Moving with fish or other aquatic pets can seem intimidating , but with proper planning and care both freshwater and saltwater pets can arrive safely and adapt to life quickly at your new home. Below is our step by step guide for executing a successful move with fish.
Step 1: Water Changes
7-10 days prior to the move begin daily 20% water changes. This will improve the water quality without stressing fish. Be sure to gravel vac each time to remove as much waste as possible.
Step 2: Withhold Food
24-48 hours before fish will be packed, stop all feedings. This will limit waste in the water while they are in transit. Well fed, healthy fish can easily go a week without food, this will not harm even small fish, but it will decrease the toxicity of their water when traveling.
Step 3: Pack Fish Last
Being moved is a stressful experience for fish, so your goal is to make this stressful time as short as possible. Therefore, do not begin breaking down the aquarium until the last possible moment.
Step 4: Choose Containers
Several containers can be used for moving fish. Hard plastic buckets or bins that are sturdy, chemical free, and food safe can be used if holes are drilled in the lids and they are secured to prevent tipping. Portable air pumps with air stones could also be added to keep the water oxygenated during transport. However, for long distance moves, we recommend fish bags packed in an insulated container such as a cooler. This method is used to ship fish around the world, so it is tried and true.
Step 5: Packing Livestock
Regardless of which containers you are using, fish should be separated. Large fish should generally travel by themselves. Smaller, schooling fish can travel in groups, but be sure not to overcrowd containers. Every animal will produce waste, so the more fish in a container the faster waste will accumulate, increasing toxicity. Snails, shrimp, frogs, etc. should all travel only with members of their own species. This includes animals such as anemones.
Containers should only be filled 1/3 of the way with tank water (try to use water from the top of the tank to avoid collecting waste that has settled on the substrate). The rest of the container should be left empty to allow for the exchange of oxygen. If using fish bags, make sure to leave enough air for the bag to hold its shape when it is closed tightly with rubber bands. Fish bags should then be packed securely in a cooler. Add packing materials to prevent bags from shifting during travel. Other containers, such as buckets should be secured to prevent any tipping.
Step 6: Medicate
This step is optional, but travel is unavoidably stressful for fish. Stress and high toxicity levels combined with possible bruising during transportation can cause sickness. Using a simple liquid healing agent which can be found at your local fish store, will reduce stress and limit disease.
Step 7: Pack Live Decor
Live freshwater plants should travel well when packed in sealed bags with tank water. For saltwater aquariums, live rock and corals should be carefully packed in plastic buckets with tank water. More sensitive corals can be packed separately in plastic bags (with tank water).
Step 8: Pack Filtration and Equipment
Biological media should be packed with tank water to preserve the bacteria colonies they hold. The rest of the filter or sump can be packed without any water. Pack the pumps, heaters and other electronics in dry packaging as you would any other fragile electronics.
Step 9: Preserve Tank Water
The time has come to drain your aquarium, but you do not want all of that water to go to waste. Transporting around 80% of your tank water will help fish transition quickly and avoid shock when they are unpacked at your new home. This is especially important for saltwater aquariums. We suggest draining the tank water into clean plastic buckets. Avoid draining water from the bottom of the tank around the substrate where waste tends to accumulate. Drain from the top until the water is level with or just over the substrate. Transport the buckets with secure lids.
Step 10: Pack Substrate and Decor
Bacteria don’t live floating around in the water, they live on surfaces. Your substrate and decor are all home to crucial bacteria colonies. Packing the substrate and other decor in the remaining tank water will help the bacteria survive. In fact, any remaining waste that might be in the substrate will provide a food source for the bacteria until you can unpack.
Step 11: Regulate Temperature
Heat and cold can kill your pets and plants. Keep them in a regulated environment such as a car with heating and air conditioning. Heating packs can be used in the winter, but in the summer your pets will need to be kept where there is air conditioning.
Step 12: Do Not Feed During Transit
Do not feed fish while they are being transported. This will only add waste to the water, since the fish will likely be too stressed to eat. Leave your pets alone until it is time to add them to the aquarium at the end of their journey.
Step 13: Unpack the Aquarium First
The aquarium should be one of your top priorities when you finally arrive at the new home. As we said earlier, you should limit the time fish spend in transit as much as possible, so get started on setting the tank back up immediately. Begin by adding the substrate. If you have live rock or corals, unpack and add them next (heavier rocks might need to be added before the substrate to prevent shifting). Begin to fill the tank with the water you have transported from the original tank. Be careful that that water is not too hot or too cold. Extreme temperatures will kill the bacteria you have tried so hard to preserve until now.
If the water temperature is safe for the fish, begin floating the fish bags or drip acclimating any fish in buckets. In the meantime, hook up the filtration and other electronics. You will also need to add some new water to the tank in order to fill it completely, but this isn’t urgent as long as there is enough water for the fish to be comfortable and the filtration to run properly.
Step 14: Unpack Livestock
Fish or other livestock that traveled in buckets or bins or those that only spent a few hours in a bag, can be added to the tank after acclimating them to the temperature. However, if fish or other livestock have been in a sealed bag for more than 24 hours, you should be sure not to open the bag while floating them in the tank. The ammonia in the bag water will react to the oxygen in the air and the toxicity will immediately jump. Unpack these fish by opening the bag and immediately pouring the contents through a fish net into an empty bucket. The net will catch the fish which should be quickly added to the tank.
Step 15: Decor
Live plants should be added to the tank as a soon as possible. Some types of plants may require root tabs or other fertilizer to help with transplantation. Other decor can be added later, but they should be kept in water in order to preserve bacteria.
For more information on setting up a fish tank, aquatic species, and general aquarist topics, for recommend the following resources: