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NFC: The North American Native Tank

The North American Native Fish Community Tank
Robert Rice
roberterice at juno_com
A great many folks out there have a wonderful idea. If I could stock my
tank with local species I could save a few bucks and learn about the
local flora and fauna at the same time. Then I could spread the word all
over town about how these fish are pretty and cool! Alas most folks don't
know where to start, so they do not start at all! This article (I hope)
will motivate you the readers of TFH to think a bit about doing the N.A.
native thing. It is fun, easy, and a good way to help your community. You
see folks who collect are usually the first to discover pollution and
other local environmental problems (the "it stinks the most when it is in
your house" theory). Then you factor in the general absence of most local
species' life history, and the lack of public awareness of even our most
common non- game species and you can see how aquarists can help with the
dirty work. However, to help, you must consider your hobby a bit more
than a form of live TV. You must consider your hobby a form of nature
study. Many of us do, we just need your help to get the word out and the
job done. We should let the local authorities know aquarists count.
Please join a conservation organization; it will make a tremendous
To start off you must begin to observe the things in nature if you are to
successfully create a N.A. Native community tank (what fishes school
together, live together, eat together and die together). With just a bit
of observation you will see that in all parts of the country there are
species that make a great community tank. I live in North Florida and
have created several biotype tanks for local schools and nature centers.
It is just as easy to do for the home aquarium. First we must understand
the environment in which our future tank inhabitants live. If the water
is tannic and soft, or clear and hard we must adapt our plans and tank
setup accordingly. It is much easier for us to change our tank setup than
it is to change the basic nature of our fish.
A water sample and a temperature check will yield the basic information
that you need. If you are replicating a local pond it is relatively
simple. A substrate of 6 inches of medium gravel and a simple box power
filter and a hood light should be all you will need. Heaters and power
heads are unnecessary. Just set it up like a typical generic setup with
some cover and a few live plants and you are in business. Fishes that
would typically do well in such a setup would be killies of all types,
the smaller sunfishes you know such as orange spot sunnies, long ears
pumpkinseed, most of the catfish family including the mad toms and a few
of the tougher shiners like the golden shiner, red shiner (AKA the
Asiatic fire barb) and fathead minnow (AKA tuffies, goldies or some other
cute trade name). With this type of diversity available you should have a
tank that is busy on all levels. Now when it comes to dinnertime most
natives can be induced to eat prepared food. However I recommend a mixed
diet of frozen, prepared and fresh when available. Your pond tank will
need a nice mix.
The second most popular setup is the stream or riffle tank. This easy to
make setup is perfect for darters, sculpins and many of the shiners.
Darters and shiners are some of the most stunningly beautiful fish you
will ever come across. They are truly the hidden jewels of our North
American fauna. When I build a riffle tank I seldom use gravel. Instead a
use egg sized stones I collect from various sites and pile them in cave
like formations at one end of the tank. I then let the outflow of the box
filter pour down onto those rocks creating eddies and riffles that these
fish love so much. I also will set a stand -alone small pump on the
opposite end of the tank aimed at the middle of those rocks. I prefer
Aquarium Systems micro Jet but there are others out there. I mix in
several small clay pots and I am in business. When setting up a riffle
tank make sure that your location does not get above 75 degrees for
extended periods of time as it will stress and can kill your specimens. A
basement is just about perfect. For lunch you are going to have to feed
frozen bloodworms and live worms, or shrimp if you can get them. Be
forewarned, sculpins are serious chowhounds, so you might want to feed
them red worms in addition to the other feedings or they may eat their
neighbors. One of the simplest and least expensive setups is what I call
the ditch tank. I do not mean this in a demeaning way; I just find that
it is the perfect setup for those small fish and insects my daughter and
me find in local ditches. I simply take a small tank with no gravel and
add as much floating vegetation as I can get. I prefer Java Moss, Water
Sprite or Nitella flexis (AKA needle grass), a hood, and an air stone and
that is it. I do a 10-20% water change once a week or so removing the
debris off the bottom. This set up is perfect for species like the Pygmy
Sunfishes, Heterandria formosa and small killies like Leptolucania
ommatta. I keep several "ditch tanks" in my garage with temperatures in
the upper 80's and have no ill effects. The keys to this set up are to
only feed live or frozen foods about 1X week and do regular small water
changes. I have had so many colonies of ditch fish set up over the years
I can't recall them all. However every one has had a healthy,
self-sustaining population with little or no work. I highly recommend a
ditch tank for your home or school. Watching those Everglades pygmy
sunfish males in full color displaying for a female still gives me
thrill. Their velvety blackness with iridescent blue spots it as good as
it gets. I have even raised Black banded and Blue spot sunfish in my
"ditch tanks" so I highly recommend a "ditch tank".
The last and very popular setup is the super predator single fish single
species tank. Typically these setups are used for Bass, Bluegill, Gars,
Pickerel, Catfishes, Bowfin and the like. The sport fishermen will often
times love their quarry so much that they set up a home aquarium as a
further way to study and enjoy their adversary. For this setup the only
real concern is keeping the fish in the tank (imagine if a Gar struck at
an errantly placed child's finger), enough filtration to cover for their
messy eating habits, and durable decorating materials. An Aqua clear 300
or similar type of filter and a 40 Gallon tank with a deep gravel bed are
my minimum recommendations. These monsters will sit for hours still and
quite then suddenly leap into action when a prey species is detected.
This makes for a very exciting tank. Most of the time visits to the local
bait shop are necessary to keep these beasts happy and full. A great tank
A N.A. native species tank sound good, doesn't it? Now before you run out
there with a net or fishing pole, do a little homework. Check on the
various legalities and limitations with you local fisheries department.
You might also want to check into the excellent book, Peterson's Field
Guide to Freshwater Fishes by Larry Page and Brooks M Burr. You will also
want to check into the Native Fish Conservancy www.nativefish.org, an
aquarist friendly non-profit conservation organization 
I can be reached at robertrice at juno_com.  Until next time good luck and
good fishing.

Robert Rice
NFC president

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