Stocking The Tank
To stand a better chance of success in reef/fish keeping it is a good idea, before you buy the first pump, rock, or test kit, to get a good idea of what animals you want to keep. I'm not talking about "I'd like to keep fish AND corals." I'm talking about which particular fishes and how many? Anemones? Clams? What types of corals: softies, stonies, maybe SPSs?
The reason that I believe that this is a good idea, is many fold. If all you want is to keep two Humahumanakunaku Triggerfish, then there is no need for $1000 worth of lights. If you are not going to keep fish at all, maybe a skimmer or a canister filter can be skipped. If you want 5 Tangs, 3 clowns, 2 anemones, several leather corals, 5 damsels, 2 starfish, a pencil urchin, and a lion fish, that 29 gallon tank your checking out is not gonna cut it, my friend.
In deciding what animals to keep, research them all carefully. Find out if that Lionfish that you want is going to eat your gobies, or if those Domino Damsels will start a turf war every time anyone wanders through the 'hood'. Don't add the Parrotfish that was so cool at the store just to see her munch out on $400 worth of acropora on Sunday afternoon. Before you start, know exactly what you are going to keep, and resist that urge to buy "just one more" cool thing from the fish store. For fish this is particularly important. For corals, not so much so, but still do your homework. Corals, regardless of the fact that they can't move, can sting and kill their neighbors. You need to choose appropriate specimens, and be able to provide the right spacing and environmental elements (light and current). To ignore these is to put you animals at risk.
So, how many animals can you keep? There is no hard fast rule, but as far as fish in the reef tank go, I would recommend no more than 1" of fish per five gallons of tank capacity (~7 small fish in a 55-gallon reef). Fish tend to put a high bio-load on the tank and add to diminished water quality. As for the stocking density of corals, it is not so strict. Just make sure that for any coral you place in the tank, you can supply the correct environment for that species.
Hopefully, it goes without saying that you should not add any animal to the tank before the tank is completely cycled (ammonia and nitrite are both 0), except perhaps a few hardy fish to start the cycle with. When you do start stocking, go slowly. Add one fish, or a few corals at a time, and then wait a week or two before adding more. During this time, make sure to closely observe your new charges and how they are faring.
One last note about stocking: quarantine everything you add to the tank. Set up a small 5- or 10-gallon tank with a sponge filter that has been soaking in your display tank (This way you get a "cycled" sponge.) Keep all new animals in there for 2-4 weeks to observe for and treat illness. This tank can also be used as a hospital tank when one of your little buddies needs a quite place and some medicine.
Plan your tank just like you would plan your garden. Pick the right animals in the right numbers before you break ground. Lastly, let me reiterate, quarantine everything you add to the tank.
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