policy. You don’t want to have a huge ammonia spike without know how to and being prepared to take the necessary actions.

So once we reach a relatively safe environment (copepods can handle changing water conditions far better than fish) add copepods and amphipods, this is going to accomplish two things. Allowing the copepods and amphipods to inhabit the tank before introducing predators allows them to establish dense populations without being eaten. Adding these pods before the ugly phase begins allows them to get and stay ahead of algae and detritus build up vs. coming in late and playing catch-up. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. So by eliminating the build up of detritus and attacking algae as it forms a much smoother path through or around the uglies can be achieved.

This Dosing live phytoplankton consistently is another step in this battle. Why? Almost everyone will tell you that new tanks will experience a diatom bloom associated with silicates present in either the water supply (RODI should eliminate this), the sand, or introduced in another manner. The copepods are going to do a great job on the diatoms as well as they will eat thousand of diatom cells daily. But dosing a live diatom phytoplankton rich in Highly Unsaturated Fatty Acid (HUFA) such as Thalassiosira weissflogii, Chaetoceros gracilis, or the like, not only strengthen and increase your pods population and nutrition (which in turn allows them to consume more diatoms), the live cells actually consume the silicate along with nitrates and phosphates. All while creating a more natural environment for the livestock you have or are going to add. Phytoplankton is present in just about, if not, all water sources on the planet.  Therefore the presence of it in our aquariums brings this environment that much closer to replicating the natural environment our livestock comes from.

As the tank continues to mature, it will become time to introduce a more diverse Clean Up Crew (CUC).  This can include snails, hermit crabs, cleaner shrimp, sea hares, certain starfish and different fish species. But with the proper foresight and planning these creatures will also be added to become a deterrent (the best course) or as a warrior brought into battle after the enemy line has been established (again easier for these creatures to hold back the line than for them to overcome an entrenched enemy). I believe it is best to introduce these slowly to avoid starving them especially for a new aquarist who maybe doesn’t have the experience or knowledge to observe their health. Still adding them before the uglies get to a stage where their addition is to try to reclaim what we have lost vs. avoiding an overrun tank is the best plan.

Here is what known person from a huge reef aquarium online store has to say about copepods fight against the uglies, and while he doesn’t say that they are perfect at resolving the issue entirely he repeatedly states that having them prior to the outbreak has a better outcome than adding them after the war has started. Although in the video he clearly shows how nuking the tank with copepods after an outbreak does in fact accelerate the recovery process, life can be easier if we are proactive vs. reactive.

In their video they are experimenting with a number of identical tanks with different rocks and substrate to determine the cleanest path forward, and after 20-25 weeks they add 16 jars of a 16 Oz blend of 4 species of copepods from a known vendor retailed at $55 each. This is 2 gallons of pods in each small tank. We don’t need to add that many in the size of tank they are, but they did this to instantly establish colonies for their experiment vs’s a customer waiting for the pods to establish their own population. Based on the pods that this source used and sells it would cost $396 to by the 2 gallons they added to each tank today. Fortunately you won’t need that many unless you are stocking a 200 plus gallon system, and you won’t have to spend anywhere near that to get copepods from us.

we strive to offer you the best value available on quality products and densely populated copepods.


PLANKTON BUFFETS with copepods, amphipods and phytoplankton are perfect for seeding and establishing a new or moved system. You can find them on the shop now menu.

Happy reefing!!