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After spending many years working in the aquarium industry and seeing countless numbers of dead algae eaters returned by frustrated customers, I can assure you that this is usually the result of several easily corrected different factors. Provide for just a few basic needs, and you can be guaranteed to have these fish live a long and healthy life span and reach their full adult size.
The two main problems seen in algae eaters are usually starvation and stress. Customers who thought they were doing everything correctly and had years of experience would often walk through my fish department carrying a bag with a dead algae eater, wanting a replacement and insisting that the fish that was sold to them was sick or diseased.
The truth is that the fish most likely starved or wasn’t able to adapt to stressful conditions. The algae eater can be introduced only after the tank has been fully cycled and has begun to grow a decent amount of healthy algae. Too often, they are introduced in the early stages of the aquarium setup and the water conditions are not stable.
Frustrated but still insisting on bringing home yet another replacement, I could usually lead them to better success by sending them home with algae pellets, a piece of driftwood, and the proper equipment with which to do regular water changes. Also, it is advised to supplement the diet with a twice weekly serving of blanched zucchini or frozen peas.
1. Only introduce them into optimal conditions
As stated before, an algae eater can be introduced only after the tank has been fully cycled and has begun to grow an abundant amount of healthy algae. They are often introduced to the aquarium in the early stages of the setup process, and the water conditions are never very stable during these times. They are also shy, nocturnal fish and need a dark and secure location in which to hide.
Other times, they are put into bowls or setups that are unheated or lack proper filtration and aeration. Algae eaters are tropical fish and need a steady temperature. They come from streams and rivers that have a stable water chemistry and cannot handle living in subpar conditions such as unfiltered goldfish tanks or turtle vivariums.
2. Feed your fish!
Starvation is a common problem with algae eaters. These vegetarian fish have evolved to graze upon the rocks and plants in the rivers in which they inhabit. In an aquarium, they are limited when it comes to what they can scrape off the glass and ornaments. To reach optimal health, they will need a varied diet—including protein and even driftwood—to help with digestion.
People also tend to assume that they need an algae eater at the very first sign of any green coloration on the aquarium glass. Another common assumption is that these fish will subsist solely on the tank debris and accumulated fecal waste, and that they are essentially garbage eaters. The truth is they need to have their diets supplemented with vegetables or algae wafers even if they have a large surface area on which to graze.
3. Toxic water conditions
New aquarium owners often introduce an algae eater into the tank before the tank has been fully cycled. I always recommend people wait at least six weeks after setup to ensure that the nitrogen cycle has been fully completed. By this time, there is often a naturally occurring algal bloom ensuring a steady supply of vegetable matter for the fish.
People often have the misconception that simply putting the fish in the aquarium at the first sign of needing maintenance will fix those problems. Algae eaters are even believed by some to be a good fish for cycling a new aquarium, but they are specialized fish and come from many diverse habitats needing various conditions.
These fish usually hang out near the lower depths of the tank, and this is where the fish waste and uneaten food tend to accumulate—this results in them being exposed to higher concentrations of organic waste that otherwise doesn’t seem to bother the other inhabitants of a tank swimming around at higher depths. This is why it is important to vacuum the gravel on a regular basis and regularly replace portions of the tank’s water with fresh water. Proper filtration and circulation will help alleviate this problem and keep the biological filter operating at peak performance.
Other common fatalities
Another common fate of algae eaters encountered by new fish owners is finding them dried up on the floor behind the back of the aquarium. These fish are very active at night, and if there is any opening at the top, they will eventually take a fatal leap in their search for better feeding grounds. A secure, tight-fitting hood is therefore a must.
Most algae eaters are catfish, and these types of fish tend to be sensitive to many fish medications, with common copper-based medications being completely fatal to them. Any sick fish treated for their condition will usually either need special medication that is safe for them or will have to be kept in a quarantine tank if the main tank has to be treated for whatever disease they may have.
Different species for different tanks
The “classic” algae eater is the Plecostomus. It is an armored catfish native to the rivers of South America. There are many different species that come in a variety of different colors, shapes, and sizes. However, this cheapest-selling and most common species can quickly outgrow its aquarium, although they certainly do an efficient job at maintaining the view and are excellent scavengers that will consume nearly anything left over from the other fish.
The Plecostomus is relatively hardy, but they are generally nocturnal in nature and may prefer to hide during the daytime. Some of them need a secure hiding spot and only feed at night, yet others will swim about in the open and appear to interact with the owner and other tank inhabitants. The only thing they require is a steady temperature of 78 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit.
The next most common algae eater is the Chinese algae eater. It hails from Asian streams that are fast moving and well-oxygenated. It’s a medium-sized feeder but needs a bit more space than what one might expect. They can also get territorial and are known to nip fins.
When it comes to Chinese algae eaters, its best to keep either one or three so the interaction is more of a peaceful, schooling-like behavior. These fish also need a protein source and will readily consume any leftover meals from other fish.
There are many other types of algae eaters, and the perfect type can be found for pretty much any type of aquarium such as a breeding, community, or even a specialized setup like those needed for African Cichlids or Discus fish.
No aquarium is complete without the addition of an algae eater, and these fish do a great service to the aquarium by keeping it clean and scavenging uneaten food. They also have a personality with which most owners truly enjoy interacting. Keeping them alive is very easy once you understand their basic needs.