A successful marine aquarium is a wonderful sight. It doesn’t matter whether it is a fish only, coral only, or fish and coral system, there are certain items that need to be up to the job.
The first essential requirement is seawater quality, closely followed – at least in a coral only or coral and fish aquarium – by lighting. It is the need for seawater quality that makes filtration so important.
There are basically two types of aquarium filtration, excluding protein skimming which is often counted as such. The first is mechanical/chemical filtration and the second biological.
Mechanical filtration is where media removes sediment from the seawater by trapping it in suitable media. This is often done by using a canister filter which needs to be cleaned regularly and the media changed if it is showing signs of wear or failure. Mechanical filtration is not an absolute requirement and many aquarists do not use it. It is usually only necessary when there is a fair amount of sediment floating around in the seawater. Before employing a mechanical filter, it is best for the aquarist to ascertain why there is sediment and try to correct the problem.
Chemical filtration is also often done by using a canister filter and can be in conjunction with a mechanical stage – if so the mechanical stage normally comes first. Chemical filtration covers activated carbon, phosphate removing media etc. Again it is not mandatory to use this type of filtration, though some aquarists use activated carbon to supplement the protein skimmer and others run an anti-phosphate media continuously (phosphate is a nuisance algae nutrient and is mainly introduced with food).
By far the most important filtration is biological, and this applies to any type of system. The filtration carries out the ‘Nitrogen Cycle’, which is something all aquarists should clearly understand. Livestock introduce a toxin into the seawater, namely ammonia. This toxin is deadly to life forms in low concentrations but fortunately Nature has the solution. The biological media provides a home for bacteria in their millions, and the first group of bacteria convert the toxic ammonia into nitrite. Unfortunately nitrite is also a toxin and very nearly as bad as ammonia. However, a second group of bacteria convert the nitrite into nitrate, which, though problematical in a high enough concentration, is not generally harmful. If the Nitrogen Cycle is able to run the full course the nitrate is converted to gas which escapes the seawater.
There are one or two points that need to be remembered about the bacteria that provide this essential service. The first is that the bacteria that convert ammonia and nitrite are oxygen hungry, and to ensure their proper function it is necessary to provide seawater rich in oxygen by having adequate seawater circulation and air/water interfaces.
The bacteria that are able to convert nitrate to gas are not the same. They would use oxygen if it was available, but if it is not they take the required oxygen from the nitrate, thus breaking it down. Therefore the bacteria need to be in a very low or no oxygen environment to ensure that the required function is performed.
If for example a canister filter is being used for biological filtration the media is constantly exposed to oxygen. Therefore the breakdown of ammonia and nitrite will occur but nitrate conversion will not. Nitrate will remain in the seawater and will increase unless other adequate measures are taken.
If the biological filtration is by good quality live rock, then the full Nitrogen Cycle, that is ammonia-nitrite-nitrate-gas, should occur. This is because the oxygen loving bacteria accumulate near to the surfaces of the rock, and the bacterial nitrate converters are deep inside where oxygen is depleted.
Having considered all of this, it is clear that there needs to be adequate filtration material to accomplish the biological task. For example, a fish only system can employ live rock. Fish are producers of ammonia, much more so than corals, and an adequate amount of good quality live rock is needed to process the toxins. The live rock amount would need to be increased if the fish numbers were high as obviously there would be more toxins produced. As a general guideline 1½lbs of good live rock is considered necessary for each gallon in the complete system. So if there is a sump, count that in. There is a problem with the ‘weight system’ as live rock can be of differing weights, therefore when purchasing seek advice.
Similarly, when using a canister filter (or similar) for bio-filtration it is important to ensure two things – first that the canister can contain sufficient bio-media for the intended load and second that the flow rate through the filter is adequate. Manufacturers will advise the recommended aquarium size for canister filters, and media manufacturers will advise the suggested bio-loads.
Mechanical/chemical filtration is not so essential, so reading the media manufacturer’s recommendations is sufficient, if these types of filtration are required at all.
Stocking a marine aquarium without an adequate amount of bio-filtration will soon become obvious to the aquarist – sickly livestock and quite likely losses. Inadequate bio-filtration is likely to hit fish systems the most as they produce most toxin with their life functions. However, all systems require adequate bio-filtration, Nature’s free and essential service.