Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Train Wreck

I worked in Louisiana doing disaster recovery work after K&R. The total chaos is at first overwhelming and disorienting … and then you figure out you have to not let that take up all your vision.  You actually have to develop the ability to focus on something that is not immediately in front of you, that has the potential to block out everything else. Things are a little bit like that here, but only a little.

I’m clawing my way out of that Upper Respiratory Infection hole, about at the point where it feels like trying to stand up on wet ice in a windstorm, but I’m getting there. My fitness seems to have taken up residence in that hole but I’ll wrestle it out and see if I can’t get it to fit me again, like an old Filson Tin Cruiser that was left out in back of the pickup over a long weekend.

What else? Well we are always intrigued by the weather aren’t we? Things got off to a promising start in the early winter; from January on it was relatively mild here and if that trend held we would have all been happy. But early spring had an identity crisis: “Am I going to be early spring girl, or late winter Ogre?” April was a challenge. Generally colder air temps and whether or not the precip is more or less than average, it seems like more.  I’m fond of telling noobs this factoid: “It rains more in New York City than it does here!”  I’m sure spring in the PNW is giving NYC a run. It’s giving us the runaround.

The Three Amigos
I was too sick to ride over the weekend but was not satisfied with just the typical ‘Kleenex layabout’. We took a drive south to Vancouver WA and picked up the three fish that I bought last winter. Buying Koi is like buying bikes, swimsuits, convertibles, or other seasonal items: You can get awesome deals off season or pay through the nose as soon as the first sunny spring day rolls around.

In Vancouver there is a guy who has Koi fever really bad. He has a day job but spends much of his time (don’t even ask me about the economics) buying and selling Koi. He actually goes to Japan(!) and buys fish from the family farms that raise them.  It sounds really interesting.  Then goes to the trouble of getting them from Japan to Vancouver, then nurses them back to health after their long brutal trip, and then hopes some goofy hick from the sticks will come along and be blown away by the colorful carp. I am that hick, and was duly blown away.

So last fall I visited and looked at his fish. I was actually looking for a particular breed, an Ochiba Shigure or a Chagoi. I saw on his web site that he had a couple and as with bikes, window shopping is always fun so I went and visited in November.

Long story longer he was wanting to sell fish but at that time of year there is no way I could buy fish and move them from his indoor, heated tanks to my outdoor frigid pond and have any hope of them surviving more than a couple hours. It is just not physiologically possible for these fish to survive rapid temp changes. They can survive radical temps swings if given time to acclimatize.

We made a deal: I got a really nice Ochiba:
And he suggested a ‘3 fish package deal’ where he let me pick from a number of fish in his collection at a deep discount and he would keep them over the winter until my pond warmed up enough that I could safely bring them north.  What's not to like?  So I also bought a Kohaku

Thus us our drive south on Saturday and the long (for the fish) trip to their new home.

Enter the train wreck:
Last night there were white out conditions on Snoqualmie Pass. The wind here at Rocky Acres blew so hard my flying Koi windsock became a swimming pond decoration (I’m sure that spooked the fish). The power went out. This morning there was ice on the truck windshield. All the while my poor new fish are shivering in their quarantine tank. These fish came from 66 degree heated water. The water in the Q tank had been holding at close to 60, maybe a little below over the last couple weeks. A pretty significant gap but my thought was “this cold air has to end sometime …. doesn’t it?” So go pick up the fish and then the storm referred to above blew in from the North Pacific.

I panicked but followed the protocols. These fish are big (about 12-13” each) for my 150 gallon quarantine set up. That’s important because fish, after a stressful move really need pristine water quality (the temperature drop only adds to the stress) and the fish produce the waste that can rapidly and dramatically degrade water quality, (a potential death spiral). Without a functioning filtration system it would be like swimming in the toilet. So I spent a not inconsiderable amount of effort getting those 150 gallons to be sweet for them.

OBTW: When the power went out… the pump quit working (and so the filter was rendered ineffective) and the heat lamp was of course not heating, reason enough for just a brief bit of panic.  Add in the stress of feeling off my feed myself and what should be fun is ... not.  'Under the weather' indeed.

They suffered the ride home as well as might be expected. When fish travel they are put in large plastic bags. The bags are filled with enough water to allow the fish to swim or at least be fully submerged and then the bag is charged with oxygen. Usually if the dealer knows the fish will be traveling he stops feeding them for a few days in advance so that their digestive system clears thus producing less ammonia and nitrogen. These fish were in communal tanks so could not be put on a diet but the ride home was less than 2 hours so these measures were less critical. But still, imagine riding the in back of a car, in an alien environment, trapped in a clear plastic bag, half filled with water. You can tell how they are handling the trip by how frequently they ‘jump’. The fish literally attempt to jump out of the bag and when this happens you hear that slap of fins and tail on the inside of the plastic bag. I feel guilty just in the retelling.  Thank God fish can't scream.

So once home I floated the bags for an hour to help reduce the temperature shock. The storm came on, colder, windier, rainier … (shit!) The water temp was 60 when I let them swim. The Showa was the most frantic, made repeated runs around the tank and ‘jumped’ several times. In this the fish actually try to jump out of the top the tank; Thus it is ALWAYS recommended that there be a net or some form of cover on top of the tank when you move fish. After a bit all three just hunkered down on the bottom, trying to be the one on the bottom of the pile. (More guilt)

By Sunday morning the water quality was going south. Not bad but the wrong direction. Rising levels of ammonia and nitrate. These, if left unchecked can cause organ damage or failure and lead to a rather quick death. A functioning filter system should be able to catch up to the fish load in a day or so, but at these temps the filter I have set up is always going to be slow to react, even though I have seeded it with a biota specially blended for colder temps. It seemed not to be working.

There are a few different ways to deal with this problem. Koi purists say the acceptable level of ammonia and nitrate is ‘zero’. The tests I did showed 0.25 to 0.5 ppm ammonia and 20 to 30 ppm nitrate. As it happens these ‘toxins’ are less a problem at lower temps so in one way the weather was helping me a bit. Still, zero means zero. There are some additives that can neutralize these organics but the most common approach to dealing with elevated levels of ammonia and nitrate is a water change. 30% to 50% change in water is usually indicated. This could alleviate one problem but could possibly contribute to others: Introducing 50% new city water adds chlorine. I have a dechlorination additive so felt comfortable that I could manage that problem, but it would probably also bring the temp down and that would just add to the stress.

20ppm being above zero, we did about a 40% water change.  I wrapped the tank with a couple hot water tank heater insulation bats (Mrs. C’s idea) and hung a cheap radiant heat lamp over the tank. The fish did not appear happy. At All. They just lay on the bottom, but they were breathing well and finning.  Clamped fins is an indication of health or stress problems.

I checked them every couple hours and when the sun went down they seemed to become much calmer (even as the storm raged around them). They swam laps and seemed to be basking under the heat lamp.

I’m sure they are not nearly as happy as they were back in the ‘hot tub’ in Vancouver but I am cautiously optimistic that they’ll come through.

I’ll keep them in Quarantine for 2 weeks unless the water goes completely out the window in the Q tank, in which case I’ll toss them in the pond and hope for the best. I keep the water in the Q tank at a slightly elevated salt concentration (helps them maintain an osmotic balance to best defend against parasite and disease infestations). And I also seed the water with an enzyme product that is said to support their general health. I might have a little more faith in this due to my own recent condition: I’m just winding up a course of antibiotics and so am taking a probiotic to try to keep the good bugs in my gut alive.

Hopefully by the middle of May the train wreck will have been cleared, and the pond and our resident fish will be ready to welcome the three amigos!  In the mean time, I need to get back on my bike.

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